Monthly Archives: May 2018

Global labour and the UK: On Brexit, migration, creativity, and talent

Matthew Jayes from the School of Business, Economics and Informatics discusses a recent event from the Department of Management looking at global labour and the effects of internationalism and immigration in the workplace.

L-R: Professor Michael Mainelli, James Sproule, Professor Jonathan Portes, Dr Paz Estrella Tolentino, Dr Rebecca Gumbrell-McCormick, Douglas McWilliams, Derek Bates

Birkbeck’s Department of Management hosted the second annual International Business Seminar in partnership with the Worshipful Company of World Traders on Wednesday 16 May 2018. The seminar featured speakers from academia and industry, including Chair of the event, Michael Mainelli, Executive Chairman of Z/Yen Group and Master of the Worshipful Company of World Traders. The audience ranged from Birkbeck staff, students and alumni, World Traders, policy-makers, and business representatives.

The evening opened with presentations from two renowned academics who discussed their own research related to the themes of Brexit, migration, identity and talent. Jonathan Portes, Professor of Economics and Public Policy at King’s College, London, began by summarising the current policy context surrounding the UK’s imminent withdrawal from European Union (EU). Portes, whose father migrated to the UK from the United States to join Birkbeck’s then newly-established Economics department as joint-Chair, highlighted official statistics indicating the decline in numbers of EU citizens migrating to the UK since the referendum result. In advance of the latest quarterly official migration statistics, Portes suggested he did not expect to see a significant reversal of this trend. For those who might endorse the Conservative and Unionist Party manifesto pledge to reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands” and therefore see these statistics as ‘a move in the right direction’, Portes highlighted the concern amongst businesses of access to talent and skills. Indeed, reflecting on the Chair’s opening remarks about the number of non-British EU nationals currently employed in the UK working in the Financial Technology (FinTech) sector and drawing from examples of Higher Education and Healthcare, Portes suggested this trend should be a cause for concern.

The Migration Advisory Committee was commissioned to report on the economic impact of immigration and future implications for policy, with findings due in September 2018. This report is expected to provide the evidence base for policy and debate, although amid rumours of an immigration white paper possibly being brought forward to July 2018, Portes called for a commitment to evidence-based policymaking. In 2019 then, should the UK expect an Immigration Bill to confirm the system to be adopted once its membership of the EU has ended? For Portes, this system might be similar to the one for non-EEA nationals, although there are still open questions. For example, will there be a preferential system for EU nationals (or specific EU member states)? Will there be sector-specific or regional differences? Portes suggested that there is fundamentally a division between those who would like to see a liberal system and those who wish to see greater restrictions, noting that this division is not a ‘remainer-leaver’ issue. Ending his presentation with a hint of optimism, Portes concluded that the immigration policy area is ripe for renewal and improvement, saying “there is an opportunity here if we can take it.”

Dr Rebecca Gumbrell-McCormick, Senior Lecturer in Management at Birkbeck, responded by providing a robust summary of the Trade Union response to global migration. Drawing from a selection of Portes’ published articles, her own research, and other leading voices in this field, Gumbrell-McCormick looked at broader global migration patterns and associated causes of tension. Global labour migration reacts to push and pull factors, notably the continued divergence between wages and working conditions. Focusing on the difference between Northwestern Europe and Central Eastern Europe, Gumbrell-McCormick asserted that businesses have created a demand for low wage labour deliberately through their business models. Such demand is serviceable only when there are limited or no alternatives for workers in their locale. According to Gumbrell-McCormick, the UK trade union response has demonstrated solidarity with global workers, highlighting the need for fair movement from an early stage in the debate. However, there are still concerns remaining, for example, trade unions are fighting the abuse of self-employment status by foreign workers – but also by British workers too.

The European trade union response to global migration has been more varied, with Gumbrell-McCormick highlighting the differing response to free movement from German and Austrian trade unions. One area felt to be consistent across trade unions in the UK and European counterparts was the willingness to work together with foreign worker communities, providing information, support and solidarity on matters of rights being upheld. Gumbrell-McCormick suggested that the UK trade union position on migration and free movement is largely similar to the business position, highlighting the need for trade unions to play a role of critical friend to prevent any reduction in the quality of worker rights.

First to respond to the presentations was Douglas McWilliams, Deputy Chairman, Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR), stating “migration is an amazingly creative but disruptive force.” For McWilliams, the UK needs the boost to creativity and dynamism afforded by those who choose to relocate for better opportunities. Indeed, for him, the UK cannot afford to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands through restricting inward movement. McWilliams challenged the audience to ponder how the impact of migration can be measured in relation to dynamism rather than net tax contributions, since he expects the former would prove much more valuable. This theme ran throughout the discussion in various forms; for example, the audience was asked by James Sproule, Member, European Advisory at L.E.K Consulting, to consider how a state might reliably measure creativity, grit, ambition, dynamism and entrepreneurialism in individuals accurately through a visa application process. The panel’s industry representatives were clear these types of attributes are those required for the future success of productivity and the UK economy.

