How breast cancer gave me the courage to start a Master’s degree

This post was contributed by Cansu Kucuk, an alumna of Birkbeck’s MSc in Marketing Communications.

Cansu Kucuk

Cansu Kucuk

There are certain events that most people hope they’ll never have the misfortune of experiencing – and being told you have breast cancer at age 25 is probably one of them.

With one fateful appointment in a grim, grey room, everything I’d ever hoped for and dreamed of felt like it was taken away from me.

Control of my life was suddenly out of my hands and my days were overtaken with all things cancer: doctors, hospitals, waiting rooms, scary decisions, scary survival statistics and scary treatments.

I built up boxes of information on operations, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, long-term medication, how to choose a wig, how to keep your nails from falling out and what symptoms I’d have to permanently watch out for.

It was overwhelmingly terrifying – like falling into a parallel universe where nothing is real and everything is one long nightmare you can’t pinch yourself out from.

You’d think that the best thing to do at a time like that would be to concentrate on survival and taking it easy for a while, right?

But not me. Perhaps I was reckless or stuck in a sort of fight mode, but instead I took a step I’d been considering for years, yet talked myself out of, by applying to study for a master’s degree in marketing communications.

I’d convinced myself that I didn’t have enough time or money; I’d even said at age 24 that I was getting too old for university.

It’s funny how the threat of impending death makes you realise the pointlessness of self-imposed obstacles.

I attended the open evening for Birkbeck, University of London an hour after having my first Zoladex treatment – nicknamed “the horse shot” – and started my university days combining full time work and weekly hospital visits.

It wasn’t as easy as I’d like to make out. I’d love to say I breezed through the first term of after work evening lectures with painful bones from my treatment. But really, I had a tough time trying to stop myself from quitting.

However difficult and time-consuming it was combining my studies with a job and coping with my many health problems during my first year, I can’t put into words the amount of satisfaction and motivation that going to university gave me.

By taking control of one aspect of my life, not only did it feel like I was achieving something and moving forward, the amount I learnt from the lecturers and students I met on the course was priceless. The support I received from the disability office at Birkbeck on my toughest days kept me going.

Studying gave me the willpower to get through the most frightening days of my life – there’s little time to think about how much your bones hurt when you’re busy studying for exams and planning projects for group assignments.

Everyone has their own challenges – be they personal commitments, financial, disabilities or simply being too busy.

But try to escape these traps and aim for whatever you may have been putting off – it’s never as scary as you imagine. And after everything I finished my dissertation, making the fight worthwhile.

  • October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. For information about breast cancer, visit Breast Cancer Care’s website or call their free, confidential helpline on 0808 800 6000.
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World Teachers’ Day and thinking through the benefits of teaching teenagers

This post was contributed by Emily Williams, a PhD student studying Humanities and Cultural Studies in Birkbeck’s School of Arts.

Emily Williams

Yesterday was World Teachers’ Day and this annual celebration of such an important profession has made me reflect on my own teaching experiences. This spring I gave six 40-minute tutorials to two groups of six Year 9 and 10 pupils (aged 14 and 15) from Eastbury Comprehensive School in east London. The placement was arranged by The Brilliant Club – an award-winning non-profit organisation that exists to widen access to top universities for outstanding pupils from non-selective state schools.

Teaching my first lesson about propaganda posters in Mao Zedong’s China was a daunting experience. I had planned a relatively complex discussion of the term ‘propaganda’ and had no idea what to expect from the students. Would they pay attention? Would they participate? Thankfully, they were switched on and engaged, making thoughtful comments and participating eagerly. I think they particularly enjoyed the anti-Nazi Disney film we watched, featuring Donald Duck in Nazi Germany!

