Cash-strapped Birkbeck must not axe social mobility

The mature student specialist’s renowned politics department could become part of the solution rather than the problem, says Matthew Flinders

November 11, 2022
A tree in the shape of a dollar sign sheds its leaves
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Last Sunday, I watched the England men’s rugby team lose to Argentina. For readers who know little about rugby and care even less, this was a loss that should never have happened. But hidden deep within that tangled mess of English effort and Argentinian brawn was a small but significant triumph that highlights the role universities can play in supporting talent in all its forms.

Growing up in Cambridge as the son of two vicars, Alex Coles always had a thirst for learning. He understood the importance of keeping one’s options open in life. But at 6’7” and nearly 19 stone (125kg), he also had a passion for rugby. So, at 18, he faced a dilemma: go to university or focus on the chance to play rugby union at the highest level?

Last Sunday, he made his debut for England. The triumph was that he’d achieved his ambition while studying for a part-time degree in politics at Birkbeck, University of London. The irony is that it happened in the same week as Birkbeck announced proposals to significantly reduce the size of its politics department as part of wider plans to axe up to 140 staff members, including 84 academics.

The department of politics at Birkbeck is a special place. It is a world-class centre of excellence but, since its establishment in 1972, it has also retained an unwavering commitment to an inclusive and flexible model of higher education. This is a tradition that leading international scholars in the department – such as Paul Hirst, Ben Pimlott, Joni Lovenduski, Rosie Campbell and Sarah Childs, to mention just a few – have nurtured over recent decades, to the point where “@bbkpolitics” is known globally as signifying a very special brand of inclusive academic excellence.

Birkbeck students come from a wide range of backgrounds and are encouraged to learn from their lived experience; politics is conceived as a broad and multi-dimensional topic. All Birkbeck teaching takes place in the evenings or online, and mature students are supported in a way that helps combat inequality and fuels social mobility. The vast majority of Birkbeck students come from deprived backgrounds but progress to graduate employment at the same rate as those from more privileged backgrounds. This dovetails perfectly with the government’s levelling-up agenda.

Moreover, the department’s (and college’s) support for “braided careers”, whereby people move in and out of different sectors, including academia, is almost perfectly aligned with the emphasis on mobility and talent management of research staff that defines UK Research and Innovation’s new five-year strategic plan.

Politics and international relations is a thriving area for student recruitment across the UK and internationally. In the most recent National Student Survey, Birkbeck’s department was ranked first in London for teaching, learning opportunities, assessment and feedback, academic support, and overall satisfaction. Its Bloomsbury location gives it almost unrivalled access to Whitehall and Westminster, and in the recent Research Excellence Framework, nearly 90 per cent of its research was rated “world-leading” or “internationally excellent”, placing it 30th in the UK (out of 56) by grade point average, above the universities of Leeds, Liverpool and Newcastle, among others.

All universities face uncertain times and hard choices. But the building blocks and firm foundations are already in place for the department of politics to play a positive role in addressing the financial challenges that Birkbeck may well face. Recast and rethought, it could form the centrepiece of an ambitious, agile and possibly even audacious plan for the college’s broader recovery and growth.

When Alex Coles leaps in the line-out, his ambition is to catch the ball at its very highest point – “the top of the tree”, as it is known among rugby coaches. Whether the England rugby team could be described as the top of the tree is very much open to question. But Birkbeck’s politics department is not far off – and with a little care and attention could grow still higher. Taking the axe to it would be madness.

Matthew Flinders is professor of politics at the University of Sheffield and vice-president of the UK’s Political Studies Association.

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