A one to one with… Andy Stirups

Andy Stirups has been the Alumni and Student Ambassador Officer at Birkbeck College since September 2013. As well as coordinating volunteering and mentoring opportunities for former students, Andy also manages Team Birkbeck, the College’s student ambassador programme.

Here, Andy talks to us about the role of alumni, and their impact within the university.

How can the alumni community help current students?

Alumni can help current students in a number of different ways, specifically through volunteering, mentoring, or donating to Birkbeck.

Birkbeck is in a unique position with over 70% of graduates continuing to live and work in London after they graduate and because of this, we are really able to harness their enthusiasm and commitment to volunteer to support current and prospective Birkbeck students.

A significant number of our former students participate in one of our volunteering and mentoring opportunities. Over 300 alumni volunteers have supported seven alumni engagement programmes just in this past year alone, giving up some 3,200 hours of their own time. These alumni engagement programmes are designed to support and develop the lives of our current and even prospective students. From helping prospective students decide whether Birkbeck is the right institution for them, to sitting on an employability panel – alumni can really make a significant difference to Birkbeck and its student body. Alumni also play a huge part in bedding in our international students – they are on hand in their first term to help practise conversational English, figure out where the library is or give their tips about what to do and see in London.

Many alumni also decide to donate to Birkbeck. Donations from alumni make a significant difference, by funding areas that will benefit current and future generations of students and make Birkbeck an even better place to study. Nearly £1.8 million was generously donated by alumni in the past year, with nearly half of those alumni who were asked to donate in the last alumni telephone campaign deciding to give. This is a wonderful testament to the generosity of alumni and we are incredibly grateful for their support.

Can you describe the involvement of the alumni community with Birkbeck Talent and Careers & Employability?

Birkbeck Alumni can advertise roles and internships through the College’s professional recruitment service, Birkbeck Talent. Birkbeck graduates know first-hand how talented and highly motivated current students are and are often keen to exclusively advertise roles within their companies to Birkbeck students.

Alumni also enhance the careers and employability prospects of our current students through two volunteering programmes. Every month alumni volunteers participate in the Careers Clinic, a programme designed to review current students’ CVs and job applications, offering essential advice to students about how to improve their employability. A small number of our alumni also run mock interviews for current students, which helps to ensure that they are best placed when reaching the interview stage of a job process.

Our alumni can also participate in a cross-College programme, Mentoring Pathways, which raises the soft skills and employment prospects of our current students before they graduate from Birkbeck.

What can the alumni department help former students with?

There are a number of benefits and services available to Birkbeck Alumni.  All graduates are eligible to join the Birkbeck Library and Senate House Library as a former student of the College. The Careers and Employability Team also provide careers advice and workshops for recent graduates. A full list of alumni benefits and services can be viewed here.

We also help to coordinate a number of alumni groups, based both in the UK and overseas, and our office helps to support these networks to ensure that former students can stay in touch with old classmates after they have graduated.

What is your impression of our institutional mission and values?

Birkbeck’s founding mission, to provide education for working Londoners, is still as relevant today as ever before. If George Birkbeck were alive today, he would recognise the College as the same institution he founded over 193 year ago. Birkbeck continues to be a world-class institution, known for its academic excellence and I am proud to work for such a great university.

What is Team Birkbeck?

Team Birkbeck is the College’s student ambassador programme. There are nearly 50 current Birkbeck students, both undergraduate and postgraduate, who represent the College at a number of events and activities such as Open Evening and campus tours. Team Birkbeck have worked a total of 2300 hours in the past year, carrying out a number of outreach activities, such as visiting schools or FE colleges to talk to students about university life, or to teach them subjects such as mathematics to ensure that they are equipped with the best possible chance of furthering their education. Around 25 to 30 students participate in one of the Careers Clinic Sessions.

Working for Team Birkbeck is a great way to get involved with the institution and it’s something that I would highly recommend to any current student looking to enhance the CV.

places you need to try: Dillons Coffee & SOAS’ Public Lectures

Image by poeloq (flickr)

Dillons Coffee (in Waterstones, Gower Street)

I admit it may not be for everyone, but bear with me a moment. The coffee itself could be worse, but I have also had better. The latte art on my choice (a soy flat white – I’m lactose-intolerant, not on a Gwyneth Paltrow style diet) was more abstract than I would normally expect, though to be fair, Dillons is located in the university heart of London. Such reservations were easily overlooked when I took my first sip of coffee right before a six o’clock lecture; strong, robust and not at all subtle. Precisely what I needed. However, a few more sips revealed an equally unsubtle lingering bitter flavour. I could hardly care less at that point – I’d just ordered a coffee from one of the most hipster-looking places I had seen, and must now be in with the ‘cool’ kids. Well, perhaps not.

