Category Archives: News – Wider Issues

Room for Improvement?

A shortage of teaching space is one of the biggest problems facing Birkbeck. The nature of evening study means demand for classrooms is concentrated during a short period of the day. Yet while student numbers have grown significantly in recent years, the number of classrooms has failed to keep pace.

The university’s planners are working on ways to increase capacity, including acquiring new buildings. In the meantime however, the overflow has been dealt with by decamping classes to offsite venues run by third parties. Some of these, such as Westminster Kingsway College on Grays Inn Road, are some distance from Malet Street, and lack facilities such as access to the eduroam Wi-Fi network. Many students are unhappy with the situation.

“In the three modules I’ve had so far, two have been off campus,” says David McGuinness, a first year journalism and media student. “At Kingsway we had our room moved once or twice, which would be fine except they didn’t know where they were putting us, so wasted an hour of a lecture.”

Others have more general concerns. “It hasn’t really presented any practical issues,” said Ben, a history undergraduate who has been offsite for every one of his classes this year, “it just sort of presents an odd image.”

Staff have been affected too, with some frustrated academics saying they struggle to get between classes on time. “It’s a huge problem,” said one, who estimates around 40% of students are being taught away from Birkbeck on any given evening. This number is roughly in line with the calculations of Jeremy Tanner, director of commercial services and estates development at the university, who plans how space is used.

“About 70% of student teaching hours take place in Birkbeck-controlled rooms,” Mr Tanner says. “I’m aware of the perception, and it’s something we’re really working to improve. We do an annual survey of classrooms and we’ve dropped venues in the past on the basis of that.” He welcomes engagement with students to address concerns.

A stated mission of the Master of Birkbeck Dr David Latchman is for all students to be taught in on-site classrooms by the time the university celebrates its bicentenary in 2023. But there are several barriers to expansion, including a lack of space for development in Bloomsbury, council rules on what uses buildings can be put to, and the hard reality of competing for property on the commercial market.

A step forward was taken in 2015 when the university acquired Cambridge House, a four-storey building on Euston Road. Minutes from a meeting of the university’s governors in May show it was purchased for £15.4m using “substantial cash reserves built up over recent years”.

The intention is to move administrative staff to the premises, freeing up room for between twenty one and twenty three new classrooms at Malet Street by 2017 – 10% of the number needed to reach Dr Latchman’s target – and saving around £1m a year on external classroom hire. Looking further ahead, Birkbeck also plans to extend the main building at Malet Street, something which is described as “a key part of the longer term estates strategy”.

It’s a start, but what about the glittering new East London campus? Millions have been poured into the development, and Birkbeck’s website claims Stratford is attracting “a growing number of students”. However some staff have claimed the project – a joint venture launched with the University of East London (UEL) in 2006 – has now been quietly dropped.

“It’s a white elephant,” said one, who agreed with claims the university has backed off and blamed this on the coalition government’s raising of tuition fees. Birkbeck initially had one third of the total space on the Stratford campus, he added, but this has now been reduced to, “about three classrooms and an office”.

Jeremy Tanner rejects this and calculates that between seven and 10 rooms, out of a total of 17, are in use on an average evening. “We haven’t walked away from it at all,” he says. “We retain the same number of rooms we always envisaged we would.” He admits that Birkbeck has reduced its ownership share after earlier plans changed, but says this has saved money on the investment. Meanwhile money is being made by hiring out unused space to UEL during the daytime. “I think we’ve actually been reasonably cute and secured a good deal for the college,” he says.

All of this sounds reassuring, but will be of little comfort to those still stuck in offsite rooms, who will graduate long before the practice has been phased out in 2023. Those presently enrolled may also wonder why Birkbeck has taken on so many new students – the number of undergraduates rose by 308% between 2011 and 2013 – while surely knowing that there wasn’t going to be enough space to accommodate them.

Every university must be pragmatic to some extent, weighing educational principles against the bottom line. But they must be careful not to let their students get impatient.

Have you been affected by room shortages?

