Category Archives: Campus

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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Universities Minister Jo Johnson visits Birkbeck

Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson was welcomed to Birkbeck this week by the Master, David Latchman, and spent time talking to students about their College experiences.

Making his first visit to Birkbeck, Jo Johnson MP was keen to speak to students about the potential impact of maintenance loans being newly available to part-time undergraduate students. The new loans, which will be available from 2018-19, were announced in November last year as part of the Government’s Spending Review.

The Minister’s visit to Birkbeck also reflects growing government interest in alternative models of higher education provision, such as Birkbeck’s unique three-year, evening taught undergraduate courses, which give students the opportunity to combine study with work and other commitments.

David Latchman said; “We were delighted to welcome the Minister to the College today and to have this opportunity to show him what we do.  We discussed the very welcome recent government announcement of loans for postgraduates, which will come into play from 2016-17, and the introduction of maintenance loans for part-time undergraduate study from 2018. Both of these will be of great benefit to our students. We want to see an increasingly level playing field between full-time and part-time study, and these are encouraging steps.

“We also discussed Equivalent Level Qualifications (ELQ), as we’d like to see further subjects exempted from this ruling.  We were also able to raise concerns about the alarming fall in part time study in England and whether all the measures announced in the Spending Review will be enough to stem this decline. We hope Jo Johnson will take these concerns on board as the White Paper develops.”

Postgraduate student Patricia Whitehorne spoke to the Minister and said afterwards: “He seemed really interested in how we thought the maintenance loans might work, and how much difference they would make to potential part-time students – whether at Birkbeck it would mean a student would choose to do a four-year part-time course, or the three-year full time evening course, for example.

“I think it was very valuable for him to speak to actual students, and for us to help inform him as he makes policy decisions.”

The Master added: “The Minister was very interested in Birkbeck’s unique evening teaching model, and had plenty of questions about our role as a specialist higher education institution in London. He also asked about the ‘typical Birkbeck student’ and I was delighted to be able to tell him there was no such person – our students come from all backgrounds and range in age from 18 to 80-plus.”

Birkbeck welcomes Sir Keir Starmer MP for campus visit

Sir Keir Starmer, MP for Holborn and St Pancras, received a warm welcome at Birkbeck, University of London where he met staff and students from across the college community.

The Labour MP, elected in May 2015, visited the University on Friday, 23 October and had discussions with Professor David Latchman, Master of the college about a range of topics including Birkbeck’s advocacy for the societal and economic benefits of combining work and study.

Recent Birkbeck initiatives include a joint submission with the Open University to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, calling for policy changes to help stimulate part-time study, and Parliamentary briefings on the decline in part-time students and the opportunities apprenticeships present for expanding university study and widening participation.

Sir Keir also met a group of students who shared their stories of the difference studying at an institution dedicated to providing degree-level education in the evening has made to their lives.

One of these students, Michael Peltier, who has successfully completed Birkbeck’s three-year degree in BSc Accounting and is studying for a Master’s degree in Accounting and Finance at the college, said:

“I am already seeing the fantastic benefits of studying and working simultaneously – I’m now employed in a role which otherwise would have required me to have years of experience, so studying at Birkbeck has definitely given me the edge. I’ve already learnt that employers really value Birkbeck students because balancing work and study shows you can deal with the demands of a career.”

Also in attendance was Birkbeck student Alicia Caley, who earlier this year successfully completed a BA Global Politics and International Relations (full-time) at the college, and who has now commenced studies on the MSc Government, Policy and Politics (part-time).

Alicia said: “Having the opportunity to study in the evenings has really opened up opportunities for me over the past three years. I have been able to gain invaluable experience of full time work whilst being able to gain a degree in the evenings over three years. Now I am studying for a Masters at Birkbeck that compliments my career perfectly. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the flexibility that comes with the structure of evening learning at Birkbeck.”

Sir Keir also toured the Birkbeck’s Bloomsbury campus to find out more about our world-class facilities in the heart of London’s Knowledge Quarter.

Speaking after the meeting, Professor Latchman, Master of Birkbeck, said:

“It has been an honour to welcome Sir Keir onto campus and to introduce him to Birkbeck’s work and the key role we play in enabling Londoners to combine work with study to gain new skills and knowledge.”

Article written and originally published by the Birkbeck External Relations Team, reprinted with their permission

Let there be light

London is preparing for the 9th Bloomsbury Festival. The event, centred in Russell Square, will run across Camden from the 22nd to the 25th of October, and is expected to host around 50,000 visitors.

