How the generosity of donors transforms the lives of students

On 13 July 2017 Birkbeck welcomed donors, volunteers, students and staff for an ‘An Evening of Thanks’ for all they give to the College. Aziza Sentissi, a PhD candidate in Mathematics and Statistics, spoke at the event, and reflects on what the generosity of donors means for students like her, who may otherwise be unable to undertake their studies. aziza850x450My interest in Mathematics dates back to an early age at primary school. I achieved good academic results in Mathematics and I never felt that it was an effort to tackle my math homework or any math puzzle. I have always enjoyed the thrill of the mathematical challenge. It was (and it is still) like going on an adventure where your only tools are your logic and your instinct. I believe that we all have naturally a set of skills in which we reach our optimal potential. It is just matter of finding, nurturing and using them. In my case, it is definitely Mathematics.

Most of my academic and professional decisions were motivated by the need to use Mathematics on a daily basis. I studied industrial engineering for my undergraduate degree, focused on financial engineering when I studied for my MBA and spent more than a decade working in market risk management in both Toronto and London. My career allowed me to gain an expert-level experience in the field while using the mathematical finance skills I acquired through education and experience.

I know that I should have felt a certain degree of contentment with my academic and professional progression, but in reality, I felt frustration that I was still far from my intellectual potential. I felt that I needed to get back to ‘core Mathematics’. It was just about finding the right programme so that I could reconcile studies and work. Finding out about Birkbeck’s MSc programmes was already a big step toward my goals. Indeed, Birkbeck offered the best opportunity to join a recognized programme taught by an outstanding faculty while working in London.  A few years later, I graduated with distinction from the MSc Applied Statistics (2013) course, and with merit from MSc Mathematics (2015).

Studying at Birkbeck by far exceeded all my expectations. It has competitive programmes with strong curriculums, an outstanding faculty, and dedicated staff. Some companies I’ve worked at have spent a lot of money persuading employees to buy into their mission. Well, at Birkbeck, it is an achieved goal. You can sense the commitment to the university’s mission at each one of your interactions either with the professors or with the staff. I have always been amazed that everybody will make that extra effort to help you thrive in your studies and achieve your goals as you are trying to balance your work life and your studies.

My story with Birkbeck did not stop at the end of my second masters. Indeed, as I expressed my interest in joining the full-time PhD programme while highlighting my financial constraints, my supervisors suggested applying to few scholarships which I eagerly did. After a few weeks, I was approved for the Winton STEM PhD Studentship, which aims to promote gender equality in STEM subjects.

The support from Winton has indeed made it possible for me to join the full-time PhD programme in Mathematics. There are no words that really capture how grateful I am to Winton for their support and for giving me the opportunity to pursue a long-term ambition which is to build a career in research in Mathematics either within the academic world or within a research firm. The subject of my PhD is about optimizing one of the advanced approximation methods (Meshfree method) in multivariate setting.  It is a cutting-edge subject with multiple applications in several fields such as engineering, machine learning and artificial intelligence. I am extremely proud to be working on this subject with my supervisors who are experts in the field.

Through my PhD, I have also had the opportunity to take part in an outreach conference jointly organised by Birkbeck and Winton. At the conference, we encouraged young women from schools in disadvantaged London boroughs to consider studying mathematics at university. It was a privilege and an amazing experience to see the impact of the conference on these girls and to see how it changed their perspective on using their mathematical talent.

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Military intelligence: former RAF gunner swaps military uniform for gown and mortar board

military-intelligence-photoFormer RAF Gunner and Southwark resident Paul Croney has swapped his military uniform for a gown and mortar board, as he celebrated his graduation today. Military life and then shifts in the police force meant that Paul, 34, didn’t have much time to think about returning to study until 12 years after finishing his A-levels.  However, his military background and experiences of conflict in the Middle East, serving alongside personnel from other nations, gave Paul a strong interest in how politics works at a global level.

When he moved into a new role in the Metropolitan Police Service in May 2012, Paul’s regular hours meant that he had evenings free. The first thing he did was to apply to the part-time Global Politics and International Relations degree at Birkbeck, University of London where the evening study meant he could continue to earn during the day, while satisfying his thirst for knowledge. He received funding through ELCAS, a MoD scheme to help veterans adjust to civilian life by funding courses and tuition fees for their new careers.