In subsequent lessons we moved on to looking at Maoist China, and while I know they found this section difficult, I was impressed with how quickly they grasped the major historical events that we covered. Where they really started to shine, however, was when we moved on to visual analysis of the posters. One of my major aims was to teach them that there isn’t a right answer for everything. So often, our education system seems to focus on exam preparation, with its attendant narrow conceptions of knowledge. With visual analysis, there was no right answer – I was genuinely interested in how they saw the posters. Some students couldn’t shake themselves out of their normal learning patterns and just wrote what they thought I wanted to read, but a few students really got creative, and came up with some really interesting observations, looking at gender positioning in the posters, or rhetorical strategies for dealing with enemies.

The course was seriously challenging – forcing pupils to think critically about the concept of propaganda, develop an understanding of the history of Mao’s China, and carry out visual analysis on so-called propaganda posters. On top of that, they also had to grapple with a tailor-made online platform, which gave each pupil their own space to gather research in preparation for their final assignment.

Most of my students were already planning on going to university, but I hope my course gave them a further glimpse of both their own potential and the sorts of learning and research they can undertake.  At our Brilliant Club graduation ceremony in Oxford, it was clear that the students were proud of their work, and I hope many of them gained in confidence as a result.

I think working with young people is really important for academics. My personal research looks at China, a country often misunderstood and misconstrued in the media and popular culture. While what can be accomplished in six short lessons is limited, I hope that I have raised their interest in China, and also helped them think more critically about how information is communicated and perceptions are shaped. We were looking at posters from Mao’s China, but the lessons about rhetoric and persuasion apply just as much to understanding advertising and the media today. I think academics can also benefit from this sort of work, both from having to learn to communicate our research more clearly and simply, but also from the insights young people can provide. A colleague of mine told me the whole frame of his thesis came into focus based on one observation by a student.

Working with Brilliant Club was time-consuming, but I think also has a lot of benefits. For many PhD students, this will be our only chance to design a course, and this (I hope!) will help us in job applications in the future. It’s also a chance to remember why we’re in education in the first place: the production of knowledge is our central concern, but for me, the opportunity to communicate this knowledge to new audiences is just as important.

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A toxic mix…the demise of a Widening Participation Outreach programme for low-income parents

This post was contributed by Heather Finlay, Programme Co-ordinator, Higher Education Introductory Studies (HEIS) Outreach in Children’s Centres and Kerry Harman, Programme Director, HEIS. 

Recent policy shifts in the areas of higher education (HE), welfare and childcare services have produced a toxic mix that has contributed to the demise of a widening participation (WP) outreach programme for low-income parents at Birkbeck. But, as Professor Claire Callender asks when commenting more generally on the drastic decline in part-time student numbers in HE since the introduction of increased fees in 2012, ‘does anyone care’? And for that matter, does anyone even know? In a recent issue of the Guardian, Richard Adams  reported recent statistics from the Office of Fair Access in an article claiming that the ‘University tuition fee rise has not deterred poorer students from applying’. This is great news and an argument popular with Conservative party politicians when justifying the increased fees in HE. The problem is  that the claim is not entirely accurate. While the number of 18 to 21 year old students from disadvantaged backgrounds applying to HE has increased, the increased fees have had an adverse impact on specific groups, including part-time students and low-income parents.

Low-income parents, particularly those who are single parents, face a number of challenges if they decide to pursue HE study including finding affordable and flexible childcare, negotiating an HE system they may be unfamiliar with and managing their family obligations. In an attempt to provide access to HE for this often difficult to reach group, Birkbeck had been offering an outreach programme in Sure Start Children’s Centres since 2007 in some of the poorest boroughs in London. The outreach programme was available during the day, local to the participants and included free childcare during the sessions. And, up to 2012/13, very few of the students paid any tuition fees because they were eligible for government-backed fee grants which covered all their fees. Modules from Higher Education Introductory Studies (HEIS) were used on the programme and the pedagogic approach was designed to be inclusive and incorporate the experience of the participants . (Higher Education Introductory Studies is a level 4 Certificate of HE that provides a supported pathway into HE level study for students with non-traditional academic qualifications and no recent study experience.) A recent, externally funded evaluation of the provision indicated that the experience was transformative for parents participating in the programme, both for them as individuals and as parents. Yet despite this, enrolments fell by 50% for the 2012/13 intake on the programme and in 2013, even with an intensive recruiting campaign in the local community, there were no enrolments on modules at the Children’s Centres.

