Is Birkbeck still a university for working people?

There has undoubtedly been a change taking place at Birkbeck over the last few years. In 2009, when I began my undergraduate course – and began working as an administrator there – the majority of students were working or retired. Full-time degrees were only just being introduced and no one was sure what the take-up would be.

Five years later, the landscape at Birkbeck is undeniably different. In my department, the majority of students are on the full-time degree course, and around half of the undergraduate students are aged between 18 and 21.

With the introduction of higher fees, there was always going to be a reduction in those who could afford to study alongside their full-time job; had I applied for my degree a couple of years later, there’s no way I would have been able to get the money together, and I certainly wouldn’t have been willing to take on more debt.

Obviously the institution has to cater towards its new student base, but have they forgotten about their more traditional students? After a conversation with @lamp_owl on Twitter, a few issues came to light.

First of all, let’s take a look at the main Birkbeck events page: the calendar seems to be hugely skewed towards daytime events – when I looked this morning, out of 23 events listed on the first two pages only six had a start time of 6pm or later. Great for the students who may only be working part-time, but pretty hopeless for those of us working 9-5.

Next, we come to that old bugbear: essay hand-ins. You would expect that the introduction of Moodle and Turn-it-in would make things easy for working students – no longer would we need to travel to the admin office to physically hand in our essays; we can do it online over our lunch hour. Fantastic! Or, you know, it would be, if that was what happened.

Instead, most departments now ask that you hand in a physical copy and submit through Moodle. From my experience as an administrator, there’s a very simple reason for this: academics hate marking online, preferring a paper copy on which they can write notes. The extra hassle of printing from Moodle and then marking a physical copy is apparently a step too far – and in fairness, I can understand this. I dislike reading from a computer screen, and printing forty essays would be a huge time-suck. Added to this, we can’t submit only physical copies, as Turn-it-in’s plagiarism checker is invaluable.

But still…really? There must be a simpler solution. And making life easier for academic/admin staff at the expense of the students doesn’t strike me as being entirely equitable.

Obviously we could just make sure our essays are finished a week in advance and pop them into the office on our way to class…easier said than done for those students with full-time jobs and children, though!

Another thing that’s making me particularly nervous this year is how full-time and part-time students are judged against each other. In one of my history classes I’m in a small minority as a part-time student in full-time work. This means that I just don’t have the time – as some others in my class seem to – to do every required, suggested, and background reading, every week. I also won’t be able to set aside as much time for revision (not helped by how late the exam timetable is published each year) as those without full-time jobs. I’m beginning to wonder how fair this is.

When I started my degree I felt like Birkbeck was perfect for me, and for those like me, who were beginning a degree later in life. Now? Now I’m not so sure, and that really is a shame. I’d hate to see Birkbeck become like every other university, as being in a lecture with students aged between 18 and 80 is one of the things I most love about the place. I appreciate the delicate balancing act involved here, and the fact is that if the 18-21 year olds are the ones bringing in the money, then they do have to be catered to. I just hope us oldies aren’t forgotten…

Are you one of Birkbeck’s “traditional” students? Do you feel like the new young, full-time students are more of a priority for the institution? Let us know!

Image credits: BK, Positive thinking @ OM and Original photo credit: Scott Akerman

Kerry Johnson

Kerry is in her final year of BA Politics, Philosophy and History, and has so far spent approximately a sixth of her life at Birkbeck. Luckily she no longer works here, so no one can shout at her for writing this. If you'd like to disagree with her on Twitter, you can find her at @spiraltastic.

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    5 thoughts on “Is Birkbeck still a university for working people?”

    1. I studied for an MA in 1996-1997. My problem back then was that the workload favoured teachers and those not working. Working full-time in the private sector and in the suburbs meant long treks to tutorials and for access to the best libraries. In addition, we had only Royal Mail or another commute to Russell Square for submitting essays and the dissertation. The long additional hours involved in commuting made the days very long and put a strain on my effectiveness as a student. After my MA, I wanted to go on to a PhD. I had a subject and had even canvassed one of my tutors as a prospective supervisor. But then I was forced into early retirement so, whilst I now had as much time as I needed, I could no longer afford the fees. The situation now is that, even if I were working or had a substantial private income, I simply could not afford the present, even higher fees so my PhD will never be.

      1. Great comment, it’s interesting to see how some things haven’t changed!

        Postgraduate fees are unbelievable – I know a few people in your situation, Deirdre. It’s such a shame that more funding isn’t available in these areas.

      1. I know the department I used to work in ran a lot of lectures during the day for its full-time students (though never earlier than 3pm), and kept an evening timetable for the part-timers. It seemed to work pretty well, in fairness (mostly).

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