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Teaching the global city: Developing a Foundation Degree on contemporary London

Rosie Cox

Introduction and background

This paper traces the development of a new Foundation Degree (FD) about contemporary London that has been developed at Birkbeck, University of London. The development of this degree raised a number of issues both about how we think about academic subjects and how we think about London. Foundation Degrees are undergraduate awards made up of 240 CATS credits at Certificate and Intermediate level -– that is equivalent to the first two years of a Bachelors degree. At Birkbeck they normally take two years and two terms of intensive part-time study to complete and provide access to the final stages of a Bachelors award. Foundation Degrees are defined as being vocationally relevant[1] and have to be designed and delivered with the active involvement of employers. Working to such a remit raises questions about which employers should be consulted and how their opinions should be treated. These issues are relevant to all of those in higher education who are developing FDs but were worked out in specific ways in the context of London –- a place, or a subject, that has largely been studied from historical and literary perspectives. In describing the development of the FdA ‘Understanding London’, this paper questions why London is both more popular and seemingly less problematic when approached by the arts than the social sciences.

Birkbeck is a college of the University of London which specialises in providing part-time, evening courses for mature students.[2] It has a long established and popular MA programme in London Studies which draws on courses in social and cultural history and architectural history. There is also a flourishing continuing education programme on the history of London and popular modules from literature and creative writing, garden history, archaeology, art history and architecture that all focus on London. Perhaps one of the reasons for the popularity of these courses is that Birkbeck, as a part-time institution, recruits almost entirely from the London area. Unlike other Higher Education Institutions which might expect students to move in order to study for their degree, Birkbeck is organised so that studying fits in with existing work and living patterns. This has the knock-on effect that almost all students are Londoners, both native and adopted, and many are enthusiastic about and fascinated by the city the live in.

Using this strength, and building on the success of the existing London courses, the College decided to establish a Foundation Degree that would appeal to people working in London and equip them with the skills they need for work. As a Foundation Degree has to be vocationally relevant it was decided to focus on offering a course which would upskill people working in the public and voluntary sectors and parts of the private sector that deliver public services. To do this the degree was envisaged as an inter-disciplinary social science course about contemporary London which would include academic knowledge about the political, social and cultural organisation of London as well as the skills that employers identified as desirable.

Designing this new Foundation Degree ‘Understanding London’ has been a thoroughly engaging and thought provoking experience. It has particularly raised questions around two issues that I explore in more detail below. First, which skills should be included and who gets to decide? Second, how do you actually teach ‘London’ as an academic subject?

What skills do graduates of ‘London’ need? Who gets to choose?

Unlike other undergraduate degrees, Foundation Degrees were established with the stated goal of providing the skills demanded in the labour market. In order to achieve this the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) has set out certain criteria that FDs must fulfil. These are designed to make FDs responsive to the needs of employers and accessible to students who would not normally enter higher education. The QAA lists the defining characteristics of FDs as being: employer involvement; accessibility –- that is they should provide routes in for students with non-standard educational backgrounds; articulation and progression -– FDs should allow progression on to at least one honours degree and ideally articulate with a range of alternative qualifications; flexibility and partnership -– modes of delivery and assessment should be flexible and FDs should be delivered as well as designed in partnership with relevant employers.[3] This definition means that FDs should not be validated or delivered without proof of employer input and on going employer involvement. It is employers, rather than the academics leading the programmes, who are meant to decide which skills students should be taught, although academics have overall responsibility for the design of curricula, assessment strategies and delivery.

In some disciplinary areas there are obvious and organised ways in which employers’ opinions can be sought but a Foundation Degree about London does not tap into existing structures that some other courses may be able to use. For example, in many subject areas there are Sector Skills Councils whose role it is to liaise with employers and establish where skills gaps exist in the sector. Professional associations have also provided input into FD design and provided guidelines that can be used by a range of institutions. Other FDs are developed specifically for particular organisations, both in the private and public sectors.[4] These employers can have considerable input into curricula design and the degrees might be delivered on their premises to students that they have nominated. With the FdA Understanding London we were not working with either of these models and, therefore, part of the design of the degree involved deciding which organisations should be approached to contribute.

While designing the degree we consulted with representatives from a number of London wide organisations including a range of departments at the Greater London Authority (GLA), the Association of London Government (ALG) (an organisation for local authorities in London), London First (an employer organisation), the London Development Agency (LDA) and the London Civic Forum (an umbrella organisation for the voluntary sector which represents the sector’s interests to the GLA). We also had contact with Camden council, the authority that Birkbeck is located in, and approached other local authorities but none of them wanted to be involved.

