The future’s bright for Stratford

MatthewWeait_400x400Professor Matthew Weait is Pro-Vice-Master (Academic and Community Partnerships) and the man responsible for developing Birkbeck’s provision in east London. Here he tells us of his vision to widen access and welcome a greater number of students.

University Square Stratford (USS) is a £33m state-of-the-art campus situated at the heart of Stratford’s cultural quarter. It’s also home to hundreds of Birkbeck students who are undertaking a wide range of programmes from undergraduate (Honours, Foundation and Certificate levels) to postgraduate courses.

Aiming to widen access and encourage progression into higher education for non-traditional students, USS is attracting growing numbers of students who see the value of the Birkbeck way of learning. A recent survey of students at the campus indicated a high level of satisfaction with the experience of learning there, although it is clear that there remain opportunities for enhancement and increasing use of the building.

Since October 2011, I’ve been fortunate to have been Birkbeck’s Pro-Vice-Master (Academic and Community Partnerships), a role I’ve held in conjunction with my work as Professor of Law and Policy in the School of Law. That has allowed me to develop and introduce the College’s Institutional Partnership Agreement (IPA) with support from the Widening Access and Student Engagement team. The IPA has resulted in a significant increase in progression from FE Colleges to undergraduate degrees, with enrolments across all programmes doubling since 2012/13.  This is certainly an encouraging growth, and we can only see greater opportunities as we move forward with our plans for the campus. And no, it won’t be without its challenges!

USS is a wonderful place to study – a beautiful building with excellent facilities and support. I would like all students at Birkbeck – especially those living or working in East London – to use it more, whether or not they are registered on courses at USS. After all, it’s something they are entitled to do! I would encourage my Birkbeck colleagues to make this more widely known.

In addition to thinking about ways in which more programmes might be offered at USS, I’m also in the process of developing a Centre for University/Community Partnership there. The Centre would provide a space for community organisations to explore and develop collaborative learning and teaching and research opportunities with the College, and is something I’m particularly excited about. I think there is great potential here – the Centre will, I hope, create opportunities for enhancing the impact of our research through knowledge co-creation, and contribute to our internationally excellent research reputation while at the same time being consistent with our Mission. Watch this space!

Development of this great asset is an important undertaking and I’m very happy to discuss any aspect of USS and the opportunities available there for staff and students, and I’m always keen to hear ideas for its future growth.

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Positive signals welcome, but more action needed to support students over 60

By Professor David Latchman, Master of Birkbeck.

This post was originally published on the Guardian’s Higher Education Network.

I was delighted to hear David Willetts, Minister of Universities and Science, encourage older learners to enrol on university courses. His comments about studying for the over 60s focused on the benefits of retraining and reskilling, and this emphasis is appropriate. Improving employability and productivity for this age group is essential, especially as the retirement age is due to rise to 68. But words are not enough. Older learners need more support to encourage them to enrol on university courses, and society’s prejudices against older learners need to be tackled too.

I have congratulated many older students on their academic achievements at graduation ceremonies over the years. The hard work they have shown to complete their courses and their courage to learn when many assume studying is only for younger people are an inspiration to us all. Their successes prove that the young do not have a monopoly on energy, intelligence and aspiration.

Studying for the over 60s is beneficial for many reasons, not only for improving skills needed in the modern workplace. Learning in your older years keeps your brain active, and discussing ideas and socialising is an important part of the university experience. Studying is an effective way for the over 60s to tackle the spectre of isolation, loneliness and depression, which can accompany old age. Often the older the student, the more they appreciate the opportunity to study. Those students who left school at a young age and missed out on university aged 18 are often more enthusiastic about education than their peers. Moreover, it is not just the older students that benefit from their education. Younger students frequently say that their learning is enriched by the contributions in the classroom from older students with considerable life, and work, experience.

Our older students have remarkable stories to tell. Some of them are returning to education decades after having left school as teenagers. Others continue with their newfound interests, and progress from undergraduate study to postgraduate level. Older learners definitely provide an inspiration to the younger generations. One such example is Gerald Nathanson. Growing up during the Second World War, his education was severely disrupted as he was evacuated twice, and by the time he left school, aged 15, he had been to 11 different schools. After the War, he worked as a black cab driver for 42 years, yet was always conscious that he had not received a proper education. Aged 74, he enrolled onto Birkbeck’s BA History degree, and he graduated four years later in November 2012. The graduation ceremony was one of the proudest moments of his life.

At Birkbeck, University of London, we know more than most higher education institutions about teaching older learners. At 88, our oldest student is an incredible 70 years older than our youngest students, aged 18, and, in recent years, a 100-year-old student graduated from Birkbeck. There are currently 490 students over 60 enrolled on our courses. This represents three per cent of our student body. Birkbeck is ranked third in terms of higher education institutions teaching students aged 60 and over in their first year of their first degree, according to 2011/12 figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

A recent survey at Birkbeck also revealed the reasons why older people are thinking about studying at an age when many are thinking about retirement. Respondents over 60, who enrolled on undergraduate courses at Birkbeck in 2012, said the most important motivation for studying was personal development (75 per cent), followed by career/professional development (25 per cent). Respondents over 60, who enrolled on postgraduate courses at Birkbeck in 2012, said the most important motivation for studying was personal development (70 per cent), and missing out earlier in life also featured (10 per cent).

As London’s only specialist provider of part-time, evening higher education, we cater for students managing study alongside careers or other commitments. We encourage applications from students without traditional qualifications and we have a wide range of programmes to suit every entry level.

Our experiences have taught us that prospective students, including older students, are often confused by the student loan and tuition fee regime introduced last year by the Coalition Government. The eligibility criteria for student loans have not been communicated effectively by the higher education sector, and much of the task of explaining the new system has been left to individual institutions.

In summary, students can apply for a loan to cover their tuition fees if they:

  1. Want to study for an undergraduate degree or certificate of higher education
  2. Have never studied at this level before
  3. Are classified as a Home/EU student

Students then only begin repaying the loan once they are earning £21,000 a year – an unlikely situation for many pensioners. The loan is written off after 30 years.

Based on our experiences, we urge the Government, universities, the National Union of Students, and other stakeholders in the higher education sector to:

  • Undertake outreach activities to target prospective older students
  • Provide information and incentives to employers to encourage their older staff to embark on university courses
  • Contribute to the discussions and forthcoming recommendations of the Part-time and mature students steering group convened by Universities UK and led by Professor Eric Thomas, UUK President and Vice-Chancellor of Bristol University
  • Champion the successes of older learners

It’s worth remembering too that people over 60 are responsible for many remarkable achievements in various fields of human endeavour. The late President of Birkbeck, the great historian Professor Eric Hobsbawm, continued writing in his nineties, the UK’s oldest Prime Minister was William Gladstone, aged 84, and Dame Judi Dench, aged 78, continues to star in major films. If someone is over 60 they should be encouraged to embark on learning something new. It’s never too late to learn.

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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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