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Our future in the stars

In 2024, an unmanned robotic spacecraft will land at the South Pole of the Moon, where it will drill a borehole up to 100 metres deep, and analyse the spoil. This will be the most ambitious off-Earth excavation project ever attempted. In itself, this plan is ground-breaking – the Lunar Poles have never been explored – but the mission is also pioneering a completely new funding model for space exploration.

As Professor Ian Crawford explains, “Lunar Mission One is an attempt to see if it’s possible to finance a scientific mission to the south pole of the Moon, essentially through public subscription”. The independent British project hit its £600,000 Kickstarter target at the end of 2014, and the ten year process of making the mission a reality is now underway. Crawford, who is Professor of Planetary Science and Astrobiology in Birkbeck’s Department of Earth and Planetary Science, is a specialist in lunar science, and one of Lunar Mission One’s principle scientific advisers.

“Once the borehole is drilled, we’ll have this empty hole in the ground. So the idea was that people might wish to pay to put things down there. Essentially time capsules”. If successful, this finance model could conceivably pave the way for dozens more independent missions, to areas of space that might otherwise be ignored.

Much of the scientific interest in Lunar Mission One concerns its proposal to visit an as-yet unexplored part of the lunar surface. “All the Apollo sites are at low latitudes on the middle of the near side, so nothing has ever visited higher latitudes on the near side, the poles or the entirety of the far side. It is genuinely new terrain to be explored”.

The project comes at a time of increased interest in lunar science. It is now over 40 years since the last manned space mission to the Moon, and as the International Space Station nears the end of its operational life, there is much speculation on what the national space agencies will do next.

Britain’s future as a space-exploring nation will most likely be intertwined with that of the European Space Agency, and as a member of their Human Exploration Science and Advisory Committee (HESAC), Dr Crawford is well-placed to speculate on the EU’s future beyond the atmosphere.

“Europe’s been involved in human spaceflight for much of the duration of the space station programme. There is a European astronaut on the space station at the moment, Samantha Cristoforetti, and Tim Peak, a British ESA astronaut, is going up next year. The question now is what to do after the space station comes to an end in around 2024 or so, and world space agencies are looking for things to do. There are lots of ideas and I think ESA is aiming to be involved in what follows the space station. It’s just that no one knows quite what it is yet”.

There are several proposals for Mars missions, with both MarsOne and Elon Musk’s SpaceX seriously mooted. Both have been met with varying degrees of scepticism by members of the scientific community, including Professor Crawford, and, notably, Commander Chris Hadfield, who described the rush to send humans to Mars as a probable suicide mission. Speaking at the Royal Geographical Society soon after his retirement, having led the ISS team for 6 months, Hadfield noted “we don’t know what we are doing yet. We have to have a bunch of inventions between now and Mars”.

Hadfield has been a proponent of the idea of building a permanent living structure on the Moon, however, and Professor Crawford is quick to support the notion that humanity could have a lunar base in the next 30 to 40 years.

“Scientifically it would be very helpful to have a piece of infrastructure, in the form of a lunar base, or maybe several, because they would facilitate the exploration of the Moon in a similar way that the Antarctic research stations have enabled the scientific exploration of Antarctica, and if you think about what we’ve learned from Antarctica, we’ve learned a lot about past climate, the ozone hole, we find meteorites from other parts of the Solar System in the Antarctic ice. There’s a lot of biology in Antarctica that wouldn’t be on the Moon, but there are all these many different sciences and they’re enabled by having these permanent outposts in Antarctica which provide infrastructural support for scientific exploration over a wide range of fields, and so I think the same will be true of the Moon, and ultimately, the same will be true of Mars.

“Even beyond the merely scientific aspect, it’s entirely possible that there may be things on the Moon that are economically useful and could benefit the development of the world’s economy. Finding them, and ,if they are present, mining them, will also require, I think, a human presence on the Moon.”

He cautions that it won’t happen automatically. “In a sense, 40 years have been wasted already since the end of the Apollo programme. But setting up an Antarctic-style research station on the Moon within the next 30-40 years, yeah it clearly is possible, and it would be very good if it happened”.

Whatever ideas the space industry adopts, Crawford is adamant that a coordinated international effort is required, rather than disparate national projects. With both China and India having recently completed unmanned missions to the Moon, it makes little sense excluding either country from any future international space missions.