Other themes emerged throughout the panel discussion and audience questions, the first of which asked what new steps businesses should be taking to attract and retain talent. Gumbrell-McCormick cited Birkbeck as an example of good practice, liaising with the organisation’s trade union and providing ongoing information and support for EU nationals. McWilliams suggested that the focus for business should be on providing good work, ensuring jobs are interesting and rewarding. Significantly, a lowered voice from the back of the lecture theatre could be heard to muse “Berlin has interesting jobs too.”

Professor Michael Mainelli chairs the panel discussion

As an employee of Birkbeck’s School of Business, Economics and Informatics, as well as a 2016 alumnus of the MSc Creative Industries (Management), I could not help but reflect on my personal experiences. I am also a member of the Work and Employment Policy Advisory Committee at the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI). The LCCI published a report in November 2016, ‘Permits, Points and Visas’, prepared by McWilliams’ CEBR, which outlined a number of recommendations from the London business community following the outcome of the referendum. The panellists suggested that the context has shifted and relaxed since the report; however, the needs of the capital should not be underestimated. Portes indicated that it is highly likely controls on migrant labour will be focused not at national borders but at the workplace, with landlords and public service providers. Whilst the concept of a distributed system could be argued as more democratic than a highly centralised system, certainly concerns of small businesses around resource capacity should be considered.

Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), produced ‘Good Work’, an independent review of modern working practices. The relationship between good work, good living standards, and talent requires further research, especially when considering business competition for global talent. Whilst the current immigration policy context may be focused on restrictions, the speakers sounded a word of warning that the UK may not receive the desired quantity of visa applications from those it wishes to attract if there are too many restrictions in place.

For me, this also raises questions about the nature of talent and skills development. Beyond the aforementioned concern of how an administrative process may accurately measure desirable individual qualities, there appears to be the issue of temporality and lived experiences. For example, how many successful businesses emerge from chance encounters or from identifying a niche in a market one has been working in for some time (perhaps in a low-skilled role)? My experience of working on the development of Enterprise Pathways at Birkbeck allowed me to interact with many wonderful, dynamic Birkbeck students, many of whom are aiming to change careers entirely. Thus, whilst government austerity was discussed on the evening, surely the current debate around talent and migration must focus on how the UK can better develop its capacity to support citizens and migrant communities, both of which are rich sources of innovation and creativity.

The final audience question of the evening was posed by a student of business, economics and computer information systems at Georgia State University, currently undertaking an internship in London. Questioning the relationship between creativity and migration, the panel responded with their thoughts and, for some, their own experiences as migrants. McWilliams was resolute in his assertion that “changes to one’s environment and increased exposure to, or integration with, greater diversity certainly leads to better creativity.”

Portes reinforced this belief, asserting that “diversity makes us collectively better.” Certainly, this is a belief strongly held at Birkbeck and is manifest in our widening access and outreach activities, and demonstrated by our pioneering Compass Project which enables asylum seekers to have access to higher education, recognised with a major prize at the Guardian University Awards 2018.

This International Business seminar series is an important addition to the ever-present polite public debate at Birkbeck, and on behalf of staff, students and alumni, I would like to extend my gratitude to the Worshipful Company of World Traders for their ongoing support. If you are interested in attending future events at Birkbeck, please visit the events calendar.


Arts Week 2018: The Archive Project: 50 years of film and photography

Lynsey Ford, an alumna of Birkbeck, reports on an Arts Week Event from the Four Corners film and photography centre in East London.

On Wednesday 16 May, I had the pleasure of attending The Archive Project: 50 Years of Film and Photography in East London which took place at Birkbeck cinema. Dr Patrizia Di Bello from The Department of The History of Art introduced Carla Mitchell to a packed audience, who provided an excellent presentation as the Creative Director of Four Corners film and photography centre. Now celebrating its forty-fifth year at 113 Roman Road, Bethnal Green, Carla’s talk examined the peak of productivity at the organisation between 1972-1987.