The reason Dillons is on this (very subjective) list is that firstly, it’s close to Birkbeck so ideal for a pick-me-up right before your eyes roll into the back of your head and your body starts shutting down. Also, it’s something of an entertaining place; go there to combine work with a socialising, be amazed by the diversity of London university life, and take a break from the monotony of the library. On the subject of the latter, has anyone else noticed it smells weird, or is that just me?

If anyone has any other coffee shops they would like to recommend, I would be more than happy to visit them for a future review (independents only please – Costa and Starbucks don’t need my support). Suggestions in the comments please.

SOAS (public lectures)

There’s a part of my heart that harbours quite the soft spot for SOAS; it was the university everyone expected me to go to, and the university I did not get into. Even when I was taking my A-Levels I would wander every so often (or more like once a week) into this corner of London to attend one of the evening lectures that SOAS held for the public. I can’t remember when it was that I first fell in love, perhaps during the talk on the conflict in Palestine, or possibly the one on the remnants of the Arab Spring. Either way, I was hooked and there was no way back. My teachers and mother found it amusing I would spend my spare time on even more education, but I was never the ‘normal’ kid in my family.

I would more than recommend attending one of their lectures; you’ll most likely find something that will interest you, whether your field is finance or nuclear weapons. I know it can be difficult to find time for more lectures what with work during the days, studying during the evenings and not really having time to even take a breath; but it would really be the cherry-on-the-top of all the great things you’re already managing to do in your day.

Places you need to try: Persephone Bookshop

Our intrepid correspondent seeks out the best places to eat, drink, read and relax within walking distance of the main campus. Avoid lousy lattes, escape the buzzing phones of the library, find somewhere inspiring!

This quaint little spot can be found just off Great Ormond Street on Lamb’s Conduit Street, where I once drank one of the best coffees in London (on the street, not in the hospital – but that’s another story). Walking in, one is transported by just how unlike any high street bookshop Persephone is. After trapezing through half of London on the prowl for textbooks (along with a thousand other equally-desperate people) this comes as a welcome distraction.

I’m struck by how almost everything has the same greyish-blue cover, recalling frosty winter mornings. Books without matching covers are placed on a table in the corner, which satisfies my slightly manic organisational tendencies. Persephone reprints every title in their 117-strong catalogue (hence the uniform style), selecting fiction and non-fiction from neglected mid-twentieth-century women writers.

Behind the identical bindings, each book reveals a new world to step into, from just a couple hours to a few days. Whilst I’ve not yet bought out the whole shop, I will promise, cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die, that any volume you step out with will not leave you dissatisfied.

In case you’re wondering, I am in a fulfilling relationship, but he’ll never be able to penetrate my lifelong affair with books. Don’t ask, it’s complicated.

Apart from the obvious benefit that you can read snippets of books before you buy (it’s not the best place to try and read an entire book for free, as I have actually once done, albeit in a Waterstones), the staff are always helpful and willing to find something that suits you, as well as pointing out the shop’s most prized titles. And the best thing is, every one is by a woman. Literally women everywhere. All the books, most of them barely-known, are written only by women.



Image courtesy of flickr user Derya

A Museum of Everyday Life: Cinephilia and Collecting

Image courtesy of PublicDomainPictures


The French New Wave adored film to the point of obsession. The post-war accessibility of motion pictures, hitherto restricted, spawned a generation that devoured the medium in all its forms, and elevated cinephilia to cult status. The Peltz Gallery‘s current exhibition, A Museum of Everyday Life: Cinephilia and Collecting,  wonderfully evokes the obsessive nature cinema can inspire.

Within the unremarkable space are works on loan from the Cinema Museum, a former workhouse in Lambeth where Charlie Chaplin spent some of his impoverished childhood. The site now houses collections covering the full breadth of cinema.

The joy of this exhibition is the insight it offers on collectors, whose labours of love reveal obsessive natures compelled to collect and catalogue. The number of items present here is staggering, and must be in excess of 100,000, including index cards, scrapbooks cuttings and celluloid samples. The time-span begins around the Second World War and continues to the present, but some of the collected items edge close to the first talkies. The effort taken by the curator to assemble this exhibition is testament to the spirit of the collectors themselves.

Envelopes in large metal index cabinets hold fragile celluloid movie frames, and are scattershot and lack the fastidiousness of other files, which are meticulously compiled and alphabetised. Some collections are tiny, such as the 183 cards kept within one small box; others are crammed into tightly-filled rows. A tall chest of drawers built from reclaimed wood stands proudly next to a wall adorned with index cards.