Camden Council has awarded a community grant towards the festival, which will promote 100 events throughout the four-day extravaganza. The team, headed by Director Kate Anderson and Festival Co-ordinator Caggy Kerlogue, have planned what they describe as “a creative explosion of performance and heritage events… giant cinema screens you feel you can walk into, a grand night of fire and music, a rainbow of garden squares and hub of festivities around Bloomsbury throughout the long weekend.”

The 2015 festival will be themed around The International Year of Light. IYOL Programme Co-ordinator Toby Shannon describes its cultural significance: “The year aims to celebrate the impact of light on the world we live in and its potential to improve lives. The Bloomsbury Festival provides a unique opportunity to cross disciplinary boundaries. The theme of light will be explored through art, music, theatre, science, technology, poetry, history, and through stimulating collaborations to explore light in all its uses, appearances and moods. The Festival offers a rich environment for the exchange of ideas in London.”

The official launch took place on May 20th, in an event run by Donne Alexander of The Wellcome Trust. Guests were introduced to a UV gallery of light, where artists, academics and scientists learnt more about the rudiments of glo-germ gel (demonstrating how bacteria can survive on skin even after hand-washing) and had a chance to wear a rather fetching pair of SPIE rainbow glasses.

Mark De Rivaz, Steward of Bedford Estates, explains how the event has evolved: “The Bedford Estates has been a partner of the Festival since 2010. We will provide The Bedford Square Garden, free of charge with the provision of a marquee. The Duchess of Bedford is the Festival’s patron and she has been involved with judging the art competition in July for the branding and imagery of the 2015 Festival (which was won by designer Andrew Long of Central St Martin’s).”

UK Age Concern Camden and UCL have worked with Dr Michael Eades of The School of Advanced Studies since 2013 to create Festival in a Box, allowing local people with dementia to interact with proceedings from home, using sensory aids. Eades explained: “It will offer those living with dementia an opportunity to share their knowledge and stories of the area, providing insight into Bloomsbury and surrounding areas of London. The outreach programme will not only be an opportunity for them to actively re-engage with community life, but also to participate in re-narrating the history of Bloomsbury itself. These boxes will become miniature ‘archives of engagement’.”

Key supporters such as The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine are engaging with performance artists to interpret their work. Vicki Bazalgette explains: We are excited to be a Festival Partner for the first time this year. Our activities will allow our researchers and members of the public to delve into discussions about health in creative ways.  School researcher Dr Catherine Carver is collaborating with The Place and choreographer Subathra Subramaniam on a new piece of contemporary dance inspired by light in medicine and health, which will be performed by the youth dance group Shuffle. We will be hosting a ‘Living Library’ towards the beginning of the Festival – an event where our staff are cast in the role of living books, and you can come to ‘read’ them and take part in discussions about health around the world. Our family event will take place on the Sunday, where people can find out how clean our hands really are in our UV activities tent.”

Katy Jackson of The Weiner Library has opened the Library’s Holocaust archives to local residents. “Our first event for the Festival took place in October 2012 when we opened up our doors and offered behind-the-scenes tours of our exhibition Remembering Raoul Wallenberg and Lives Saved, which will form the basis of our travelling exhibition for 2015. We took part again in 2013 at the main site in Bedford Square. Partnering for the 2015 event was a natural development for us after taking part in previous festivals. We’re delighted to be involved.”

James Wilson of The Swedenborg Society is keen to introduce international artists: “We first participated in the Bloomsbury Festival in 2010. That year was our bicentenary year and we decided to tie our participation in the festival to a performance and exhibition from our two artists in residences, Paul Tecklenberg and Nissa Nishikawa. This year, we’ll be doing a literary panel discussion with our new president, Homero Aridjis, one of Mexico’s most celebrated poets and authors, who will be discussing his new poetry anthology An Angel Speaks. We hope that by participating, Bloomsbury Festivalgoers and Swedenborg Society members become aware of each other’s work and events programme (including exhibitions, performances, talks, readings, and film screenings, which are open to all and free of charge).”

Music has an integral part to play within the local community, bringing different faiths and backgrounds together.Katie Price, Head of Communications at SOAS, discusses the busy timetable of events planned within the festival programme. “Throughout the year people come from across London to our free world music concert series, our lectures and our wonderful Brunei Gallery. The Bloomsbury Festival enables us to reach a completely different audience through the World Music stage that we have organised each year since 2010. It brought new audiences to the Brunei Gallery (for example, in 2011, 400 new people came to a Bloomsbury Festival event there). This year the Head of our Department for the Study of Religions is working with a chaplain from Goodenough College to explore light in religion, reflecting the Festival’s 2015 theme of light. The 2016 Festival theme will be language – a perfect opportunity for us to showcase our language research (we teach more than forty languages, from Igbo to Urdu to Japanese and Chinese) and celebrate our centenary.”