This process of consultation was successful in its own terms. We received concrete and usable advice and suggestions from these organisations (of which more below), we met the criteria for employer involvement set out by the QAA and followed the guidance of Foundation Degree Forward, the organisation that supports the development of Foundation Degrees. However the exercise raised a number of issues for me as a critical social scientist, both about the nature of this particular degree and about the process of employer consultation more widely.

First, because these pan-London organisations exist – where they may not in other cities – it was straight forward to identify them and to consult with them as if they represented the public and voluntary sectors in London as a whole. However, while some are membership organisations that aim to speak for their constituents, like the London Civic Forum or London First, others are not. Most importantly the GLA and LDA, while tasked with having some kind of overview of the needs of London and Londoners, do not represent other employers directly. The easy association of the GLA and LDA with London as a whole has implications. It empowers these organisations to have influence beyond their remit and disguises the political (with both a large and a small ‘p’) nature of that remit.

Related to this is the question of whether any of these groups does really represent London or Londoners in terms of knowing what skills the city or its people needs. Even those organisations which were established precisely to represent other groups do not have a specific remit to identify skills gaps in precise terms, i.e. for a Foundation Degree, and they speak only for their members rather than for sectors as a whole. So even within the rather circumscribed terms that we approached them, these organisations were limited in their ability to comment with any detailed knowledge about the skills needs of the public and voluntary sectors in London. Again, using their opinions empowers these groups, does not question their goals and treats them as if they are neutral or progressive rather than discovering whether this is the case.

Second, when one looks at the skills which have been identified as lacking in the workforce a particular view of London and public sector employees emerges. There was broad agreement amongst the organisations we consulted as to which skills should be included in the Understanding London Foundation Degree. These include many ‘soft’ skills such as team work and time management but also ‘harder’ skills such as data analysis and interpretation, project management and research commissioning. These would be useful skills for any student to gain and we have designed the degree so that students get the chance to gain them (except commissioning research which we’ve been stumped by). Yet it is noticeable that the employers said very little to us about students’ ability to think or understand processes, to be critical or analytical. No employers mentioned anything about equal opportunities, either knowing the law or having principles to work with and none of the employers mentioned that they wanted employees to know anything about London! The wish list they gave us reflects a certain lack of imagination and tends to reproduce these organisations and their practical ability to serve Londoners just as it is today. It suggests a process of sedimentation where processes and practices reinforce each other, slowly becoming rock-like and limiting future flexibility and change.

Third, there is the much broader question of what it means to ask groups such as these to define skills gaps. Who is being left out if these groups are included? Do we risk understanding only an ‘official’ view of London? There are simple and more complicated answers to these questions. One of the simple answers is that such a process accepts the status quo. It allows powerful bodies to dictate the education of ordinary people and to shape a workforce for its own ends. It does not work with potential students to find out what their view of their needs is nor does it seek to differentiate between people to discover the plethora of individual experiences, knowledges, abilities and desires that make up a ‘skills gap’. Because of this it limits the libratory potential of learning and silences alternative or challenging voices.

Perhaps a more complicated answer is that the process of consulting large organisations thinks about the needs of London from within the institutions that are already acting to make it the way that it currently is. It is not an approach that encourages any original thinking about what London could be like or how it could be organised. As it only seeks to discover the skills gaps in current modes of service delivery it does not raise questions about what other, better systems might be like and what people would need to know to operate them. For example, work in urban geography has revealed the usefulness of a ‘whole economy perspective’ — integrating knowledge about reproductive labour, paid work and urban planning — to addressing issues such as travel patterns and housing need.[5] This kind of innovative thinking can be discussed in class but is then subtlety undermined when the work-relevant skills that are focused on are relevant only to a very different kind of approach.

These answers clearly have implications for anyone developing a Foundation Degree, be it about London or any other subject. The imperative to work with employers and to integrate their ideas about skills into an academic course is not unproblematic for academics. It can create real barriers to thinking in new and different ways about what skills are and what skills students need. It can also clash with an imagining of Higher Education which sees education as being about developing students’ thinking rather than training them for any particular role. These answers also have implications for anyone teaching courses on contemporary London even if these do not explicitly seek to equip students to enter the workforce. They suggest that in seeking to understand how London works we need to understand how the institutions that effect London –- be they local councils, global companies or service providers — reproduce themselves and with that existing processes and problems.

At Birkbeck we have tried to address these problems by finding a ