Research round-up: A snapshot around campus

This post was contributed by Andrew Youngson, media and publicity officer at Birkbeck, University of London

This summer, to celebrate Birkbeck’s standing as a world-leading, research intensive university, we have been looking back at some of the fascinating research activities carried out by top thinkers from across the College.

But it doesn’t stop there. Staff members across Birkbeck’s five schools and multiple institutes and centres are ever busy at the sharp edge of research. To give a flavour of activity currently going on, we spoke to a handful of researchers about their current research topics.

Conservation and heritage

Dr Diane HornDr Diane Horn is currently carrying out a study funded by NERC and Arup which aims to produce a ‘roadmap’ to guide practitioners through the process of analysing coastal flood risk in urban areas

What is challenging about this topic of research?

“It’s a really exciting project for me to be involved with – I’ve never done anything quite this applied. I’m working on adaptation options: once we know the extent of the flood risk that a particular city faces from sea level rise, I’m putting together guidance on what their options are, how to choose the most appropriate adaptation response, and how to implement and monitor the success of the adaptation response.


“Some cities will be able to protect against flood risk by building barriers (like the Thames Barrier) and some cities will be able to live with the flood risk through improved building codes or land use planning. The real challenge, though, is that some cities will need to make a decision to retreat from certain locations or to relocate particular assets in areas at lower risk. Identifying how this could be done, and how residents and politicians can be convinced that they need to consider retreat and relocation is proving to be the most challenging part of the research.”

Science and biomedicine

Natasa GaneaNatasa Ganea is currently conducting a study which follows the social and cognitive development of a group of sighted infants of blind parents

What kind of a research environment is Birkbeck to work in?

“Birkbeck is a vibrant research hub with curious scientists, passionate not only about their subject, but about science in general. It is not surprising that in such an environment a quick conversation over lunch break or in the evening in the Birkbeck Bar occasionally puts the basis of a new study.”

Politics, society and the law

Dr Sappho XenakisDr Sappho Xenakis’s current research project explores national and international political economies of crime and punishment, corruption, and intersections between organised crime and corruption.

Why did you choose a career in research/academia?            

“I sought a career in academia because of a desire and sense of obligation to strive to understand and engage with the complex politics of everyday life, sentiments instilled in me by my parents.”

Learning, education and development

Prof Claire Callender is currently researching prospective full time students’ attitudes towards debt.

Prof Claire CallenderWhat misconceptions are there around your discipline or area of research?

“Does fear of debt deter students from higher education?  With the escalating student loan debt arising from higher tuition fees in England, this is a key policy question. One might expect that there would be loads of research in England examining students’ attitudes towards debt and its effect on their higher education decisions.


“However, there are relatively few studies exploring these issues nationally among prospective students. Most existing studies on student debt are based on the views of students who are already at university. By definition, such students have largely overcome their fears of debt.


“Consequently, it is impossible to gauge from such studies if student loan debt actually deters would-be students from going to university. Our study, involving a nationally representative sample  of around 1,500 prospective students, will assess whether concerns over debt and the costs of higher education influence potential students’ decisions about entering higher education, where and what to study, and mode of study.”

Arts, history and culture

Dr Rebecca Darley’s current research title is: ‘A sign of God’s favour: Byzantine gold coins in the Indian Ocean’

Dr Rebecca DarleyWhy did you choose this topic of investigation?

Coins minted in the eastern Mediterranean between the fourth and seventh centuries A.D. and found in south India have usually been interpreted as evidence for trade. By studying the writings of Byzantine authors about these coins I am interested in re-focussing on the meaning they reflected back to their place of origin.


The relationship of the Byzantine Empire to its coinage was never purely commercial and money could often be an explicit symbol for power and virtue, as it proved when writers commented on Byzantine gold reaching India — not as a sign of economic prosperity but of divine favour and the pre-ordained superiority of Byzantine virtues over those of its neighbours.

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Should taxpayers fund university education at a time of crisis?

This post has been contributed by Dr Federica Rossi, lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Management, and Aldo Geuna, professor of Economics at the University of Torino, Italy. Their new book The University and the Economy: Pathways to Growth and Economic Development is published by Edward Elgar.

Higher-education-fundingWith the recent financial and debt crisis, the extent to which the public can afford to fund universities has become increasingly controversial: in the context of tight public budgets and widespread cuts to public spending, even in areas perceived as basic services to support the more vulnerable members of society, what reasons could there possibly be for continuing to fund a “luxury” like higher education?  Dr Federica Rossiand Professor Aldo Geuna consider the viability of publicly funded universities and their alternatives.

