Eric Hobsbawm, MI5 and the politics of history

This post was contributed by Brodie Waddell, Lecturer in Early Modern History in Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology. He also writes at the Many-Headed Monster.

Eric Hobsbawm

Eric Hobsbawm

Eric Hobsbawm, one of the most influential historians of the last century and late President of Birkbeck, was under surveillance by MI5 for at least two decades. Last Friday, the National Archives released the formerly secret files documenting how the security services monitored Hobsbawm and Christopher Hill from the 1940s onwards. To their credit, the archives have actually digitised some of the files, so you can now read the MI5 reports for yourself.

Both Hobsbawm and Hill were members of the British Communist Party and this explains why they were of such interest to MI5 during the Cold War. Indeed, they were part of the famed Communist Party Historians Group, a cluster of brilliant scholars that also included E.P. Thompson and Raphael Samuel, whose History Centre is closely tied to Birkbeck. Hobsbawm came to Birkbeck as a lecturer in 1947, a few years after the surveillance began. His communist affiliations apparently blocked his path to a post at Cambridge, the conventional destination for a historian of his calibre at the time, but he was much more welcome at Birkbeck and here he honed his craft by writing magisterial histories of revolutions, capitalism, imperialism and global conflict. However he did not limit himself to the ‘big picture’. My own love for his work began when I read his essay on ‘political shoemakers’ and he also wrote a surprising amount about modern jazz. As an MI5 officer wrote in 1962, Hobsbawm broadcast on an eclectic range of topics on the BBC: ‘Some recent talks were entitled ‘Sicilian Peasant Risings’ and ‘Robin Hood’.’

The fact that he was watched by the British security state should not be surprising. Any communist connection was enough to justify a police file during the Cold War. Hobsbawm was, however, not a compliant party man. He was, in fact, a constant source of irritation and worry for the party’s national leadership. Although several commentators have – with some justification – criticised him for remaining a member of the CP even after the extent of Stalin’s terrible crimes became known, Hobsbawm hardly towed the party line. His open criticism of Soviet aggression in Hungary in 1956 and his other public critiques led the party leaders to consider expelling him.

Ultimately, Hobsbawm’s constant involvement in radical politics made him an obvious target for MI5. Would he still be monitored if he were alive today? Perhaps not. The label of ‘communist’ is not such a security bugbear as it once was. Yet it is odd to find Martin Kettle suggesting that it would be unlikely any historians writing today would be worrying enough to the state to justify surveillance. There are many historians across the country whose search for justice and a better world takes them beyond the classroom and into the streets to protest against British government policies. Right here at Birkbeck, we continue to build links with community groups and networks of activists. As recently as this week, our own Dr Becky Taylor published a poignant piece on the recent history of homelessness and squatting that took the story right up to the present with the Focus E15 Mothers occupation in Newham.

We at Birkbeck take pride in offering opportunities for anyone – whether a student, an activist or even a dusty old historian – to not only build up their knowledge of the contentious issues of the day, but also to speak out about them. Birkbeckers are keen to critique conventional wisdom and express their dissent, even if it means risking the possibility of ending up in a file in the National Archives marked ‘secret’.

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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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#PartTimeMatters – research insights

This post was contributed by Claire Callender, Professor of Higher Education Policy in Birkbeck’s Department of Psychosocial Studies.

There is much to celebrate about part-time study and its life-changing rewards. My research tracking the career development of 3,700 part-time undergraduate students from their first year at university until two years after graduation demonstrates the benefits of part-time study. Four out of five of current students were working, mostly in full-time jobs in the public sector whilst 91% were employed two years after finishing their studies. The vast majority were using the skills they had learnt on their course in their jobs, so their studies were highly relevant to their working lives, and benefitted their employers too. In addition, over two-thirds of students, and four in five who had finished studying, believed that their ability to do their work had improved as a direct result of their course. Over a half of students in their first year and two-thirds of graduates had taken on more responsibility at work. This shows that those taking part-time courses start to profit from their learning well before they complete their studies. However, these positive outcomes were not always rewarded by employers. In fact, only 29% of students and about a half of graduates had a pay rise as a direct result of taking their course.

Both students’ and graduates’ non-working lives also were enriched by their studies. Four out of five students and nearly 90% of graduates said part-time study helped them develop as a person. Two thirds of students and nearly four in five graduates had greater self-confidence while well over a half of both current students and graduates were happier. Again, students benefited before they had graduated.

Despite all these life-changing gains from part-time study, part-time enrolments in England have fallen by 40% since 2010. This sudden and very dramatic fall suggests that the large increase in tuition fees in 2012 has played an important part, alongside the recession and cuts in training budgets. Loans are now available to cover the higher part-time tuition fees, but the majority of part-time students do not qualify for them. The loan eligibility criteria are too restrictive. Consequently, most people wanting to study part-time have to pay for their fees up-front and out of their own pocket.