Collecting inspires a love for the subject matter and opens up the possibility to consider each aspect equally, from famous names to the less glamorous characters, scattered across time. One cannot omit as a true collector. To omit is to deny a contributor’s presence within the medium, and thereby undermine the collection itself. It is perhaps this spirit that the unstoppable nature of the hobby exposes. Vic Kinson is one such dedicated collector, who amassed over 36,000 index cards, which provide the centre-piece of the exhibition.

The level of detail etched on these index cards appear limitless. Interesting morsels are sprinkled through otherwise perfunctory information on actors’ careers: Al Pacino’s card states he was once a dancer and a stand up comedian; Fatty Arbuckle was accused of manslaughter; Groucho Marx filed for bankruptcy after the Wall Street Crash; Buster Keaton was an alcoholic; Anthony Quinn’s family escaped the Mexican revolution; Lana Turner married eight times. Descriptions are enlivened by personal reflections; Susan Sarandon was a, “Sexy and sassy American leading lady”; Burt Lancaster a “muscular actor with a flashing smile tinged with menace”.

Clear throughout the exhibition is an urge to collect and collate for oneself, a record to replace a fragile and fading memory. A yellowing scrapbook of Peter Ewing lists the Academy Awards honour-roll of 1939, written with elegant penmanship, citing The Citadel as the best-acted and best-directed picture of the year. The Citadel in fact won its award the previous year, and such mistakes remind the observer that this was a human endeavour, so error was inevitable.

One finds oneself wanting to read each card, to browse each scrapbook, and to hold each strip of celluloid up to the light, but the sheer numbers are overwhelming. To do the exhibition justice would take a lifetime, as surely as the collections it comprises took lifetimes to assemble.


A Museum of Everyday Life: Cinephilia and Collecting will be exhibited until the 27th of January in the Peltz Gallery, Birkbeck School of Arts, 43 Gordon Square

A One To One With… Pete Williams of Birkbeck Libraries

Pete Williams is the Assistant Director for User Support, Academic Liaison and Collections across the Malet Street and Stratford Campuses of Birkbeck. Here, Pete explains some of the challenges faced to support students across the libraries:

Birkbeck Library provides three main things: collections (print and online); a space to study; and practical support to our users.

My advice to new students would be go to your library introductory talk but if you miss that, or need more help, you can always make an appointment with your Subject Librarian – the purpose of their job is to support you!

Our Subject Librarians meet with academic staff all the time but we’d really like to improve our communication with our students, either through the Student Union or through other channels including social media.

There is a Library Advisory Group, consisting of staff from each department, which meets twice a year usually in March and November. Its remit is to offer advice on library policy and to monitor our performance.

Birkbeck students studying in Stratford have full access to UEL’s Stratford Campus Library. They can borrow any of the books housed in that library and their Birkbeck ID card automatically lets them in through the turnstiles. We have dedicated members of library staff based out there and they work both in the UEL Library and also in the USS Building, where there is a study area with PCs called the Weston Learning Centre. Stratford-based Birkbeck students can also use all the Malet Street facilities.

Compared to taught postgraduate students, research students need a greater range of library materials as there is no reading list for a PhD. To really succeed, they also need to understand the wider information landscape by which I mean a greater knowledge of the information resources available and the different ways scholarly work is published and disseminated.

There are plenty of challenges but perhaps the main one is limited space. We are constantly balancing the need to provide an adequate number of study spaces with the fact that our collections are crammed into a relatively small amount of space. We realise that the Library is still becoming completely full up in the afternoons, and that this is a highly unsatisfactory situation, and we are currently exploring options for creating significantly more study spaces in summer 2017.

We’re currently reorganising the way we staff the Library at evenings and weekends to make sure students coming in at these times get as good a service as possible. We have a ‘back to the floor’ policy and all library staff (including the Director) work on the helpdesk at least once a week. In October, the library opened a new group study area.

Like all Birkbeck departments, we receive an annual budget which covers everything we do, including all the information resources (books, journals) we purchase. However, for more substantial one-off refurbishment work, such as the creation of the new group study area and the Accessibility Centre that happened this summer, we have to make a business case to Birkbeck’s Estates Committee for additional funding.

We hope to develop better links with the SU, but we are also trying out other methods, including focus groups, greater engagement through Twitter and Facebook and making sure we attend any student/staff forums in individual departments.

In February we will be conducting some ‘ethnographic’ research into how students use the library. In September 2016 we received about £4,000 from the Birkbeck Alumni Fund to do this. We will be employing Birkbeck students to help us, so look out for people with clipboards observing you when you use the Library!

For other upcoming developments, please take a look at our annual Operational Plan which lists in full the various projects we are currently engaged in.  Our mission is “to put students at the heart of everything we do”.

I think Birkbeck has a strong identity as London’s Evening University, which both its students and staff buy into.’