Some convincing reasons must exist if, as it emerges from data reported by the European University Association’s Public Funding Observatory a majority of 14 European countries, out of 24 for which data are available, have increased public funding for universities in the period 2008 -2012, right through the latest recession. Investment has increased in, among others, Austria, Germany, Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries. Ireland and the United Kingdom are the only countries in Northern Europe to have decreased investment, together with debt stricken countries in Southern Europe and some Eastern European ones.

The argument against: higher education generates mainly private benefits

The main argument against the public funding of higher education builds on the view that the benefits of higher education are enjoyed mainly by university graduates, in terms of potentially higher future earnings and lower probability of unemployment, rather than being shared across society. If the benefits of higher education are strictly private, then why should the general public pay for it? The cost of higher education instead should be met by the students who will directly benefit from it.

This argument is reinforced by the fact that information and communication technology makes it easy to disseminate and access knowledge: when students anywhere can access the knowledge produced by the best academics in the world at the click of a button, why should governments fund them to physically attend lectures at a local campus? Using openly disseminated materials provided by prestigious universities could provide a way for poorer students, who would not have the upfront resources to pay for university fees, to access the same or even better knowledge at a fraction of the price.

In reality, however, things are rarely this simple. And indeed several theoretical and practical arguments have been made to support the view that there are still good reasons for providing substantial public funding for higher education even (or maybe especially) at a time of crisis.

But: the private benefits of higher education are risky and with a delayed pay back

The opportunity cost of studying is high over the short term while its private benefits are risky and with a delayed pay-back. Given that young people often have no resources of their own, or are either unwilling to undertake the risk, or they have no access to private credit (as financial markets are imperfect), then without incentives, investment in education would be lower than optimal.

The only students who would invest in undertaking higher education would be those who are rich enough to pay upfront, ramping up social and economic inequality. This is even more undesirable when we consider that the private benefits of university education tend to be higher for those individuals who come from less well-off families who generally do not enrol at university.

So there is a general consensus that some form of government intervention is necessary in order to increase the number of students undertaking higher education, and to do so while preserving some form of equal opportunity of access.

One way to do this is to provide full public funding of higher education in order to make it completely free at the point of delivery. However, this is not the only possible approach, and indeed it is becoming less frequent: it has even been shown that blanket funding irrespective of an individual’s income could have regressive effects on the incomes distribution. In most countries, systems are in place according to which students contribute at least in part to the funding of their education, but grants and loans exist to support those students who lack resources of their own.

Recently, for example, the United Kingdom has introduced a loan-based system where students receive a loan from the government in order to fund their education, and pay the loan back once they benefit from higher salaries in the job market. Here, the government is prepared to sustain the risk of students not paying back their loans if their future income does not meet a minimum threshold or if students are impossible to track down – a risk which has an important systemic component (for example, both types of risk would be systematically increased by a recession, where graduates are less likely to reach the minimum income thresholds and also more likely to emigrate in search of better job opportunities).

If such systemic problems were to occur, the cost to the public purse could actually turn out to be quite high. Moreover, even if we accept that students should in part contribute to the cost of their university education, issues like how much they should contribute and whether this contribution should be linked to their ability to pay it, remain open to debate.

The social benefits of higher education are anything but negligible

It has been shown that both an increase in the share of graduate population and an increase in the growth rate of graduates generate a more than proportional increase in economic growth. This suggests that the broader public who have not attended university also benefit from having colleagues and fellow citizens with a higher level of education, thanks to the latter’s contribution to economic growth, which goes beyond their own individual productivity.

In particular, research has suggested that a more educated workforce:

  • has a positive effect on the productivity of colleagues with a lower level of education
  • facilitates and accelerates the adoption of existing technologies not yet implemented
  • is more likely to introduce product and process innovation and therefore to economically exploit radically new technologies – a particularly important process in economies which already operate on the technological frontier.

There are also important indirect effects. Education can improve citizens’ health, stimulate political participation and encourage a sense of civic duty and interpersonal trust, factors that are important for the competent functioning of economic institutions and their performance.

The presence of these external effects provides arguments in support of the general taxpaying public contributing to the funding of higher education, whose benefits are felt across society at all levels. This is one reason why public university fees are, and should be, quite low when compared to the average cost of a student’s university education.

