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Julian Bower

MA European History

'I was always interested in history and was getting close to retirement when my wife, who was doing a Certificate course at Birkbeck, suggested I do one too. That was five years ago, when I was 72. I did a two-year Certificate course and then a three-year BA in History, getting a 2.1 of which I am quite proud, and I’ve now started an MA in European History.

'I didn’t go to university as a young man. We had to do National Service and, immediately after that, I joined a firm of chartered accountants where I was a prizewinner in the final exams. I continued working both commercially and not-for-profit until I was 75. It was when I was nearing retirement that I thought it was time to get a degree.

'I find that people sometimes muddle Birkbeck up with the Open University – for example, asking me whether I ever get to see a tutor, which I do frequently, both in class and individually. The teaching staff are very supportive and extremely approachable. I am probably the oldest student for many of the staff but no one says anything about it!

'Those outsiders who are familiar with Birkbeck understand that it caters for part-time study by teaching in the evenings. However, very few seem to realise the other side of the coin, namely that the teaching staff are consequently free to do research during the day and that the great majority do so. This accounts for Birkbeck’s top-rated research reputation and it means there are wonderfully lively exchanges with teachers. It really informs the atmosphere here – lecturers are very engaged with their subject and are not just teaching the same old material for years on end. I also think the general scale and breadth of the history teaching department is not fully recognised, there being over 30 professors and doctors on the history teaching staff.

Studying at Birkbeck

'I asked one of my supervising professors how I would be able to answer exam questions when I can hardly remember in the afternoon what I have read in the morning. She gave me excellent advice:  highlight your readings, take notes, preferably in different wording, then take notes of your notes and do mock exams, and things will eventually stick. This proved to be absolutely correct.

'I find the most difficult part of studying is that, if anything else comes up, you can get distracted and go off and do that instead. A prime example is the “ping” of a new email message on your lap-top. Study does need self-discipline, and you do have to put in the hours.

'Students here are a mixed background of ages and nationalities, which is a very good thing.  At my age I don’t necessarily go for a beer with my fellow students, but we do have good discussions about what we are studying.

'Birkbeck’s teaching facilities can be a bit of a curate’s egg – you get to be taught in lots of different buildings, not necessarily Birkbeck’s , not all of which have their electronic presentation equipment in easy working order - but the library helpdesk and IT services are all extremely helpful. Staff come back to you very quickly, and always try hard to help you with problems. The Senate House library has an excellent supplementary history section and it is also possible to access the SOAS and British Libraries.

'Obviously being retired I’m studying for my own personal interests, not a career. The subject is of enormous interest – and I know a lot more about various aspects of life worldwide than I did before, so knowledge acquisition has been key to my enjoyment of Birkbeck. I have gained a real sense of achievement doing essays and a dissertation and much relief after exams, and, yes, greater levels of happiness. My wife has been very supportive. She works full time so my studies keep me out of trouble. One son thinks I’m dotty and the other rather admires it!

'I am a tremendous fan of Birkbeck and would recommend it to everyone, although I’m finding this next step up to an MA a challenge! My wife will be retiring in 18 months so she will be fine with me finishing after the two year MA – that will be it!

On funding

'I am supportive of the funding changes – but think the fees ceiling should be higher than £9K to create a wider range of fee options and that universities should be much bolder and, where possible, break away from being too dependent on government support. Our universities  have a tremendous export asset to market overseas and to put foreign students for reputable universities within an immigration quota is very short-sighted. In studying at Birkbeck I have realised what a tremendous experience culturally it is – the number of foreign students is terrific and a very good thing.'

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'It was when I was nearing retirement that I thought it was time to get a degree.'