Paul says: “The best thing about evening study was I was able to carry on working in a job that I loved while learning. My evenings were being used constructively and I enjoyed the balance of work/study/life.”

While many mature students worry about fitting in at university, Birkbeck’s evening study model attracts a wide variety of different students and Paul says “I’ve made several friends for life from the course. It was great going to university as a “mature student” and, because of the diverse age and backgrounds of the students, not feeling like a granddad.”

Halfway through his degree, Paul applied for a new role in the Civil Service. During the interview he mentioned his studies at Birkbeck and was able to demonstrate his potential by working and learning at the same time. He says, “Now I have graduated, I am able to apply for further roles in the Civil Service that prefer applicants to have a degree.”

Combining full-time work with two or three evenings of lectures a week can be challenging, but a military background is the ideal preparation, providing the discipline needed to be successful. Paul’s advice for others contemplating a degree as a mature student is: “You will need to be really self-disciplined for the degree, particularly for the final two years. It is a great option for veterans, who will come from a disciplined background. I found the best way for me to study was to head to coffee shops with my books and laptop, so I had few distraction, and just made sure I did all the reading for the lectures.”

Paul graduated today at a ceremony at the University of London’s Senate House, along with 175 Birkbeck social sciences graduates.

Further information:

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Strategies for university knowledge exchange

This post was contributed by James Fisk, graduate administrator at the School of Business, Economics and Informatics. Here, James reports from a workshop held Birkbeck’s Centre for Innovation Management Research (CIMR) on 29 June.

CIMR logoWhat should a successful Knowledge Exchange strategy look like? This was the question posed by CIMR (Centre for Innovation Management Research) on June 29 as they invited academics, professionals and policymakers for discussion of an issue situated at the heart of Higher Education’s changing landscape.

Knowledge Exchange, sometimes also known as Universities ‘3rd Mission’, is the process in which the exchange of ideas, research results, technology and skills between higher education institutions (HEIs), other research organisations and businesses, the public sector and the wider community takes place. It is widely regarded as the third component in a triumvirate of priorities for Higher Education, also consisting of Teaching and Research, with its aim being to reconcile the productive forces of higher education with the world outside it. Whilst a broad definition of knowledge exchange is fairly clear, understanding how it works in practice and how it should be effected, is a far more nuanced and complex challenge.

Indeed, the wide variety of panellists and attendees at the workshop provided an indication as to the breadth of the debate. The panel, comprising Kellogg College Oxford Visiting Fellow Jeremy Howell, Stanford Professor Henry Etzkowitz (also Birkbeck visiting professor), HEFCE’s Senior Policy Advisor Adrian Day, Birkbeck’s Dr Pierre Nadeau and UniversitiesUK Policy Analyst Martina Tortis, took the diversity of the sector as one of its chief considerations. In a sector comprised of markedly different institutions, the question of strategy and collaboration is one that looms large.

Of course, the most appropriate strategy would be one tied to the characteristics of the institution, one that acknowledges specific strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncratic factors in its composition. However, if there are undoubtedly aspects of knowledge exchange that resist comparison and, which cannot be translated easily, how are we to construct a strategy for moving the sector forward?

Academics, professionals and policymakers come together to discuss what a successful knowledge exchange model looks like

Academics, professionals and policymakers come together to discuss what a successful knowledge exchange strategy looks like

Birkbeck’s Dr Federica Rossi, along with Marti Sagarra from the University of Girona and Eva de la Torre from the Universitat Autonoma de Madrid, offered some key insights as to how we can begin to map such diverse and varied engagement across institutions. Their application of a nonparametric technique, Ordinal Multidimensional Scaling, allowed them to not only give a holistic picture of the strategies and activities of UK higher education institutions, but crucially, to consider how knowledge exchange infrastructure correlates to the objectives, strategies and characteristics of institutions.

Talks from Rosa Fernandez (National Centre for Universities and Business) and Adrian Day (HEFCE) provided further perspective on the issue of Knowledge Exchange, as they considered how it can be made equitable and scalable in such a varied sector. Their work explored how growth in knowledge exchange is rather tied to the strategic breadth of exchange activities and commitment of resources, rather than just institutional size itself. Therefore, a small institution with a commitment to Knowledge Exchange can see sustained growth in its impact, whilst larger institutions without specific consideration for KE can experience stasis or decline in their performance.