Images courtesy of Birkbeck Library and Wikimedia Commons

Five arguments for the continued exploration of space

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Exomars has cost $1.3 billion, the Apollo program cost $20 billion, and the International Space Station, $150 billion. With austerity still biting and strain on our public services, the huge sums of money involved in space exploration beg the question; is it worth it? I have this argument a lot, normally with distant relatives who seem to appear only at Christmas to question me on everything from my degree to the jeans I wear (we all have THAT uncle right?). So as rehearsal for my upcoming battle, here are my five arguments for continued investment in space exploration.

1. It’s really not that much
Ok, I know, that sounds ridiculous, but hear me out. If you are anything like me then trying to manage rent, tuition fees and food on a monthly basis is a struggle; by the end of the month I’m rooting through my coat pockets trying to find an elusive tenner to get me through to pay day. $1 billion could really come in handy. But this is not personal wealth, this is government money. The numbers are beyond the budgets of normal people. NASA’s annual budget is $18.4 billion. That’s out of a budget of $3.8 trillion. To put it in context, that works out at $7.57 a year per taxpayer, or 63 cents a month. In Europe it’s even less; the European Space Agency’s budget is €5.26 billion. With a population of 510 million that’s only 85 cents a month. 85 cents isn’t going to pay my rent, it’s not going to dent my tuition fees, and I don’t want to know what kind of food it will buy. It won’t even pay your Netflix subscription so you can watch The Martian, but it will actually get us to Mars. Sounds like a good deal to me.

2. It makes us money
Yes, there is a headline cost, but there are economic gains as well. First of all the government-funded space industry employs hundreds of thousands of people directly, and there are indirect jobs and wealth created as well. Telecommunications, transportation, large-scale farming, and many other sectors employ millions of people, and in the modern world, these industries rely on satellites and other space-related technology. On top of that there are now a growing number of private sector companies cashing in on the advances and opportunities of space technology, from the billionaire-backed behemoths of Virgin Galactic and SpaceX, to the small but growing local companies like Surrey Satellite Technology. All of these companies employee people and pay tax, in a commercial field that is growing exponentially. In a globalised economy where jobs and expertise can be exported at a moment’s notice, the highly-skilled roles required by STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) employers are better paid and more secure. The jobs our children will eventually do probably don’t even exist yet, and they may never exist if we stop funding advanced science.

3. It keeps us safe
There’s the obvious benefit of military and defence technology that spins off from space research but there is also a less obvious way in which it helps preserve the peace. Ever heard of Space Station Freedom? No? Well there’s a good reason for that. It was announced as a US space station by then-president Ronald Reagan, but it never materialised. There were a number of reasons, but one of the significant ones was the end of the cold war. Instead of building their own station, The US decided to put aside decades of enmity and cooperate with Russia on the International Space Station. Why? In part it was an attempt to build bridges with a defeated enemy, but another factor was the end of the arms race; the western world didn’t fancy the idea of a lot of unemployed rocket scientists wandering around the world looking for a pay cheque. The ongoing success of the ISS and numerous other space missions have helped to maintain diplomatic contact at times of geopolitical strain, and fostered a spirit of cooperation in a world of competition. It’s hard to quantify just how much impact this has had, but when it comes to preserving global peace, every little helps.

4. It helps you win water fights
No really. The technology that created supersoaker water guns was invented by NASA for space exploration. As was memory foam. Cordless vacuums; NASA. Insulation, scratch-resistant lenses, artificial limbs, smoke detectors, hearing aids, CAT scans, water filters, freeze-drying, landmine-removal technologies and solar power; all NASA, all as a result of the space program. Space exploration is hard and we have to solve unimaginable problems to succeed, and in doing so we create technologies that can change people’s lives. Who knows what breakthroughs we will miss out on if we stop.


So, there are four good answers. These are the answers I use for economists and accountants, for politicians and the military. But they are not my answer. My answer is just four words:

It’s what we do.

A few hundred thousand years ago we stood upright and we left the caves, we walked the African plains and we crossed the oceans. Space is what’s next. All too often the story of humankind is one of death, destruction and horror. We are the species that produced Hitler, Stalin and Charles Manson. But this is not what defines us; yes, we have to take responsibility for murderers and dictators, but we have also created Bach and Beethoven, Shakespeare and Chaucer, da Vinci and van Gogh, Einstein, Feynman, Sagan. We don’t listen to symphonies, marvel at great art or read profound literature for any practical reason. It doesn’t pay our bills, but it does something much more important; it reminds us what it is to be human. Curiosity, cooperation, the exploratory spirit. It unites us, it gives us something to be proud of, something to strive for, it connects us to our fellow man. Whether its Cassini’s stunning images of Saturn’s icy rings, Hubble’s awe-inspiring views of distant nebulae, the people we sent to walk the surface of the moon, or the people we will send to walk on Mars. This is what we are capable of together. This is what we do.


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