“Certainly the Indian and Chinese missions to the Moon have been very valuable. And actually you can see this coordinated world space effort is beginning to happen. There is something called the Global Exploration Strategy, drawn up by the world’s space agencies in 2007, essentially trying to lay a foundation for international collaboration in space exploration. And that has spawned an inter-agency working group called ISEC – the International Space Exploration Coordination Group – which is actively trying to channel all these different activities so they’re not in competition but are all pulling in the same direction. I think this is a very positive development”.

Professor Crawford’s interest in a cooperative global space programme is in part inspired by the idea that future missions to space could look down upon a politically unified planet. Indeed, he has written about his vision for a kind of world federalism. Additionally, he has advocated the potential economic benefits should resources be discovered on the Moon which could be used in Earth-orbiting infrastructure; what he has termed cis-Lunar resource utilisation.

From a spiritual perspective, space has a proven potential to inspire human endeavour, and Crawford is a keen supporter of its role in an education system that encourages children to imaginatively explore the universe using maths and physics. Projects like Lunar Mission One, which is running an extensive schools education programme, could recruit the future space engineers who will eventually take humans to the Moon, and maybe Mars.

Where do we go from there? Crawford sees these missions eventually leading us on to the stars. This has led to a broadening of his work into interstellar travel, including speaking at a conference on interstellar spaceflight.

Getting there will require an industrial infrastructure within the Solar System that is capable of producing the enormous amounts of energy required. “That requires us to make a start by building bases on the Moon and Mars and then gradually bootstrapping up.”

Time, then, to go back to the Moon.


Also check out Professor Crawford’s Prospect Magazine piece ‘swords to spaceships, on how the aerospace industry could divert its resources from developing heavy weapons to building space ships.

An Insider’s Look: A Long Weekend of Student Politics

Cross Party London Youth Debate

It all started on a Friday.

While many students were heading off to one of the local watering holes, including “Radar” night at the former University of London Union, I opted instead for a trip to a room in City University.  The sparsely occupied lecture theatre hosted a panel debate among the regional chairs of all major political parties. In true London fashion, Nigel Farage’s UKIP was not represented, while the Green Party was – by incoming Birkbeck SU Welfare officer and Young Greens regional co-chair Sofiya Ahmed. It was duly noted by the floor, however, that the Greens do not constitute a major party.

The impartial chair (a confirmed floating vote) and the floor posed questions on topics such as the economy, employment, the housing crisis and education.

The most entertaining part of the night was when Will Dyer charmingly defended the Liberal Democrats and the governance of coalitions. He stated that the Liberal Democrats had protected the country from more radical Tory cuts, stopped the foundation of a Maggie Thatcher day and instituted a low tax band for working people.  He had a genuine love of the party, despite it being the least trusted by most students. Students turned away from the party after Nick Clegg’s tuition fees U-turn, which even saw an apology and subsequent viral video. Needless to say, I was not convinced by Will’s message that the Lib-Dems are the rightful stewards for his nation, although I must give him credit for the most uses of the word ‘anchored’ in a sentence.

Luke Springthorpe of Conservative Future defended the current government. Despite being pro-union, he praised zero-hour contracts for their flexibility, adding that such work was ‘better than no job’. He wrote off criticisms of DWP sanctions, saying the sanctions were probably there to stay. Springthorpe remained highly sceptical of the left proposition to use taxation as a stimulus for housebuilding.

Ria Bernard(@riab_22), a speech and language therapist and joint leader of London Young Labour, held the fort for camp Miliband. She maintained the current party line of a more moderate austerity. She said the cuts were ‘too fast, and too soon’ and Help to Buy was an interesting idea but problematic. When I told her that my plans for the next morning involved going to protest the party’s proposition of £6k fees, she replied with a shrug, “6 is better than 9.”

The three major parties all avoided the toxic term – “social housing” . Sofiya, however, did not shy away. She stated that the Green Party would ditch a £100bn trident renewal, instead spending £6bn on half a million new homes and plugging the £20bn NHS deficit. Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP has also made these suggestions. In response to the Tory panelist’s defense of apprenticeships, Sofiya expressed concern that some apprenticeships are low quality, and the employers just use young people, not providing adequate skills or education in exchange for the cheaper labour.