What education, rather than just how much education, matters

If universities’ sources of funds are entirely private, this introduces incentives for universities to maximize enrolments in the short term by focusing on those disciplines for which demand is greater, in order to swell the number of enrolled students and thus increase revenues. Research has shown that privately funded institutions tend, overall, to focus on the most popular subjects. From the perspective of maximizing the contribution of higher education to economic growth, this is likely to lead to dynamic inefficiencies.

First, there is no linear correspondence between students’ demand for higher education and the actual labour market’s needs for specific competences, since student demand for courses is based upon subjective evaluations and incomplete information. This is the reason why, for example, the United Kingdom continues to pour public funds into the teaching of STEM disciplines which are perceived to have high economic importance even though student demand for STEM courses is low.

Second, there is a real difficulty of foreseeing what academic disciplines will turn out to be important in the future. How to anticipate, for example, which subjects will best support the educational needs of individuals and companies in 15 to 20 years’ time? The skills required by an economic system are the result of events that cannot easily be predicted, such as geopolitical changes or the emergence of new technologies. It is important to allow universities to continue to educate students in a broad variety of fields, keeping the system sufficiently flexible and open and allowing for possible adjustment in the event of unexpected changes – something that can be accomplished only if universities are at least in part free from the compelling need to passively respond to market demand.

9781782549482_4_1And finally…can technology be the answer?

While ICT is certainly helpful in broadening access to knowledge, there are numerous arguments that suggest that simply having access to knowledge does not equate gaining an education into a particular field or topic. Being able to access free university courses online does not substitute for the ability to attend a physical institution, for a number of reasons:

  • A certain level of previous education is often required in order to understand advanced knowledge. University institutions can provide the tailored training that weaker students (especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, who may have the needed qualifications to enter university, but whose quality may not be as good) might need in order to bridge the knowledge gap that separates them from stronger students and allow them to complete their studies
  • The transmission of knowledge is enhanced by direct interactions with teachers
  • It has been shown that being part of a community of practice, though meeting and interacting with other students, enhances learning and motivation
  • Some of the benefits of higher education come from being part of a social community of students and from developing connections that continue after university

While some of these benefits could be re-created virtually (for example virtual communities of practice can be set up), overall it is unlikely that students can derive the same benefits from accessing materials that are openly available online as from attending university courses that are tailor-made for a specific and small group of students. The weaker students in particular are the least likely to have the ability to benefit from this, which invalidates to a large extent the argument that freely available online courses can provide an effective way for school leavers priced out of university to gain the same education as fee paying university students.

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How does academic research really benefit business?

This post has been contributed by Dr Federica Rossi, lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Management, and Aldo Geuna, professor of Economics at the University of Torino, Italy. Their new book The University and the Economy: Pathways to Growth and Economic Development is published by Edward Elgar.

The University and the EconomyIn an international economic environment where innovation processes are increasingly open and decentralised, companies’ ability to innovate often depends on acquiring knowledge from external sources: in particular, it depends on companies quickly identifying the knowledge they need and integrating it with their internal research, development and production processes. Interactions with universities allow companies to embed scientific knowledge in their internal innovation processes, an accomplishment which is particularly important in high technology sectors, but increasingly across the board.

While in recent years university-industry interactions have become the focus of a growing academic literature, much remains to be learned about the factors that promote such interactions and about how they really unfold. Our knowledge of how companies engage in technology transfer – how they access, exploit and build upon academic research – is particularly lacking.

Thanks to two original and in-depth surveys of companies and company-based inventors in North-West Italy, we have been able to shed some light on the dynamics of university-industry technology transfer from the companies’ perspective (Geuna and Rossi, 2015). While some of our findings support arguments already made by previous research – among others, that companies value science which is openly disseminated through scientific publications and conferences rather than through proprietary means such as licenses, that the more educated the workforce the better able companies are to exploit academic knowledge and, relatedly, that larger and more research intensive companies are more likely to interact with universities – they also shed light on some as yet unexplored issues, which challenge commonly held ideas about how knowledge transfer occurs.

Not all university-industry knowledge transfer involves universities

A lot of technology transfer occurs under the radar of university institutions, through personal contacts (and contracts) between businesses and academics. Direct interactions between industry-based inventors and academic researchers are an established channel through which companies access academic knowledge, and they are particularly important because they contribute to the production of valuable inventions. The share of companies that interact with universities exclusively through direct personal interactions with academics, without any involvement of university structures, is almost as large as the share of companies that formalise their interactions with the university institutions (alongside, possibly, direct interactions with academics).

Companies that do not collaborate with universities are over-represented among small companies and under-represented among large ones, and are less likely to invest in internal R&D. This suggests that company staff need an adequate level of education and competence in order to collaborate with academic staff. Among the companies that do not interact with universities, however, it is possible to identify different groups: those that do not interact because they find it unnecessary or too difficult and/or expensive, and those that do not interact with university institutions but instead they interact with individual academics outside of these institutional channels.

The latter companies are an interesting group because they are smaller and they are more likely to adopt open innovation strategies than the companies that interact with universities through institutional channels. Direct interactions with individual academics are, therefore, particularly appealing to dynamic small and medium size enterprises which probably find institutional channels too cumbersome.

The social sciences have a key role to play in regional knowledge transfer

Much university-industry technology transfer does not involve technology at all. Rather, a lot of interactions between companies and universities focus on providing solutions to legal, logistic, marketing, management and organisational problems. This is particularly so for interactions that occur between companies and universities based in the same region, while interactions between more distant universities (outside the company’s own region and sometimes even internationally) are more likely to concern technological issues.

Why do companies prefer to interact with regional universities, as opposed to distant ones, in order to solve business problems? The reason may depend on the fact that business problem-solving (for example, problems that have to do with human resource management, marketing, legal compliance, and so on) builds upon detailed knowledge of the socioeconomic and legal-institutional context in which the firm operates.

This requires direct interactions that allow the transfer of tacit knowledge. Instead, collaborations with distant universities involve more often codified and abstract forms of knowledge, the transmission of which does not require direct communications. Companies may also look at distant universities when they are seeking very specific knowledge that does not exist in the region.

Companies that collaborate with distant universities are often larger and tend to invest more, since technology-focused projects are usually more expensive than those focused on the solution of business problems. Nonetheless, collaborations with universities in the same region are very frequent and have important roles to play for the competitiveness of businesses and of the region overall.

Theoretical academic knowledge is particularly valuable to business

Our survey of company inventors has allowed us to investigate what modes of interaction between industrial inventors and academic researchers led to the realisation of more valuable inventions.

We have found that collaboration setups that involve direct interactions between industry researchers and academics tend to lead to more valuable inventions. Also, interactions where universities transfer theoretical knowledge and scientific principles (instead of more applied knowledge) lead to more valuable inventions. This is an unexpected result, since it is commonly believed that the theoretical knowledge developed by academics is quite far from having an impact on industrial innovation processes. Instead the companies and the industry inventors that we interviewed find that theoretical academic knowledge directly supported their innovation processes.

What does this mean for universities?

In short, these results suggest three immediate implications for universities. First, universities should focus on enabling academics to interact with industry whatever the governance of the collaborations, instead of insisting on regulating all interactions between academics and companies – in fact, direct personal interactions often fit companies’ needs better and are more productive than those that are formalised through the involvement of the university institutions.

Second, universities should exploit their business problem-solving competences (residing particularly in social science departments) to support the needs of local businesses and to strengthen intra-regional collaborations. Third, universities should not forget that their key source of competitive advantage resides in the development of advanced, cutting edge theories and methods rather than in the pursuit of very applied knowledge, which could also be provided by other actors in the economy.

Rather than focusing on providing solutions to immediate day-to-day problems, universities should continue to put their resources into producing the high level knowledge that very few other organizations in the economy are capable of generating.

Find out more


Geuna, A., F. Rossi (2015) The University and the Economy Pathways to Growth and Economic Development Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

See also:

Bodas Freitas, I., Geuna, A., Lawson, C. and F. Rossi (2014) How do industry inventors collaborate with academic researchers? The choice between shared and unilateral governance forms, in Patrucco, P. (ed.) The economics of knowledge generation and distribution. The role of interactions in the system dynamics of innovation and growth, London: Routledge.

Bodas Freitas, I., Geuna, A. and F. Rossi (2013) Finding the right partners: Institutional and personal modes of governance of university–industry interactions, Research Policy, 42(1): 50-62.

Bodas Freitas, I., Rossi, F. and A. Geuna (2014) Collaboration objectives and the location of the university partner: evidence from the Piedmont region in Italy, Papers in Regional Science, 93(S1): S203-S226.