While further research is needed to better understand the factors contributing to the collapse in enrolment on the outreach programme, anecdotal evidence suggests that a toxic mix of factors is impacting the decision of low-income parents to NOT take up HE study. The abolition of government-funded tuition fee grants for low-income part-time students in 2012/13 and their replacement with student loans is one factor. Another is the increase in tuition fees because of the withdrawal of government funds for teaching in 2012/13. This was definitely a matter of concern, not only for prospective applicants but also for Sure Start Centre staff who play a significant role in recruiting to the programme. A fee waiver attached to the modules running at the Children’s Centres was not enough to persuade parents to apply as many were averse to taking out a loan to ‘pay’ for any subsequent study  towards a degree. Furthermore, recent changes to the welfare system have increased the pressure for lone parents to be in paid work. This includes the requirement for lone parents to be available for work once children reach five years of age, as well as the need to be in work in order to avoid the consequences of the benefit cap. Participants attending pre-enrolment information sessions (Learning Cafes) for the outreach programme spoke about the need to be available to commence work if a job offer was made and were thus reluctant to embark on a programme of study. What’s more, reduced Sure Start Centre budgets are making it increasingly difficult to resource the provision of free, onsite childcare as well as the work needed to support low-income parents in their decision to commence HE level study.

At a time when policy shifts are focused on getting lone parents into employment, it is important that this is not done in a way that prevents them from accessing HE. As work becomes a less certain route out of poverty, with over three-fifths (62%) of children in poverty living in a working household, pathways into higher paid work need to remain available.

Further reading

Callender, C., Hawkins, E., Jackson, S., Jamieson, A., Land, H., & Smith, H. (2014). ‘Walking tall’: A critical assessment of new ways of involving student mothers in higher education, Nuffield Foundation. Available at: (Accessed 8 September, 2014).

Hinton-Smith, T. (2012). Lone Parents’ Experiences as Higher Education Students. National Institute of Adult Continuing Education: Leicester.

Jackson, S (2012) Supporting part-time learners in higher education: Equalities and inequalities.  Journal of Social Inclusion 3(1): 58-70.

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Birkbeck shortlisted for University of the Year Award


This post was contributed by Professor David Latchman CBE, Master of Birkbeck.

Nearly 200 years since George Birkbeck established our institution to provide education to working Londoners, I am able to announce the excellent news that Birkbeck has been shortlisted for the Times Higher Education University of the Year Award. Following closely on the heels of this year’s National Student Survey, where our students voted us number one for overall student satisfaction in London, our new academic year is getting off to a good start.

The University of the Year Award is based on the 2012/13 academic year. Even by Birkbeck standards, that was quite a year for us as we saw a 45% downturn in our core part-time undergraduate degree enrolments following the major changes to the funding of universities in England. The award entry focuses on this crisis, and says:

“The College knew it had to adapt quickly or face an extremely uncertain and unstable future. By autumn 2013, Birkbeck had achieved unimagined and unanticipated success with a 335% increase in acceptances recorded by UCAS, the biggest growth in the sector. Survival was secured by the rapid expansion of a new Birkbeck proposition – a three-year, intensive, evening-taught degree, made available through UCAS. A well-conceived academic proposition and powerful marketing of a distinctive message through the unfamiliar UCAS pipeline generated soaring demand. Clear leadership, energetic cross-College advocacy and a whole institution determination to succeed ensured students arrived in the classroom in record numbers. Birkbeck was saved and a flexible, potentially sector-changing style of higher education has arrived.”

You can read more about our University of the Year submission on our news section. The winner will be announced on 27 November, and in the meantime please voice your support for Birkbeck in the comments section below, or at #unioftheyear on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.

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