At the end, many debates continued in the pub. I left somewhat swayed to the Green cause.

#FreeEducation Protest in Birmingham

Saturday morning was the earliest of its kind since I had been bothered to go doorknocking with #labourdoorstep. This Saturday called for walking action against Labour. NUS London, in association with the Student Assembly against Austerity and the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, called for a demonstration on the doorstep of Labour MP Liam Byrne in Birmingham.

Byrne is the shadow minister for Higher Education. His contribution to the Labour 2015 campaign was a commitment to lower the tuition fees’s upper band. His constituency is Hodge Hill.

There was an overwhelming amount of local support for the Demo. Regional support came from the Black Country Young Greens. A local Trade Union head and schoolgirl were among the opening speeches at Birmingham University.

The coach journey up to Birmingham came courtesy of the UCL union. UCL ‘defend education’ songbooks circulated for rounds of poorly tuned Trotsky-esque songs. It was a delight to see seasoned Birkbeck Activist Alex Owalade squirming at the singing, having heard it all better the first time round in the 1980s. The Marxist tone of the travelling demonstrators was echoed by the red patches pinned to a number of students’s lapels, supposedly the sign of international student resistance. Over the long journey, protesters discussed strategies for progress with NUS London as well as the viability of a demand for free education.

The communal feeling was very much disappointment with Labour. The demand for free education involved a complete turn-around from tuition fees to replace them with free education and living grants – such as would have been the deal for many of Birkbeck’s mature students had they had the chance to go for a degree at age 18.

The marching route headed through the town centre. Shouting for an end to student debt and austerity, cries of “Cutback! Fightback!” went on strong. Multiple megaphones, a sizeable crowd, a conch (like from Lord of the Flies) and an exuberant drummer kept pace and spread the message of anti-austerity through the city’s main shopping areas.

There was even an attempted entry into the Council and an impromptu incursion into the Library. The brand new central library, an impressive addition to the city, is facing cuts to its librarians agreed as part of Labour austerity.

Last Monday, a meeting at Birkbeck launched the @bbk24hr campaign: Birkbeckers aiming for a return of 24 hour access to the library computer rooms as exams and deadlines loom.  Watch out for more organised action on this campaign.

Finally, Stonewall will live up to its name @StonewallUK

“Stonewall? Oh, you mean Sonewall. The T is silent.”

Those working in LGBTQ activism may be familiar with the quip, which rightly ridicules the organisation’s lack of work on trans* issues. Stonewall takes its name from the Stonewall Inn, one of very few venues that explicitly catered to an LGBT clientele in 1960s New York. In the early hours of the 28th of June 1969, police raided the bar, but the patrons fought back. The ensuing riots were largely led by trans* women of colour – but this is often overlooked by the modern movement.

A few weeks ago however, in a milestone for trans* rights, Stonewall announced that their work will now include trans* people. As quoted in Pink News, Chief Executive Ruth Hunt said: “Stonewall no longer needs to maintain a strict distinction between sexual orientation and gender identity”. In other words, they will now try to live up to their name. Previously, Stonewall campaigned for the rights of marginalised sexualities – lesbian, gay and bisexual – but not on issues of gender identity.

The headline to that article, “Stonewall announces it will now campaign for trans rights too”, almost reads like a joke. An equality charity waited until 2015 to deem trans* issues important? Even the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT charity in the US, and notoriously homonormative, has had trans* issues on the agenda for some years.

Better late than never. To their credit, Stonewall did apologise in their report for past mistakes that hurt trans* people – a necessary step in regaining the community’s trust.

It is crucial that trans* issues are fought for by every equality organisation. Gender identity and sexuality are two different things, but the bigotry against them comes from the same harmful structure: heteronormativity. It is this structure that enforces the idea that a man or a woman should only act a certain way, dress a certain way, love a certain way, have certain genitals – even that one can only be a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’.

Trans activists have long fought for change and Stonewall is finally stepping towards it.

The full report that accompanied Stonewall’s announcement is available here. Birkbeck LGBT Officer Reubs Walsh was one of hundreds of trans* activists to consult with Stonewall on their introduction of trans* lobbying. You can read Reubs’ comment on the announcement here.