Four Corners was created by Joanna Davis, Mary Pat Leece, Ronald Peck and Wilfried Thust, (graduates from London International Film School). The quartet’s chief mission was to bring accessible film to the borough and to provide regular cinema screenings for local residents and equipment to film and edit material. Over the next four decades, Four Corners quickly developed a reputation as being at the forefront of ‘cutting edge’ film production, nurturing home-grown talent from underprivileged backgrounds as well as from a pool of BAFTA and Turner Prize nominees through hands-on production workshops. The centre introduced monthly meetings where artists, photographers and trainees filmmakers collaborated, exchanging original ideas and clips in front of live audiences. Four Corners also excelled in pioneering film projects; Nighthawks (Dir: Ron Peck/Paul Hallam, 1978), had the distinction of being the first British gay feature film, following a schoolteacher who remains in the closet at work but cruises gay bars and discos at night.

After Channel 4 took over a franchise with Four Corners, sterling work continued through Four Corners apprentice Ruhul Amin, who created A Kind of English (1986) recognised as the first Bangladeshi British film discussing the struggles of a Bengali family adjusting to life in Britain.

Carla also discussed the influence of Camerawork (Half Moon Photography Workshop), a fellow film and photographic organisation which championed community activism and anti-racist causes, and Carla looked at the creative input of leftist British publication Camerawork Magazine founded in 1976, led the late Jo Spence (whose personal library collection is housed at Birkbeck College). Camerawork Magazine challenged the more contentious taboo subjects upon the political landscape of Britain through the transition under Thatcher’s government from the late seventies. Jo Spence launched the magazine with her essay ‘The Politics of Photography’ and was at the forefront of Women’s collective Hackney Flashers (1974-early 80s) which encouraged feminist agitprop exhibitions; Women at Work (1975), Who’s Holding The Baby? (1978), Domestic Labour and Visual Representation (1980) all exploring the woman’s role in and outside the home.

Front covers captured the rise of National Front skinheads upon the streets of Camden and the team of photographers exposed the darker political ramifications upon the landscape caused by the turmoil of the Miners Strikes, where trade unionist Arthur Scargill led the union as a leading activist. Camerawork Magazine would cease as a publication in 1985.

Today, Four Corners has benefited from a generous £1 million heritage lottery grant, which has seen the creation of a new centre in 2007 at 121 Roman Road, thanks to backing from Arts Council England, London Development Agency, Film London, London Borough of The Tower of Hamlets and European Regional Development Fund. Today it houses dark rooms, a gallery, training rooms, edit suites and space to hire.

Four Corners will officially launch their Radical Visions, an archive exhibition from June to September 2018 commemorating their legacy in East London, with a public display showing all 32 copies of Camerawork magazine. With input from 50 volunteers since 2016 and £100,000 from The Heritage Lottery Fund, Four Corners continues to thrive and inspire future generations of filmmakers both nationally and internationally. Carla provided a poignant and fitting tribute to the hard work of skilled artists who continue to cut advance with Four Corners.


Arts Week 2018: Black Mirror

Caroline Mawer reflects on her experience visiting one of the more unusual events which took place during Birkbeck’s Arts Week

What tremendously thoughtful fun I had meandering round Birkbeck with a black mirror, gazing into a fairy ball!

This gazing ball is one of those black mirrors that tempt you into looking off to the side, at the unseen and unseeable.

Sheila Ghelani had designed our route by placing one of the mirrors she’d created onto a map: we were going to meander around the black hole thus created. Decked out with palm-size pebbles of mirrors in black velvet pouches and incongruously unromantic leatherette bum bags, we headed off into the unknown of John Dee and his magic 16th century angels.

It didn’t feel that unknown to start with, since our first stop was only in the square opposite Birkbeck. But we were reflecting. Literally, in our mirrors, and also with lots of the thinking sort of reflection. I pondered and confected. And the unknown gradually came into – or maybe I should say, out of – focus. Our black mirrors held deceptively small-yet-enormous universes. You really can see something remarkably close to 360 degrees when you angle them correctly.

We sketched the landscape like an artist: a 17th-century artist using a ‘Claude glass’ to produce something as eerily picturesque as a Claude Lorraine painting. We acted like tourists: 18th century tourists so horrified by the awesome crags of the Lake District that we could only view them in our black mirrors by turning our back on them. Then like more modern tourists, trying – and generally failing – to get the perfect selfie-shot in, and of, our Fairy Ball.

The nigh-on-360 degree views were, we discovered, seductively slippery. How many times did I perfect my view, to lose it when I tried to sketch or photograph it! And how many times did I discard an impressive vision of pillars or a tree (both, we discovered, were splendid subjects) – in the quest for somehow more perfect perfection. ‘Authenticity’ has sometimes been badged as a holy grail for ‘creatives’. And we kept on looking at, and so creating, authentic black mirror views. So authentic that you really do have to be there to see them. So uncopied, that they are nigh-on uncopiable.

We discussed materiality as another unpredictable and evasive construct. ‘Claude lenses’ and our own black mirrors are glass: sand miraculously made into liquid. The oldest constructed black mirrors were Aztec polished obsidian: volcanic glass was used for divination and as a status symbol. Water is, of course, another ancient black mirror. So we looked out for, and thought about, the water we had overlooked: the drains and rivers trapped under the streets we were walking on.

We noticed, too, how many modern black mirrors there are. Not just the mirrored sunglasses we had seen in Gordon Square, but all those blacked out cars and enigmatic urban windows. Of course, the ubiquitous mobile phones all have sleeping black mirror screens. We’re not that different from the Aztecs: our black mirrors, too, act as finely-graded status symbols and for 24/7 divination.

We were so busy reflecting – in all senses – that we didnt get  time to do any scrying. This is what it is called when you look intently into a black mirror – and not simply for reflection. Scrying has been thought to act as a portal to other planes of existence. But maybe we did well to miss that. John Dee, master mathematician and polymath, was convinced by his scrying partner, Edward Kelley, that the angels had informed him that God required them to swap wives. Fake facts are obviously not a new phenomenon! Nor is #metoo: Dee’s journal reports that the task was achieved ‘after initial protestations’ by his wife.

It’s easy to point fingers at the inhabitants of the past-is-another-country. We were not (quite!) as ridiculous. Only a minority of the passers by actually stopped and stared as I processed down the pavement gazing regally into what must have looked something like a shiny black football.

On reflection, though (ha! see what I’m doing here!), the black mirror and the gazing ball raised fascinating questions about how and what we can and do see.  The transitory nature of what could be seen is a great joy. I’m definitely going to keep on playing with the best souvenir present I ever got: my very own hand-crafted black mirror. Thanks. Sheila!

You can also construct your own black mirror.


Arts Week 2018: Marilyn Monroe – An Unlikely Feminist?

Social worker Benjamin Meißner has had a lifelong fascination with Marilyn Monroe since he saw one of her movies as a boy and has been a member of her German fan club Some Like It Hot since it was founded in 1992. He attended Birkbeck’s Arts Week lecture while visiting London on holiday from his home in Kiel, Germany.


While I was in London, I was delighted to attend the event Marilyn Monroe: an unlikely feminist? which took place at the Birkbeck cinema. Gabriella Apicella who is a screenwriter and studied at Birkbeck herself, hosted the event, while Catherine Grant, Professor of digital media and screen studies at Birkbeck, gave a lecture about Marilyn as an actress. She showed film clips of some of her movies and interviews, and the focus was on her gestures and body language. She slowed down the footage so you could discover how much choreography there is going on in just a few seconds. Catherine selected the opening scene from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with Marilyn and Jane Russell both wearing the red dresses. By viewing it in slow motion, you became aware of how much acting there is going on. It is known that Marilyn worked very hard – Jane Russell once said in an interview that Marilyn was the first on the set and the last one to leave. Marilyn went through the dancing numbers with choreographer Jack Cole again and again.

Catherine next compared the Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend numbers performed by Marilyn with those later in the film by Jane Russell. By watching them together, Jane’s performance seemed almost grotesque because it is so exaggerated.

Catherine also noted the queer elements of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. In the final scene, Marilyn and Jane are so much the centre of attention, one could be forgiven for thinking they were married to each other.

Host Gabriella then presented the highly-regarded author Michelle Morgan who has written several books about Marilyn and other Hollywood stars. In her latest work, The Girl: Marilyn Monroe, The Seven Year Itch, and The Birth of an Unlikely Feminist, Michelle discusses Marilyn’s influence on women’s liberation. Marilyn was ahead of her time in many ways, Michelle pointed out. Especially when she left Hollywood in 1955 for New York, taking acting classes and founding her own production company with Milton Greene.

Michelle explained how Marilyn became stifled by her image as the ‘fluffy blonde’. It seemed that some people just wanted to see her in these kind of roles, which left Marilyn herself very unsatisfied as an actress. Michelle illustrated how pervasive – and enticing – this image was by pointing out how a British electric company sent out its bills with a photo of Marilyn because they knew that people would pay attention to it and would open the envelope!

During a Q&A with the audience, Michelle was asked if Marilyn still continues to be a significant role model almost 56 years after her death. Michelle believes she still has an enormous effect. “We can still learn so much from Marilyn”, Michelle observed. Everyone has their own interpretation of Marilyn and there are still many aspects to discover. With so many people fascinated by her after all these years, it is interesting to consider the sort of influence she would have had if she was around today in an era of  social media networks.

Benjamin during his visit to London, at the Proud Gallery’s exhibition of Marilyn photographs by Milton Greene