In this blog Robin talks about her experience and why she would encourage trade union members to consider part-time study at Birkbeck.
I was comprehensively educated. I did my O levels, started my A levels but then because I was already politically active I left school after half a term of A levels because I wanted to get more involved with the trade union movement and lead the revolution, basically. I got myself a job at the GLC and pretty well immediately became a union rep. And then in my first year I got elected to what was the General Council of the GLC Staff Association. Then I moved to the computer department and in there that was a NALGO stronghold so then I joined that.
I was made redundant from my job in IT back in the summer of 2015 and I took a year off but at that point I was thinking what I would like to do. My partner, now husband, wasn’t due to retire for a couple of years so I thought “what am I going to do in the meantime?” And I’d always regretted the fact that having left school so young therefore I didn’t go to uni, so I thought “why not go to uni?” And because I’d already heard about it, Birkbeck seemed to be the obvious one to go to. I didn’t know about the union discount when I was making my decision but I heard about it at the point I was making my application.
I went to an Open Evening although I’d pretty much decided that I was going to go to Birkbeck, it was more a question of deciding what course I was going to do. I chose Birkbeck for two reasons. One: because I’ve always hated getting up in the morning. Two: I recognise that with so many part-timers that the age demographic would probably be better for me. I knew people who’d been so I heard about it through word of mouth. My primary driver was to enjoy the course. I was very torn between History and Politics and I also was interested in the Politics, Philosophy and History course as well so it was really more a case of narrowing it down. I’m in a very lucky position, which I recognise, which is that I don’t have to pass it. It’s for my own enjoyment, obviously it would be nice to get a reasonable mark, so I thought I’d like to do History and then I changed to the course I’m on now because the modules I wanted to do weren’t available due to changes they made to the course.
I’m definitely enjoying the course, probably more the History side than Politics but this year I’ve done a module in Parliamentary Studies which is absolutely brilliant. What a year to be doing it in! I’ve always had an interest in Parliament but Brexit has stretched our constitution and our parliamentary system to the absolute limits and it’s been far more interesting to do it now rather than have a majority government, getting everything through. I don’t think I had any ultimate aims with my course apart from enjoyment. I’m thoroughly enjoying the student life. Although I would still say my bent is towards my enjoyment of History, I’m more of an activist as opposed to a studier.
From a trade union perspective, uni teaches better critical thinking, but also how to handle yourself in meetings, because obviously you’re having to speak up in seminars. I absolutely think you’d be able to participate better in union activities after doing a degree because it builds up your confidence up in speaking in public and also thinking things through and logically arguing things. In my degree I have been able to apply organisation skills, participation in the seminars and critical thinking gained from my trade union activism, because it gives you a certain confidence level. Also I would say it’s not just about contributing, it’s knowing when to hold back as well. A part of experience that trade unionism gives you is when is the right time to talk and when isn’t.
There’s a good social life at Birkbeck and I spend a lot of time in the George Birkbeck bar. I didn’t really know what to expect. I have to say that I was pleasantly pleased because having left school at 16 I felt that people would be far better formally educated than I was. I was definitely worried about whether I would be able to cope with the essays, exams, the learning experience as a whole. And actually I found it absolutely fine. I think that probably made me feel a bit better, that academically I was ok.
I would say most of my job has been transferrable to studying at uni. It was a very good fit in that sense. I went to some of the study skills sessions before I started but the roles I had in IT have always been about researching new stuff and then writing and making recommendations etc, so actually in that sense my writing skills were reasonable. I’ve been an analyst programmer in the past and I ended up being an architect designer which is where you take all the latest and greatest things which are going on in IT and then map that onto what the business directions are and make recommendations.
I found the application process straightforward. Because I only had O levels I needed some way of communicating that I had the skills and that I would be able to do uni without a problem so I was very clear in my personal statement about my work skills and that I’d been in the SWP, the Anti-Nazi league. When I was writing my statement I did it on the basis of why these things would mean that I was able to deal with the course, rather than putting them down for the sake of it.
To any trade union members who have been out of education for a number of years like I had, firstly I would say absolutely you can do a degree. If you’ve been in a work environment that really does prepare you for doing a degree and it aids in terms of your critical thinking. I would also suggest part-time because I know some people who are doing full-time work and a full time degree and they’re finding it a nightmare. So I would say it’s a very positive thing. It can only help in terms of your activism and it will add to your work skills generally which means you’ll get on better.
I would very much recommend Birkbeck. Obviously I can’t really compare it to other unis, not having had that experience, but I would say because of the age demographic and also because people have got experience of work it means that conversations and input into seminars, lectures etc is probably going to be broader based and more interesting and probably more challenging as well because you’re getting lots of views from people who have got experience from out in the workplace.