The New Prevent: Birkbeck and the future of universities

In early February, a former Birkbeck undergraduate student was convicted for terrorist intentions. Last year in May, en route to Serbia, David Souaan was arrested at Heathrow airport on suspicion that he was going to fight in Syria.

His case was minor, nevertheless, the former student is serving a three-and-a-half-year sentence. Souaan exemplifies a phenomenon worrying communities and challenging the government: radicalisation, or the process by which a person comes to support terrorism.

At Souaan’s trial, the court heard that his young age and immaturity made him vulnerable to extremism. The transition from kind-hearted member of the community to potential national security threat is more common in young people, according to a review published by the government. As many young people study in higher education, universities are under pressure to prevent radicalisation.

The counter-terrorism and security bill, which will soon become law having received royal assent, will require internet providers and airliners to retain data, cancel passports of suspected national terrorists, and place universities, including schools and colleges, under statutory duty to prevent the radicalisation of students.

Most universities already follow a counter-terrorism strategy set by the government. Aptly named Prevent, the strategy recommends ways to spot extremism to universities and other public bodies. The strategy was revised in 2011 when al-Qaida was perceived as the biggest threat to national security. Now the threat is Da’ish, or Islamic State (IS), and ‘start-up terrorists’.

The government blames universities – specifically vice-chancellors – for being relaxed about extremism on campuses, while others argue universities are overly cautious in following the Prevent strategy.

Joint Branch Secretary of Birkbeck Unison Steven Ellis believes the strategy is unnecessary for there are already laws to prevent terrorism. “If anybody in a university becomes aware of anybody actually committing some kind of violence or attack,” Ellis said, “anything that is concrete on that level, they should inform the police.”

Birkbeck has been criticised for cowering to police rather than representing the interests of the staff and students. Late last year Birkbeck cancelled a conference on Islamophobia after receiving threats from far-right organisations Britain First and Casuals United. The Islamic Human Rights Commission had hired a classroom for the daylong seminar but the event was pulled at short notice.

“It is unfortunate that the circumstances surrounding this conference changed,” Birkbeck stated. “Not only was there a significant primary threat of disruption and a genuine threat of counter demonstration, but there was also the potential of an escalating situation given the location within the Bloomsbury university area.

“Of course, our concern was for participants of the conference, but our duty of care is obviously broader, and has to extend to consideration for our students, our staff and our visitors who might become caught up in, and adversely affected by, such a situation.”

Birkbeck’s Facilities Manager Elizabeth Whitehead added: “Like Higher Education and Further Education institutions across the city, Birkbeck works with the London Prevent team. Through our networks we access best practice, participate in informed debate and discussion and source training.”

In an open letter, activists and academics retorted: “The decision to withdraw from this event appeared to be as a result of buckling to the Islamophobic threats by far-right groups including Britain First and Casuals United (who threatened to demonstrate this event) as well as pressure from the local Camden Prevent officer.”

They further criticised Birkbeck and the Prevent team for not having supported community groups against extremism.

In their letter, they state: “By reneging on the venue, Birkbeck signalled to all of us that our concerns and fears in dealing with Islamophobia were better silenced than tackled collectively.”

Birkbeck countered: “Birkbeck’s doors are open to one of the most diverse higher education communities in the country; Birkbeck classrooms host people from 18 to 80, and bring together people from a wide variety of social, ethnic and religious backgrounds. The College is very committed to that ongoing tradition.”

For activists and academics, the cancellation of the conference shows that Birkbeck is not as progressive as it believes. They state: “[Birkbeck’s] reputation as a pioneering academic institution with a radical vision of inclusiveness that previously opened the doors for those excluded from higher education, seems merely a nostalgic memory.”

Activists, academics and students fear the foundation of the university as an institute for the freedom of expression will soon also become a nostalgic memory. When the counter-terrorism bill becomes law, the foundation of the university will include the duty to prevent extremism. Universities are to be categorised along with charities as public bodies with the public interest and safety as their principle mission.

Ellis of Birkbeck Unison is concerned extremism could be any -ism attached to a controversial subject, such as socialism: “People study all type of political, religious, cultural ideas, which in everyday life you would describe as extreme.”

