Tag Archives: University of London

Birkbeck and the dubious dealings of Francis H. Fowler

In this blog, Ciarán O’Donohue an MPhil/PhD student in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, shares the story of the development of a new Birkbeck building in the nineteenth century. This blog is part of our 200th anniversary series.

New building of Birkbeck Institute 1800s

New building of the Birkbeck Institute. ‘Bream’s building, Chancery Lane’

Once the decision had finally been made in 1879 for the Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution to fly the nest and leave its original home in Southampton Buildings, Chancery Lane, it took years for the necessary funds to be raised. Rather than move to another existing building and “make do”, Birkbeck’s executive committee was dead set on commissioning a new one. Fund raising was slow. Scarred by the struggles of the mid-nineteenth century, where mounting debts had threatened the Institution with collapse, the Committee set about taking public subscriptions to reduce the costs.

Nevertheless, the risk had to be taken. Birkbeck could remain in its home no longer. A new building, the Committee asserted, was essential to ‘the prosperity and development of the Institution.’ The revival of its fortunes under the leadership of George Norris was such that, by 1879, new applicants were having to be turned down. There simply was not enough room.

Perhaps this explains the expediency with which an architect was selected to build Norris’s dreams. Intriguingly, the Committee decided not to request tenders from architects. Birkbeck’s future was entrusted to one man, Francis Hayman Fowler. Fowler was an internationally famous and reputable theatre architect. Hailed as a “pillar” of the Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW), the forerunner to the London County Council, he had been an important figure in London politics for twenty years.

With his reputation taken into consideration, his selection out of the blue seems above board. It then merely seems incongruous that the Committee asked eighteen different vendors to tender for the job of constructing Fowler’s edifice. Besides, they could not take any risks. After taking into consideration the various pros and cons of each – and making especial note that they were selecting a builder based on a number of factors, not merely who was cheapest – a Mr. Cates was awarded the contract.

During the Committee’s next meeting, the contract was suddenly and inexplicably presented to Messrs. Nightingale. No clarification was forthcoming. A solitary clue remained, however. Amidst the notes of the meeting, a special note was made thanking Fowler ‘for his attendance and explanations.’ These breadcrumbs seemingly amount to nothing, until we look deeper into Francis Hayman Fowler’s conduct.

As Breams Buildings, the Institution’s new home, was being designed and built, the Royal Institute of British Architects was starting to doubt the legitimacy of the Board’s conduct. Three presidents used their inaugural addresses to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the MBW’s processes, in 1879, 1881, and again in 1883. Singled out for particular admonishment were the Building Acts Committee and the theatre subcommittee, of which Fowler was one of only five members. Specifically, other architects suspected Fowler and other members of the MBW of abusing their position in order to gain contracts, or exact payment for advice and services which would then guarantee that projects met final approval with the Board.

Three years after Breams Buildings was completed in 1885, the rumours surrounding Fowler and a number of other architects on the MBW reached a fever pitch. The Financial Times interviewed a number of disgruntled London architects, and boldly declared that the “facts are no secret.” A scandal erupted off the back of the article. Parliament took up the issue. Almost immediately, a Royal Commission was set up to investigate the Board for corruption, and Lord Herschell was appointed its chairman.

What it found was a shock to a great many people. Fowler’s reputation was such ‘that the Commission was genuinely surprised’ that the allegations were true. Fowler certainly was using his positions to exact payments in expectation of serving external interests on the board. Fowler was forced to resign but refused to ‘admit that he had behaved reprehensibly.’

How does all this relate to Birkbeck, you might be asking? Let’s go further down the rabbit hole. Another member of the Board, John Rüntz was also implicated. Only because he was not an architect, the Commission did not find him to be corrupt per se. Nevertheless, Rüntz and Fowler, the Commission asserted, were part of an ‘inner ring’ which exerted control over the affairs of the MBW.

Rüntz had extremely close ties to Birkbeck, spanning several decades. Originally a cabinet maker, he started attending the institution in the 1840s.  By 1848, he had been appointed Master of the Birkbeck school. By 1852, Francis Ravenscroft had co-opted Rüntz onto the board of the Birkbeck Bank. This relationship with Ravenscroft would have brought him in very close range of the Executive Committee, of which Ravenscroft was a dedicated, important (and honest) member. By 1860, Rüntz was a trustee of the Bank. 1868 saw Fowler elected to the Board of Works, and Rüntz became Chairman of the bank’s board.

The close relationship between the two men, and Rüntz’s extensive connections with Birkbeck, may have set the scene for Fowler’s introduction to the Committee at the very least. In such situations, both men would profit, as Fowler would pay for other MBW members for introductions. This is one course of events that may explain the peculiar decision to award Fowler the commission, with no prior interaction and no alternative tenders by other architects. Alternatively, it could all be entirely speculative, creating false links between the dots.

Either way, it is also important to consider the historical context even of dubious dealings. As historian David Owen conceded, architects were one of a number of occupations that were undergoing a gradual process of professionalisation in the Victorian era. An important yet fractious facet of this transformation was the establishment of agreed standards of ethics. Fowler’s case is evidence of this process. Debates were still ongoing concerning what was permissible in obtaining commissions, how to distinguish a justifiable use of connexions, and precisely what constituted a corrupt use of special influence. This is a potent reason for why Fowler might have refused to concede any wrongdoing: he sincerely felt he had acted reasonably. If architects themselves had differing opinions of the basic standards of fairness, furthermore, how were those commissioning work to decide what was honest or not?

Seemingly, although this scandal put an end to Fowler’s political career, it did not put an end to his scheming. Theatre magnate Sefton Parry commissioned Fowler to build the Avenue Theatre in 1882. With inside knowledge from the MBW, who owned the land, Parry financed the theatre with the express intention of having it requisitioned by the South Eastern Railway. Subsequently, he would receive a payout for the value of the theatre; that is, more than he spent on construction. His plan came to nothing. Then, in 1905, something suspicious occurred. Allegedly, the Avenue needed renovation. Parry commissioned Fowler once more. Before the opening night, part of Charing Cross Station collapsed onto the theatre, leaving only its original façade! Parry got his payday after all.

 

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A new era for Birkbeck’s Bloomsbury campus

Birkbeck has now acquired the Student Central building adjacent to the College’s main site in Bloomsbury. Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Matthew Innes, explains how the acquisition will transform the experience of Birkbeck students and staff as well as renew Sir William Beveridge’s original vision of creating a campus which enriched the city, supporting ‘a civic university for the…millions of greater London….an academic island in swirling tides…a world of learning in a world of affairs’.

Construction of Birkbeck College Malet Street Building. Planning for the building began in the 1930s and it was built between 1947-1952.

Birkbeck, the University and the Bloomsbury site

The University of London acquired its current site in Bloomsbury in the 1920s to consolidate its disparate administrative offices. Prior to this, the University’s central offices were in South Kensington, alongside the museums and were housed in the Imperial Institute (now Imperial College).  Vice-Chancellor, Sir William Beveridge – the social reformer whose 1942 report was to provide the blueprint for the post-war Welfare State – was fond of recounting how, when he first took up his post at the LSE, he had asked a cabby to take him to the University of London. The cabby had looked blank and then volunteered ‘you mean the place near the Royal School of Needlework’.

Beveridge’s determination to create a central site for the University, which captured the mission of ‘a University for the nation and the world’, came at the end of a significant period of change for both Birkbeck and the University of London. This was the logical conclusion of the reforms that had been introduced following Lord Haldane’s Report into the University of London, which had created a more co-ordinated structure as well as championing Birkbeck’s long awaited admission as a college of the University. Haldane – who held the distinction of having served in both the last Liberal government and the first Labour Cabinet – went on to become President of Birkbeck, which at this date occupied Breams Building in Holborn.

A large block of land immediately north of the British Museum was acquired for the new University site, stretching from Montague Place to Byng Place. The initial plans were for a single complex encompassing the entire site, with a series of wings and courtyards emanating from a central spine, a perimeter facade and two towers, with the current Senate House landmark echoed by a slightly smaller structure at the northern end of current Torrington Square.

Funding shortages and the Second World War meant that the original scheme was never completed in its entirety, with the current Senate House building only filling the southern half of the site. Although the University Principal was tragically killed in a building accident when inspecting the works with other University officials in 1936, Senate House was completed in 1937, rapidly to find fame as the wartime home of the Ministry of Information as well as one of London’s most iconic buildings.

After the War and a direct hit on Breams Building by a V2 flying bomb, Birkbeck found a new home on part of the undeveloped Malet Street-Torrington Square site in 1952. Further neighbouring locations were acquired by the University to house other member institutions such as SOAS and the IoE.

Birkbeck future

Following the acquisition of the former Student Central building, Birkbeck will have expanded to fill a majority of the never-realised northern half of the University’s original Bloomsbury site. With a continuous run of buildings along the Malet Street side of Torrington Square, and the Toddlerlab, Babylab and Clore building opposite, Birkbeck now has the opportunity to create a central campus focused on a consolidated Torrington Square core site, an inclusive environment focused on the needs of our students and open to the broader Bloomsbury and University community.

As our successful bid for the Student Central building pointed out, this acquisition places Birkbeck’s access mission and a student community reflective of London’s diversity, at the heart of the University’s Bloomsbury campus. Our aim is to provide the state-of-the-art teaching, learning and social facilities that our students deserve to support them to succeed and thrive.

The additional space takes us a huge step closer to our aim to deliver all of our teaching in Birkbeck-owned facilities, responding to student and staff feedback that teaching in dispersed rented venues has a huge negative impact on their learning experience, student retention and academic outcomes. We will also ensure that students can easily access the services and support they need and we will move the Students Union to a prominent, more accessible and visible, location.

This is the biggest change for Birkbeck since it moved to Bloomsbury in 1952. With the acquisition of the new building, Birkbeck now occupies most of the northern half of the site for which Beveridge and his contemporaries planned so ambitiously. It is a remarkable outcome for a small institution that has had more than its share of crises.

Beveridge and Haldane in their different ways envisaged a distinctively modern University. As we approach our bicentenary and plan a new consolidated and open Birkbeck campus, we too should aim ‘to give London at its heart not just more streets and shops’ and aspire to create ‘an academic island in swirling tides… a world of learning in a world of affairs.’

It is exciting to think that, via a circuitous route we have become the inheritors of Beveridge’s vision, in the new context of a 21st Century metropolis recovering from Brexit and COVID.

Further information

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Widening access to postgraduate courses

Birkbeck’s Access and Engagement Department have been working with the local community in the London borough of Newham for many years. In this blog, Hester Gartrell, Senior Outreach Officer at Birkbeck discusses what widening access to postgraduate courses looks like in the Birkbeck context.

A post-it with a lightbulb

There is a lot of buzz around ‘Widening Participation (WP)’ or ‘access’ to Higher Education. In fact, the Government, through the Office for Students, requires universities to prove that they are actively engaged in activities that will support students from ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds into undergraduate study. At most universities Widening Participation activities focus on supporting secondary school pupils into university. Birkbeck’s Access and Engagement Department challenges this model, supporting BTEC and Further Education College students alongside prospective mature students from a variety of backgrounds including Trade Union members and people who are Forced Migrants.

At Birkbeck, we also want to challenge approaches to access that only focus on undergraduate students. We have a fantastically diverse undergraduate cohort, but this diversity is not reflected to the same extent in our postgraduate student body. As our postgraduate student numbers grow and a Master’s degree becomes increasingly important for gaining a professional job we have pioneered new approaches which reach out to potential postgraduate students.

Birkbeck’s Access and Engagement Department have worked in the east London borough of Newham for many years and in 2018, the department received funding from the London Legacy Development Corporation enabling them to expand their work in Newham and began trialling advice and guidance for potential postgraduate applicants. While there has been substantial economic development in the borough since the 2012 Olympics, many local graduates still find themselves underemployed or unemployed.  For graduates looking to move on from zero-hours contracts, take the next step after poor attainment in their first degree or stepping back into a career after taking time to care for family, postgraduate study can be just as life-changing as undergraduate.

Working with potential postgraduate students through the lens of access enabled us to explore the many unanswered questions around ‘what actually is non-traditional’ and what is defined as ‘widening access’ at postgraduate level. Across a sector dominated by 18-year olds, the traditional widening access criteria and interventions for undergraduate can’t simply be transferred wholesale to postgraduate applicants. This is especially relevant for Birkbeck, where our undergraduate access work already looks very different from the rest of the HE sector, leading to the question, if our access work at undergraduate aims to reach those left behind by traditional widening access work, what does postgraduate widening access look like in the Birkbeck context?

Our postgraduate Information, Advice and Guidance pilot enabled us to begin exploring this question alongside a wider strategic project going on across the College to improve access to Masters programmes for a diverse range of students.

To find out more about our learnings from the east London widening access at postgraduate programme, watch our webinar. We also have a range of open-access videos for potential postgraduate students that can be used in student communications.

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How to ask your employer for sponsorship

Picture of a man holding a piggy bank.

If you’re in employment and have a place to study on one of our programmes, you may be eligible for employer sponsorship.

Employer sponsorship is when your employer pays for all or part of your tuition costs. This is usually in recognition of the fact that your studies will benefit your work in some way.

For many of our students, a Birkbeck degree allows them to seek a promotion or to perform their role more effectively. Here’s how to discuss your educational ambitions with your employer.

Find out what’s available in your organisation

Before approaching your line manager about sponsorship, do your homework so you know what definitely is or isn’t available.

Larger firms may have established sponsorship schemes with an application process, while others may operate on a case by case basis.

If you can’t find anything on your company website, your HR learning and development lead will be able to help.

Consider your motivations for study

Take some time to think about why you want to study your chosen course. Will it help you develop the skills to perform a technical aspect of your role? Will it provide a theoretical underpinning to help you manage complex problems? Will you gain a broader understanding of how to differentiate your organisation in the sector?

Once you have a clear understanding of why you want to study this particular course, it will be easier to translate this into reasons why your employer should be interested.

Demonstrate the business case

To secure employer sponsorship, you will need to show the positive return on investment it will provide for your employer. Perhaps the skills you gain in the course will enable you to apply for a promotion and stay with the company for longer. Developing your knowledge of an area of the business might make you more efficient, enabling you to take on more responsibility. Link the programme description to objectives in your current role to show the direct value for your employer.

Show your commitment to learning and development

What have you already done as part of your continuous professional development (CPD) that can show your commitment to your career? It could be as simple as reading around the subject, attending a webinar or signing up for in-house training. Your employer will want to be confident that you will make the most of the opportunity that they are investing in.

What if I can’t get sponsorship?

Employers often have limited budgets available for staff learning and development, so don’t be disheartened if you’re unable to secure funding. Having demonstrated your commitment to your professional development and to the organisation, it is worth asking whether there are any alternative opportunities for you to develop your skills, such as shadowing another employee.

You can also find more information about what alternative financial support is available for our students on the Birkbeck website.

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Welcome to Birkbeck Orientation module is now live and Library study space is now open

As we prepare for the new term Fraser Keir, Academic Registrar, at Birkbeck shares some essential tips to get you started at the College.

Today the Welcome To Birkbeck Orientation Moodle module is launched and available to all enrolled students. It’s full of relevant and useful information including the fantastic Freshers Week programme offered by the Birkbeck Students Union. From Monday 14 September the Birkbeck Library will be open with almost 200 bookable study spaces. As the new academic year commences on 5 October you need to enrol as soon as you can to gain access to all these resources to get you orientated and study ready.  

Complete the Welcome To Birkbeck orientation module 

strongly recommend that you work through each of the sections in the Welcome to Birkbeck Moodle module, ahead of the beginning of term. Each section outlines key information including how to approach learning online, effective study skills along with an introduction to the Birkbeck student community, the personal tutor system, student services, careers support and the Birkbeck Library. All of this will help you make a success of the year.  

Students who completed the module during user-testing took around 4-5 hours, and even continuing students in their final year told us that they learnt new things that would be of great value. You can complete it at your own pace and return to the sections as you wish. Completing the various sections will help ensure that you are ready for the new term. To whet your appetite you can Watch a brief overview of the Welcome to Birkbeck Orientation Moodle module 

If you need help as you work through this Moodle module you can ask for help on the College’s ASK page by selecting ‘Moodle’ then ‘Orientation Module’ from the drop-down. 

Enhancing online course delivery

Over the summer over 500 colleagues have transformed our modules to be ready for online delivery, as explained in the Vice Chancellor’s message. All our content on Moodle has been produced and is being delivered by our research-led academic colleagues.  

The library has invested heavily in online e-books and digitisation to make sure your reading lists and course materials are available on your devices and computers. If you can’t easily study at home we have made COVID-19 secure spaces for you to study on campus if you need.  

Once you complete the Orientation Moodle module you will continue your studies in an interactive and online face to face medium. As soon as health and safety permits we can revert to in-person teaching on campus, and you will have the option to continue your studies online for the remainder of the year. Our coronavirus information will be updated regularly.  

Student protocol for attending the Library – September to December 2020

Birkbeck is committed to providing a COVID-19 secure environment whilst you study and use facilities in the Library. From Monday the 14 September the College Library in Malet Street will have almost 200 study spaces available for student use. The Library will be open from Monday to Friday from 12pm – 7pm To visit the Library, you will need to book a study space in advance. You can also use this link to make a booking if you simply want to come in and borrow items. There will be no access to the Library without a booking.  

Be sure to read the protocol for attending the Library before you travel.  

To keep our College community safe during the COVID-19 pandemic we all have a responsibility to follow these protocols. This protocol will remain subject to amendment and change depending on NHS advice during Autumn Term.  

Complete your enrolment

To access the orientation Moodle module and access the library and other Birkbeck resources, complete the process to enrol as soon as you receive your invitation. Don’t worry if you haven’t received your invite yet, invitations to enrol continue to be sent throughout September, and students who have had Summer re-assessments will not receive their invitations until all their marks have been agreed and processed.  

Birkbeck is a great place to study and now is a great time to be undertaking your Higher Education and getting a University of London degree. 

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The Use of the ‘Useless’: Exploring the Story of Classics at Birkbeck, 1963 – 2003

Jonny Matfin, a PhD candidate of Birkbeck Knowledge, discusses the contemporary development of Classics at Birkbeck. This blog is part of the 200th-anniversary series, marking the founding of the College which we will celebrate in 2023.

The outside of Birkbeck College

Birkbeck College, copyright Birkbeck History Collection.

In a series of compelling critiques of recent government policy on higher education in Britain, the academic Stefan Collini mounts a conceptual defence of the university; through exploring the question of what universities are for, Collini concludes that higher education institutions – that is, places like Birkbeck – ‘embody an alternative set of values’. Such values, it is argued, have been debased by decades of political drives towards managerialism and marketisation – they are not easily captured by audits and reports.

Within this context, the academic subject of classics is key. As Collini observes, Latin and Greek university studies have had a long journey, ‘from being a preparation for clerical or political office, through the centuries in which they served to hallmark a gentleman, and on to their current standing as favoured example of a “useless” subject.’ Ironically, it is this very – inaccurate – verdict that makes classics so vital to historical understanding of changes to British universities since the 1960s: if, as Collini suggests, our higher education system has been seen by others around the world as a canary in the mine, then classics has been – so to speak – the canary’s canary.

Margaret Thatcher at Birkbeck Open Day in 1973

Margaret Thatcher at Birkbeck’s 150th Anniversary Open Day in 1973. Image courtesy of the Birkbeck History Collection.

Birkbeck, like most universities and colleges across Britain, experienced two major periods of change from 1963-2003: the expansion – in response to a booming population – of the 1960s and 1970s, and the moves towards managerialism and marketisation – widely, but not solely, associated with the Conservative Thatcher Government – of the 1980s and 1990s. Classics was one of a number of ‘smaller’ subjects which came under increasing scrutiny within higher education institutions during policy pushes connected to the second of these significant shifts.

Crisis point was reached in 1985 when a government body, the University Grants Committee, launched an inquiry into Latin and Greek teaching and research in UK universities. A subsequent report by the UGC recommended the closure of a number of classics departments nationwide – including that of Birkbeck, forcing its merger with King’s College by 1989-90. Critically, the government audit failed to take account of the unique part-time tuition provided by Birkbeck’s Department of Classics – an academic lifeline for working students wanting to pursue the discipline.

This then, is the crux: if examining the recent history of academic classics in Britain can help us to explore the question of what universities are for, studying the development of the discipline at Birkbeck from 1963-2003 can help us to break new ground – to understand what an institution like this college, providing exceptional part-time tuition, is for. In short, this aspect of the story of the “useless” is extremely useful in a historical sense. Moreover, the revival of Latin and Greek at Birkbeck through a Department of History, Classics and Archaeology – and its continued evening tuition in both disciplines, is no small reason for institutional pride in the present.

Further reading:

Stefan Collini, What Are Universities For? (London; New York: Penguin, 2012).

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“A good PhD is a finished PhD”: tips for completing your thesis from academics who’ve been there

Struggling to find the motivation to get through the final furlong of your PhD? Professor Almuth McDowall, Head of the Department of Organizational Psychology, shares some top tips to help you finish strong – with many thanks to Rob Briner, Kamal Birdi, Jane Ogden, Gail Kinman, Katrina Pritchard; and Rebecca Whiting for the quote in the title.

Picture of PhD student graduating

Studying for a PhD and writing the thesis is one of the most challenging undertakings in academic life. One of the difficulties is that there is no blueprint. Each research journey is different. Each thesis is unique. Some of us, and this includes me, probably spent too much time and energy emulating others. Then the realisation dawns that it’s yours and only yours to finish.

Writing the thesis is not a linear journey. There are stops and starts along the way. We start doubting our capacity as writers. We will wonder if our research will ever be good enough. Will people care? Or will they look down on our undertakings? Self doubt tends to creep in.

Motivation is also an issue. On the home stretch, which should be the final energetic lap, many of us get bored with our own words. The end is in sight, but energy levels dip, which often means that procrastination sets in.

What can we do on the final furlong? In no particular order, here are our top tips:

Make yourself a plan and timetable

Month by month at first. Week by week on the final stretch. Share this. Make it accountable. If you miss deadlines and milestones, rethink and learn from why this happened. If you were too ambitious, revise timelines but share this with your supervisor. If slippage happened because you simply didn’t write, reflect on why this happened. Don’t beat yourself up, but recognise that this was a slip and think of strategies to do better next time.

Create a reward system and reward chart

Maybe don’t hit the biscuit tin every time you write 500 words, but think of other treats. A walk in the park? A cup of your favourite tea? Relish and notice the reward. It will feel very satisfying to tick tasks off.

Divide tasks up into ‘intellectual’ and ‘housekeeping’

Some tasks are tough mental work, such as writing a meaningful conclusion. Others are more tedious, such as formatting tables, but these tasks still need to be done. So when you are feeling fresh, do the hard stuff. When you have brain fog, do the simpler tasks. This way, productivity is kept up.

Enough is enough

No thesis is perfect. A take-home of five to six contributions, clearly articulated, is better than a long list.

Divide your attention equally

Don’t fall into the trap of going over and over a certain section, but neglecting other equally important sections of your thesis. Use your chapter structure to ensure that you work across all chapters equally. It’s a common trap to neglect the conclusion. Use your abstract to articulate and shape what your key contributions are.

Chunking is your friend

Don’t think about writing thousands of words, or an entire chapter. Think about writing lots of 500 words. It will feel much more manageable.

Use your submission form to fix the end date

Do this as soon as realistically possible. Seeing the date in print makes it more real and will focus your energies.

Let go of perfection

A perfect thesis is a rare creature. Is this really what it’s all about? Doing doctoral research is an apprenticeship which prepares you for the next chapters of your life. Celebrate what you do well, and don’t mull on your weaker points. Good research is rarely perfect but thought provoking. That’s what it is all about.

Make a plan

Our final tip is not just to read ‘top tips’ but to plan how to put them into action. What are you going to tackle first of the above? Always remember – “a good PhD is a finished PhD”. Perfectionism and ambition are helpful, but should not deter and detract you from the final submission. It’s part of an academic’s life that we worry if our work is good enough, liked, cited and used by audiences. A thesis does not have to be perfect, but needs to document a learning journey.

We wish you well in your writing journey on the ‘final furlong’.

Further Information:

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How can we manage our organisations and families out of the COVID-19 crisis? 

As we move out of crisis mode and settle into new patterns of working, Professor Almuth McDowall shares her advice on managing work and family life over the coming months. 

In MayI had the opportunity to deliver an online webinar for Barclays Eagle Labs together with their CEO Ben Davey. We tackled important and profound questions, not only about how we manage work itimes of crisis, but also our families and wider networks. 

Ben shared his experience of managing work-life balance. Initially, he explained, he fell into the trap of working very long hours and not having enough time to rest and recuperate. Now he makes an extra effort to go out, get fresh air and then comes back to his desk feeling reinvigorated. I could relate to this so much. During the first two weeks of the crisis, I must admit that I barely slept or ate, as there was so much to do, so much change to manage. Things have settled down now and we are working virtually as teams and organisations. 

Ben asked me if I had any advice for how to make this happen effectively, particularly in international contexts. The research on virtual working tells us that teams work better if they have had initial face to face meeting and bonding time. Well, none of us has had this. It might be something to go back and revisit – have you agreed a set of principles for how your team will work? Has everyone signed up? Regarding international teams, it can be really important to establish and preserve local identity, particularly during this time of crisis and uncertainty. Maybe each team could agree on a ‘strapline’ that summarises their identity and ways of working? Then provide teams with the opportunity to express their needs for how they want to work with others. Provide regular ‘feedforward forums’ so that the spotlight is not only what needs to be done, but also how you work together.  

The attendees in our online session were as concerned about managing their families as they were about managing their work. Many of them had noticed that energy levels are starting to wane. Also, how do you communicate with young children and teenagers? As the situation is so uncertain, a good approach is to focus on the short and medium term. Think about what is precious to you as a family, and what you can control. No one can control the media, or government policy, but we can control how we communicate with each other. Having been stuck in our homes for so long, it can be easy to fall into a rut and take each other for granted. Make sure you actively seek opportunities to talk to each other and share experiences. 

Another question was about how to keep teenagers motivated to do their homework. I shared my own experience. My middle daughter is doing, or rather not doing (in a traditional sense) her GCSEs. At first, we had several heated arguments as I wanted her to do more work, yet she was lying on her bed and talking to her friends. Being honest, I had to adjust my own expectations. This is an unusual situation. She is at an age where her peer group is more important than family. Will anyone really care about the grades she gets in her GCSEs this year? I think not. So I now let her be and chat to her friends. She is happier for it, and so am I.  

How can we help young children make sense of the crisis? Well, limit exposure to news at home, as ‘big words’ said in a serious tone are likely to unsettle. Children appreciate honesty, so don’t pretend. But find a way for them to express themselves. It might be helpful to get them to start a scrapbook, or a journal, where they can draw and chart their experiences visually – then talk about what you see together.  

Finally, we talked about the importance and power of goals at work, and at home. At work, many of us have been in survival and crisis mode. Now might be the time to agree what the priorities for the next few months are and state these very clearly. Then check in on progress and give each other feedback about how things are going. Revisit and revise as necessary. The same applies at home. Is there something you want to learn as a family? Something that you have learned through the crisis which you want to take forward? Get everyone involved in planning. Express your vision – write this down or draw it – but be sure this is shared.  

The crisis is hard, and we are in this for the long haul. Focus on what you can control, this will help you to sustain motivation. Don’t forget – we are in this together. Talk, share and reach out to others where you can. 

Further Information: 

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“Birkbeck gave me the opportunity to help others.”

Marcel came to Birkbeck to follow his dream of becoming a web developer. Now teaching in the Department of Computer Science and Information Systems, he shares his passion for programming with the next generation of students.

Picture of Marcel

I’ve always wanted to work in IT. Back in the early 2000s, I was doing reprographics in a legal department, but knew I wanted to be more involved in computing. I was fascinated by computers and web design, so I began teaching myself at home. I started with Photoshop, then building websites and began to realise this was something I really wanted to do and could enjoy as a job. 

Getting a career in web development with no education and no experience was impossible, so I went along to a few university open days to explore my options. 

One Saturday, I went to Birkbeck and came across the Foundation Degree in Web DevelopmentI couldn’t afford to quit my day job and study full time, but Birkbeck allowed me to do both. 

Studying part-time and working full-time wasn’t easy and involved huge social sacrifices, but after a year and a half on the programme, I landed my first computing job as a Junior Developer for a digital healthcare agency. 

I also got to meet people in the classroom: Birkbeck has a very international community and it was amazing to learn alongside and collaborate with people from all over the world. 

Once I’d completed my studies, I was headhunted by Sky TV to work on data visualisation dashboards. This made me a proper developer, working on really cool stuff around data visualisation, but I knew I also wanted to study more, so I returned to Birkbeck to study BSc Computing. 

In some ways, when I graduated, I’d achieved what I set out to do: I had the qualification and a proper job in digital, but it felt like something was missing. Birkbeck had been a part of my life for the last five years, so I felt strangely empty without it. 

I emailed one of my teachers and asked if there was anything I could do to help out – I would have gone back just to put paper in the printer! I saw Birkbeck as a hobby where I could also help future students in some way. Some people run or play chess – Birkbeck was my hobby. 

Instead of doing the admin though, I was offered a role as demonstrator. For the first term, I helped out in lectures, providing support with the hands-on activities. In the second term I started teaching. It had never been my intention to teach, but I found it so rewarding helping others to succeed. There’s nothing like the feeling you get when you show someone how to do something and the next time you see them they say “Hey, look what I’ve done on my own.” 

I’ve changed jobs a few times since then and now work at Barclays as VP/Technology Lead, teaching at Birkbeck once a week as well. 

I know that everyone has different circumstances, but Birkbeck has shown me that if you’re willing to work hard, people will help you. Now, when my students say they can’t do it, I tell them “I know how you feel, I’ve been in your shoes, so don’t tell me you can’t do it, because everyone can.” 

Marcel currently teaches on the modules ‘Mobile Web Application Development’ and ‘Web Programming Using PHP’. 

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“I have really relished the intellectual challenge of returning to university after a break.”

When a new role saw Ella moving from practical outdoor work to people management, she applied for the MSc Human Resource Development and Consultancy to build her skills. She reflects on how the course has equipped her for the challenge.

Picture of Ella

I have had a fairly non-traditional career path so far. I worked on farms for many years engaged in therapeutic agriculture, growing vegetables with young adults with learning difficulties and behavioural issues. My passion for people and land now has me working as a senior manager for a small environmental charity which works across the UK planting orchards with urban communities.  

Transitioning from outdoor practical roles to indoor organizational-focused roles threw me into being a line manager, thinking about team dynamics and holding responsibilities across the organisation for recruitment, wellbeing, HR policies and staff development.

The MSc in Human Resource Development and Consultancy at Birkbeck has given me a good grounding in people management and organisational development, with flexibility to deepen my knowledge in areas that have interested me.  

I have really relished the intellectual challenge of returning to university after a break of many years. The course is structured to deepen academic thinking as well as practical knowledge, and that combination means I can bring practical questions from my work into an academic sphere, and I can apply thinking from my Masters directly into my work.  

The support from lecturers and fellow students is phenomenal. I have learned so much not just from lecture and seminar content, but also professors, guest lecturers and fellow students speaking about their work contexts and roles as HR or Organizational Development practitioners. 

I am about to enter my second year, of which a significant part is embarking on a management research project. This differs from a traditional dissertation as it again combines academic rigour and practical organisational focus, as we work with an organisation to address a challenge that it is experiencing as our research problem. I am really looking forward to exploring an area of HR Development in depth, and to try out new research and consultancy skills. 

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