With many more perspectives coming from a range of academics and policymakers, from discussion of the Biomedical ‘Golden Research Triangle’ of London and the South East, to a study of organisational models in British Universities, it’s clear that Knowledge Exchange has an important role to play not only in the future development of Universities, but in constructing a future for the world outside it.

You can find out about future events on the CIMR website. Those wishing to know more about knowledge exchange may find HEFCE’s guide informative.

Find out more

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The Utopian Law School and the Fate of the University

This post was contributed by Joanna Hartl, a first-year student on Birkbeck’s three-year LLB.

The first day of  Law on Trial was well attended, with an impressive line up of academics on the panel. With Dr Adam Gearey in the chair, we were led into the first presentation by Jane Holder from UCL, which was about opening us up to Environmental Law and Ecology. We were told that it would be good if students and academics alike could walk the talk by becoming self-sustaining economic units, similar to monastic units, by fundamentally getting back to nature and living in a utopian ecological paradise experiencing a series of diverse ecosystems first-hand and learning how to manage them, while studying at the same time. It called to my mind an image of people becoming a modern day Diggers Group, led by Adam, spade in one hand, and photocopied earth stained seminar texts in the other, growing carrots and lettuces in Torrington Square, with Patricia Tuitt complete with trowel and compost planting tomato seedlings in pots on the roof garden of the 5th floor eatery! I was left waiting for the announcement as to when the work was to commence……..!?! Certainly food for thought, and with the rapid increase of community gardens, who knows what the result may be….it is up to us as students to be the movers, if anything is to be done!

The idea of running a self-sustaining academic unit, where all became involved was further developed through the second presentation from Maia Pal of Sussex University. Maia recounted the occupation of Sussex University in 2012 which lasted for approximately two months. A cross section of about 300 people from the university got together from diverse areas, taking over the conference centre – not only students but also security guards, administration staff and academics, together with cleaners and catering staff who joined forces to support a joint effort of protest against the management of the university, who had decided among other things to privatise, in order to try and save money, and outsource approximately 250 jobs. They managed to successfully occupy the university until a 2000-strong group of supporters somehow smashed the door of the main entrance, and then legal proceedings were taken to evict them, with five students being arrested. It is now illegal to stage a protest if the management haven’t given their consent! The slogan painted on the wall that summed it up was “A University Is Nothing Without Dialogue”. Maia energetically encouraged us all to think about who owns the University, is it the management? Is it the students? Is it the people who work there? The academics, and/or the non- faculty staff? Maia told us that she had learnt from her experiences in Quebec where both faculty and non-faculty could bind together successfully. She challenged us to think about the use of space and ownership, and that thinking about law should be a part of our education, especially where we are exposed to “Jurisdictional Struggles” which in themselves question the existence of the law, and the use of space.

From this pragmatic stance we were guided back into the realms of literature by the next speaker, Thomas Docherty of Warwick University, who told us that the poet Shelley stated “….Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world…..” But he then went on to give a very cogent account of the political history behind the introduction of tuition fees for higher education, and critiqued Cameron ‘s ” something for nothing ” gripe about people who don’t have any resources wanting a share of the cake, making a comparison with those business-minded types who seek to enforce this culture into academic fields, and business, whereby someone will be expected to bring more results for less funding year after year until finally there is nothing left! Ultimately leading to THEFT! He covered also how the teaching accreditation techniques were becoming increasingly meaningless, causing an administrative overload, and not much else. He threw out pertinent questions to the audience about student debt, and taxation, and the possible privatisation of the student loan book, which the government would like to sell off. He told us that this increase in debt (poetic reference here to debt being like a “….shadow that is cast…”) is adding to social injustice, and ultimately would create yet more inequality. What we need to aspire to is a just university where …”crisis decision making “… at the heart of the university can be seen to be effective in extending justice out into the community, rather than allowing injustices (of all sorts) to continue.Thomas then summed up, saying that what we often get is quantity not quality, proving that he is obviously a poet and a literary man at heart!

Plenty of ideas and information came from this meeting, we just need to decide what course of action to pursue now, as the ball is in our court.

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