A new statutory duty for universities to prevent extremism would make students and teachers think twice before discussing a radical view in class. They would “self-police”, Ellis noted, “squashing freedom of speech.”

The policy legally requiring universities to be responsible for extremism on campuses comes from policy that did not distinguish social integration and counter-terrorism. Home Secretary Theresa May said in 2011: “[The Blair-Brown Labour administration] confused Government policy to promote integration with Government policy to prevent terrorism. … In trying to reach those at risk of radicalisation, funding sometimes even reached the very extremist organisations that Prevent should have been confronting.”

In a speech given after the killing of army officer Lee Rigby on changes to the Prevent strategy, May said: “Unlike the old strategy, there is now a clear demarcation between counter-terrorism work…and the Government’s wider counter-extremist and integration work.”

The division of social integration and counter-terrorism attempts to alter the role of universities as well as the Muslim community. With the unmasking of ‘Jihadi John’ reportedly as Mohammed Emwazi and reports of three London school girls travelling to Syria, along with a number of other cases including David Souaan, the government continues to link the rise in extremism with a failure on behalf of Muslim communities.

David Cameron called on the Muslim community to challenge the ideology of IS and actively prevent extremism. The Prime Minister and other national leaders are of the opinion that this new terrorist group has manifested from a religion uncritical of the violent minority of its followers.

The government has challenged Muslims to prove their nationalism.

In a letter to Muslim community representatives after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Secretary of State Eric Pickles wrote: “You, as faith leaders, are in a unique position in our society. You have a precious opportunity, and an important responsibility: in explaining and demonstrating how faith in Islam can be part of British identity. … There is a need to lay out more clearly than ever before what being a British Muslim means today: proud of your faith and proud of your country.”

Zakariya Mohran, member of UCLU Islamic Society, told the Lamp and Owl: “British values are Muslim values, and Muslim values are British values.”

Mohran and the president of the Society, Yusuf Zakaria, believe IS is not alone in abusing the teachings of Islam – the British government and the media do as well.

The portrayal that “Islam is about violence, and Islam is unaccepting of other faiths, that Muslims generally want to take over [the world], is completely not true,” Mohran said. “When an event happens that is evil [the media] link it up with something to do with Islam, which it’s nothing to do at all [with Islam], and vilifies Islam as a whole.”

He gave the example of how dawah – opening dialogue to teach Islam – has been linked to the act of killing, such as with the murder of Lee Rigby.

“They are implicating a whole bunch, a quarter of humanity, that are devout followers of a religion to a bunch of nut-jobs who just want to go out and do some evil stuff,” Mohran said.

The Society has been criticised for inviting extremist speakers who have supported terrorist attacks. Mohran said the speakers’ comments have been “blown out of proportion” and “taken out of context.”

Speaking on the counter-terrorism bill, Mohran said the legislation “makes extremism applied to whatever they want to apply [it] to – it’s very ambiguous.”

The theory of radicalisation is also ambiguous. For such a complex process, it is often reduced to deceivingly simple terms. Cameron has used the analogy of a “conveyer belt”. This brings to mind the image of a young student going through a machine marked ‘terrorism’ and coming out as a balaclava executioner.

Some critics see radicalisation occurring in a different way. The advocacy organisation CAGE suggests Mohammed Emwazi was radicalised in reaction to harassment and pressure from MI5 officers to join their agency: “Emwazi’s treatment by the UK fuelled his radicalization, and not the other way around.”

The Home Office have neither confirmed nor denied that MI5 attempted to recruit Emwazi.

Other critics see both interpretations of radicalisation as one-sided: they do not factor in other contributing elements such as British foreign policy and the fragile state in the Middle East.

For all of the thwarted plots Home Secretary Theresa May has boasted before, recent debate in the government has focused on the management of intelligence agencies and their failure to prevent crimes related to terrorism. They have been criticised for not monitoring closely Lee Rigby’s killers, Emwazi and the three travelling London schoolgirls.

The counter-terrorism bill was not required for the authorities to become aware of David Souaan. Nor was it by using the Prevent strategy that the former Birkbeck student was flagged up. By their own volition, students informed the authorities about David Souaan, concerned about his extreme views.