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A reflection on the Research Excellence Framework 2014

TStephenFrosh_2014his post was contributed by Professor Stephen Frosh, Birkbeck’s Pro-Vice-Master for Research. In December 2014 the UK higher education funding bodies published the results of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), a peer review process which evaluates the quality of research in the UK’s universities.  Funding decisions based on the REF results will be announced this spring.

The results of the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF) were published in December 2014 and have been widely reported. While the official results of this six-yearly audit of university research take the form of institutional ‘profiles’ made up of outputs, impact, environment and an overarching narrative, there has also been strong  interest in where each institution sits in the various informal league tables that have followed.

Birkbeck did well in the REF. In keeping with the rest of the sector, our results improved significantly since the last such research assessment in 2008, when 56% of our research was rated as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’, the top two categories. This time, 73% of our research was judged in those categories. Unlike many universities, our performance was not inflated by a strategic decision to include only our most research-active academics in the assessment. Birkbeck submitted 83% of eligible staff to the 2014 REF, well above the national average. This led to the College’s strong performance in league tables which take into account the percentage of staff, rather than just the overall grade point average (GPA) of research, submitted. Birkbeck achieved a ranking of 30th in the UK for its research by the Times Higher Education – placing the College above Russell Group institutions such as Cardiff, Leeds, Liverpool, Queen Mary, Sheffield and York.

Of the 14 subject areas that Birkbeck submitted, half were rated in the top 20 nationally. Our science submissions performed exceptionally well, with Psychological Sciences rated 5th in the UK and the College’s two joint submissions with UCL – Earth Systems & Environmental Sciences, and Biological Sciences – rated 6th and 11th respectively.  Our outstanding subjects in the Times Higher Education’s ‘research-intensity’ league tables  include Law, ranked 6th overall (putting it among the top 10 law schools alongside the LSE, UCL, Oxford and Cambridge) and History, ranked 7th.

Similarly, the College performed strongly in league tables based on the percentage of research judged to be ‘world-leading’, indicating the very high quality of much of our research. I am also particularly pleased that – in addition to the outstanding performance of some of our top disciplines – we can celebrate the good performance in the REF of new areas such as Sociology and our reconfigured Modern Languages group, reflecting the College’s ability to build new research areas over time.

The 2014 REF threw up new challenges for the sector. For the first time, it required universities to demonstrate the impact of their research beyond academia. The College responded very well to this challenge, with good ratings in most areas and outstanding results in three subject areas – History; Art and Design; and Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience – where 100% of Birkbeck’s submissions were rated in the top two categories for impact. The broad scope of our research and its impact are showcased on the College research webpages under six themes: arts, history and culture; conservation and heritage; learning, education and development; politics, society and the law; science and biomedicine; and work and the economy. This demonstrates how closely Birkbeck’s research relates to many aspects of our everyday lives – whether influencing policy-makers in their thinking about early years education; working with major companies to educate parents about their child’s development; or trialling new drugs for the treatment of cancer.

The results of the REF are important for many reasons, including the credibility of our claim to be research-intensive, our reputation with the public and our strong standing within specific disciplines. Importantly, from a financial perspective, the likelihood remains that HEFCE research funding will be allocated according to a formula based on proportion of 4* and 3* overall outcomes multiplied by number of staff submitted, with 4* more heavily weighted.  What this means for Birkbeck will be clearer when funding decisions based on the REF results are announced in spring 2015. At the moment, we expect to earn about the same amount College-wide (though with a somewhat different distribution between disciplines within the College) from the REF as we have done from the RAE (well over £6m in 2014-15) – but we shall have to see whether the funding formula changes, and also whether the UK’s spending on research and development as a proportion of GDP, which is very low by international standards, continues to fall. Birkbeck’s results also show the enormous amount of hard work that has gone on in recent years by our academics. At a time of turmoil in the higher education system, they have continued to produce top-quality research.

The REF was a stressful experience for many people in the College and I am especially grateful to them for the work they put into Birkbeck’s submission. As might be imagined, we have been poring over the results and thinking about how to build on them for the future. We have a new Research Strategy that aims at facilitating the creativity of our research community. We are looking closely at issues of research leadership and we are reviewing the policies and provision we have in relation to postgraduate research students. There is, as ever, plenty to do, but the REF has confirmed our own self-perception as a highly active research-based institution of genuinely international standing.

Listen to a podcast with Professor Frosh about the REF 2014 results.

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