Artist Simon O’Donovan is working on light exhibitions at The Crypt Gallery, St Pancras: “My work primarily focuses on representations of sight and blindness in mythology, theology, science and culture. I work with biography and the invention/ fabrication of memory. Is the shadow cast a reality? How is truth manipulated through time and not a necessary condition for sight? The proposed work is realised as a series of belongings and objects. It charts a period of time in the life of E.B. Ames, a nineteenth century gold prospector, a murderer, a rebel against the light.”

Dr Matthew Beaumont of UCL presents literary talks on London history. “I have given talks to the festival over the last two years. I will be providing a lecture on ‘night walking’. I published a book on the subject this year called Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London from Chaucer to Dickens, about the history of people who walk the streets of the city at night from the 13th to the 19th century. My previous talk in 2014 was a collaborative set of talks organised by Florian Mussgnug called London’s Burning on apocalyptic visions of the city. The festival is a good way of encouraging more diverse and transdisciplinary intellectual interests amongst the student community.”

Andrew Youngson of Birkbeck College remarks, “Birkbeck came on board with the festival from 2012, showcasing literary events at Senate House. This brought together academics and authors who compared their personal and professional history of Bloomsbury including Birkbeck’s Professor Sir Phil Cohen, author Iain Sinclair and UCL’s Professor Rosemary Ashton. The Bloomsbury Festival is a great platform for academics, writers and philosophers to share ideas and inspire new audiences.”

Artist Geoff Harrison has been hugely impressed by the rich diversity of the festival: “In 2010, I undertook an art commission to produce a series of drawings that were displayed in the Chapel of Rest in St Georges Gardens. For 2011, I curated an exhibition at the Orange Dot Gallery on Tavistock Place and for the 2012 and 2013 festivals, I produced a public participation event called the People’s Portrait Project, which got together a group of artists in a tent to draw free portraits of festival goers. I love the fact that the festival has always been free; the atmosphere around Russell Square is electric and there’s lots of fun and exciting things to do for the weekend.”

The final word goes to Stuart Reeves, Digital Media Producer of The Science Museum: “The openness to interpretation of the festival is exciting, conjuring up so many differing perceptions. The IYOL will give those attending a clear understanding of the importance of Light Science, vital for existing and future advances in medicine, energy, information and communications, fibre optics, architecture, archaeology, entertainment, art and culture. What a wonderful way to bring everyone together!”

For details on how to donate, volunteer or support The Bloomsbury Festival, visit

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.

Vacancies – Managing Editor (Print) – Lamp and Owl

Managing Editor (Print)

The Lamp & Owl is looking to appoint a Managing Editor (Print) for the 2015-16 academic year.

This person will be charged with the day-to-day management of the termly print edition for Birkbeck’s student magazine.

The Managing Editor (Print) will:

  • Manage the commissioning, editing and production of content for the print edition of the Lamp & Owl
  • Manage the design and production infrastructures of the print edition (e.g. InDesign layout template, logistics of printing)
  • Build upon existing design template of the Lamp & Owl to identify, plan and implement improvements that are realistic and feasible
  • Organize and/or attend regular meetings (e.g. editorial meetings) to build and maintain relationships between Lamp and Owl platforms (e.g. print, digital)
  • Assist the Editor-in-Chief in attracting, developing and retaining production staff and writers, including acting as a staff mentor where appropriate
  • Monitor adherence of production staff and writers to appropriate standards (e.g. ethics, style, production schedule) reporting any issues to the Editor-in-Chief
  • Assist the Editor-in-Chief and Business Manager in identifying revenue streams and business models pertaining to the print edition, as appropriate and feasible
  • Liaise as required with the Communications & Activities Officer of the Birkbeck Student Union

Candidates who would like to apply for the role should submit a CV along with a 250 word statement, outlining how they would fulfil this position at the Lamp & Owl, to by midnight on Sunday 28 June 2015.
Interviews with shortlisted candidates will take place in the afternoon of 8 July 2015. The selection panel for will include representatives of the Birkbeck Journalism Society, Birkbeck Student Union and Birkbeck’s School of Arts.

We welcome applications from any individual regardless of ethnic origin, gender, disability, religious belief, sexual orientation or age.

All applications will be considered on merit.