“Hello from Syria” Souaan texted to a friend at the start of last year. Squatted on top of a shelled, destroyed tank, Souaan faces the camera wielding a machine gun. He is the only person in the picture. There are palm trees behind, blue sky above and rubble about. The battle seems to have moved on – Souaan late on the scene. The photograph was taken January 2014 when Souaan travelled to Syria.

At his trial he told the Old Bailey the reason for his trip to Syria was to help collect his grandfather’s belongings after Assad forces fired rockets at the family’s hometown of Deir ez-Zor.

The prosecutor, Sarah Whitehouse QC, told the court Souaan’s friends might have exaggerated the photos he had shown them, but further evidence supported he was preparing for terrorist acts.

When Souaan was arrested at Heathrow, police uncovered documents on his laptop and smartphone revealing his “extremist sympathies”. One such document was a video clip of a man slitting the throat of another.

Other footage reportedly showed Souaan at a demonstration in the UK calling for the flag of Tawheed, used by IS, in London. Along with text and Skype messages, all this evidence suggested Souaan’s record of “extremist sympathies” equated to extremist activities.

According to the Press Association, Judge Peter Rook admitted to Souaan in court: “…his case was at the lower end of the scale but nevertheless serious.”

The increasing influence and power of IS, and Western withdrawal of support for Syrian rebel groups likely factored in the jury’s verdict to find Souaan guilty of terrorist activity.

Souaan’s lawyer Ali Bajwa QC described the defendant as experiencing “loneliness and isolation” from family when studying Global Politics and International Development at Birkbeck. The homesick student was “emotionally immature and naïve,” Bajwa said.

The UK is not Souaan’s native country. His home is Serbia where his Christian mother was born – his Muslim father is Syrian.

Replying to the question of why he posed with guns in Syria, Souaan said: “At the time when I was there I felt something like I wanted some trophy – the photos.” He added, as though he was much older: “As the teenagers say nowadays, it looks ‘cool’. So that was the reason.”

It hasn’t been that long since Souaan was a teenager. He is 20 years old. He is serving a three and a half year sentence at a young offenders institution.

Anatomy of a Demo – The People’s Assembly Against Austerity – 19 November 2014

It was getting dark. I was knackered. My back ached from jumping over barriers and chasing police officers. My feet ached from walking and running. My shoulder throbbed from being struck by the camera of  an overzealous TV cameraman. My laptop was refusing to connect to the nearest WiFi network. I took a selfie with my phone and grimaced at the bright orange paint in my hair and on my cheek. It was spattered over my jacket, shoes and borrowed camera. I had Parliament Square mud all over the knees of my jeans. I scrolled through the 619 images I had snapped during the day. Satisfied, I bit into my homemade chicken wrap, and absent mindedly began scraping at a globule of orange paint on my left shoe.

Nine hours earlier, at about 9am, I was firmly ensconced in Malet Street. I had my packed lunch and a borrowed camera. A hastily created ‘Press’ vest too. Just in case. This was my first demonstration as an observer/aspiring journo, and I couldn’t have picked one which is more emotive for students. In this age of austerity, students are suffering. Not just now, but in the future too, with most expected to be saddled with in excess of 40 grands worth of debt after graduating. Thus, The People’s Assembly Against Austerity – under the ‘student’ nomenclature – organised the demo for 19th November.

Malet Street at 10am was cold and forlorn. A few organisations had pitched stands, and placards (in their hundreds it seemed) were being prepared. As the minutes passed, crowds began to gather. I had initially thought there might be a poor turnout, perhaps influenced by the lack of NUS support. This was not to be, and, by departure time, the atmosphere was festive (not as in Christmas) and good natured chanting was accompanied by the ferocious waving of some humorous and creative placards and flags. Police presence was minimal to say the least.

I stationed myself at the front of the march. Keen for a ‘story’, I was conscious of a small group of masked youths, and surmised that they may behave in an interesting way. I latched myself to them for most of the march. It was impressive how well the march had been organised and marchers deployed with great efficiency. I thought it great that students had the opportunity to vent their anger, despair and annoyance at student debt and education fees.