Our research provides some insights about what needs to be done to stem declining enrolments and increase the demand for part-time study. It confirms the wider benefits of learning, and how society as a whole – not just individual students – benefit from part-time study. Remember most part-time students work in the public services. Nationally, the two most popular subjects studied part-time are ‘subjects allied to medicine’ such as nursing and midwifery, and education – taken by those wanting to be teachers. We all benefit from the skills these people learn. Yet, these professions are not very well paid compared to other professions. Although the financial returns to part-time study for individuals may be low, the wider non-financial benefits both for individuals and for society are high. As any economist will tell us, together these low ‘private returns’ and high ‘public returns’ justify more generous government subsidies and funding to keep tuition fees low and to encourage demand.

Other important characteristics of part-time students also support the case for low tuition fees and greater government subsidies. The vast majority of part-time students attend their local university because of their work and family commitments. They have to fit their studies around their existing responsibilities. Consequently, their choices of where to study are restricted. For instance, would-be students can’t opt for a cheaper course at a university miles away from where they live or work. If their local university is too expensive, they simply will not go, as they can’t shop around for a cheaper alternative. In addition, for part-time students, their decision about whether or not to go to university is more likely to be affected by the costs. Prospective part-time students may consider that these costs – the fees, maintenance and opportunity costs-  outweigh the benefits. Put simply, they feel that part-time study is just too expensive and unaffordable. The most efficient solution is more government subsidies to local universities to keep prices down and more financial help to part-time students to drive up demand – benefiting everyone.

15-14 May 2013 is Adult Learners’ Week. Find out more about the #PartTimeMatters campaign being launched by Birkbeck and an alliance of universities, businesses and unions.

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Classics Volunteering at BSIX College

This post was contributed by Deborah Hyde, a recent graduate of Birkbeck’s MA Classical Civilisation and joint winner of the 2010-2011 Catherine Jane Booth prize for the study of classics.

“If some women were out partying with the king and he was the top man in Rome, what was wrong with that? Why did Lucretia win the contest for being the best wife?”

It was a great question; the perfect starting point for a spirited discussion about ideals of female behaviour, gender and power relationships both today and in ancient Rome – and much more besides – as I helped a group of students get to grips with the text of Livy’s Rape of Lucretia.

It is just one of many wide-ranging, illuminating, amusing and thought-provoking conversations I’ve had with students studying A/S level Classics at BSix College in the London Borough of Hackney, east London. I’ve been attending their classes as a volunteer over the past academic year, as part of new partnership working between BSix, Birkbeck and other HE institutions to encourage wider participation in the study of classics and ancient history by students from all walks of life. 

Together we’ve had many fascinating discussions. For example, how communities decide who they are and what they stand for, and the role of mythology in that process. What constitutes a hero, and ‘heroic’ behaviour in Homer’s Odyssey,  or the pervasive role of religion in ancient lives.

On a selfish note, it has been invaluable ‘work experience’; I have a long-standing interest in finding ways to make history accessible and engaging to wider audiences, and I have recently completed preparatory studies for teaching adults. All of these students first came to class without any of the ‘building blocks’ such as previous study of ancient languages or classical literature that students from more privileged backgrounds often have. But this has in no way prevented them from engaging with such challenging texts as classical Athenian court speeches; Xenophon’s Oeconomicus; Plutarch’s Lives; the letters of Pliny The Younger; or the rape of the Sabine women (Livy again). Indeed, the freedom and energy with which they have deployed their own inner-city life experiences have been at the dynamic heart of the quality and depth of our studies.

Equally, as their endlessly supportive and enthusiastic BSix teacher Toni Shelley has noted, their own personal family histories routinely involve recent immigration to the UK, very often from countries ruled or colonised by ‘super power’ nations.  This appears to have given them a ‘take’ on the ancient empires of Athens and Rome that I’ve found very refreshing – one which I think has an invaluable contribution to make to the future range and quality of classics study and debate, and one which I think the wider classics community will fail to nurture at its peril.

My volunteer work at BSix is part of wider moves involving Birkbeck to try and ensure that contribution is made. For example, Birkbeck has been involved with the new, Hackney-based East End Classic Centre since its launch last summer. Along with other partners such as BSix, UCL and Oxford’s Pembroke College, it is helping the Centre gain growing profile and momentum for a programme of classics-based activities.

But for now, as I help the BSix A/S level Classics “class of 2013” get to grip with essay and exam questions on topics such as fate, free will and the gods, or Homer’s use of literary technique, and as they look ahead to the life-changing possibilities of university applications, I’d like to thank them – and BSix and Birkbeck – for the exciting and rewarding times we’ve spent together, and for all the food for thought they’ve given me. Working with them has been an experience I’d recommend very highly to other classicists.

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