As the march wended its way through Bloomsbury and down Holborn onto the Strand, the first small pockets of conflict occurred. It was at the front of the march and perpetrated by the masked-up wannabe anarchists, outside MacDonald’s and Top Shop — no surprises there. These pit-stops passed without major incident, and it was only when we arrived at Parliament Square the inevitable violence erupted. This, I thought, was a shame. We were only a few yards away from the rally point, where the intention was for speakers to address the assembled marchers. Surely one of the major, if not the most important, part of the demo?

Instead, our be-masked chums decided to clamber over the police barriers (fine, I thought), jump up and down shouting anti-capitalist slogans (no problem) and then proceeded to tear down the metal mesh fencing to get onto the grassed area of Parliament Square. Not only do I not have a problem with people demonstrating, I think it slightly abhorrent that demonstrations on Parliament Square are prohibited. So, whilst I perhaps understood the reasoning behind wanting to demonstrate on Parliament Square (although I’m not sure some of the demonstrators did) I didn’t really understand the violence which went with it, and the sad sight of a 60 year-old City of Westminster heritage warden cowering at the sight of dozens of black clad guys surrounding him to kick, push and smash their way on to the square.

I joined them on the Square, perversely proud as I was one of the first dozen journos who breached the lines. After declaring a victorious occupation, the smattering of demonstrators who joined the masked marauders evidently got bored quickly.

There was some flare-ignition, giving the Square an eerie war-zone atmosphere, exacerbated by some slightly unhinged individuals attempting to create a barricade — what they intended to barricade, I have no clue — on the square out of concrete blocks, fencing and railings.

They were, however, foiled by lack of interest. Soon most people began to drift over to the rallying point, to get involved and listen to the speakers. I actually ached to do this, but my desire for front-line journo action made me stick with the anarchist crew.

Disorganised and with very little apparent knowledge of the issues of the march, this small group led a larger group on a mini-tour of government and political bases. Oh, and a Starbucks!

At each point, damage and skirmishes with the police (no helmets, no shields, and not too many batons) ensued with vigour. Anti-cuts chants changed into anti-police chants. At Tory party HQ, I snapped away as several of the masked dudes planned to smash a wheelie bin into police lines. Which they did. Our next stop was the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which was declared by one of the pseudo-anarchists to be the ‘Department for Education’. Despite the massive signage declaring otherwise, the massed crowd seemed to concur. Scuffles ensued, paint was thrown and placards chucked. Several tried to get into the building (and do what exactly?) whilst chanting ‘scum’ at the four security guards desperately trying to hold the doors shut. These are the ‘working men’ to whom these people were claiming allegiance earlier.

Again with a lack of direction and apparent boredom – helped by the arrival of riot cops I assume – the next stop was a small Starbucks. Yes, it’s incredible and unacceptable they’ve avoided their tax. Yes, it’s fairly annoying to see them on every street corner. But their tax affairs and ubiquity surely could not justify paint chucking, window smashing and throwing a Barclays bike through the doors?

All along Victoria Street, more scuffles followed, until eventually a sort of semi-kettle took place. The balaclava and mask wearing contingent legged it successfully, and after half an hour, most people drifted away.

I was personally enthused by the day – it’s exactly the sort of stuff I’d like to do. I think I need to learn how to write impartially to become a journalist, but I couldn’t understand a lot of the behaviour. Frightened Starbucks staff, the cleaners who have to tidy up afterwards, the street sweepers and the glaziers. They are the working class. They should be on our side. It’s easy to see why they perhaps are not – the media (myself included) will only ever go where there is something newsworthy, but when such excellently attended and organised student demos are used as an excuse for bizarre acts of violence which prove nothing, it is only ever these incidences which will get into the news.

As I scraped paint off my shoe, I felt somewhat deflated, although proud of my battle scars.  It had started as a great day. Full of fun, and friendliness. For most people, I’m sure it continued that way. I hope it did. It was just a huge shame that the issues of the day were, and will have been, ignored to some extent – students had a great opportunity to show some reserve and strength, and put forward their very cogent and necessary arguments. Unfortunately, to coin a Daily Mail-esque phrase, ‘a few idiots spoiled it for everyone else’.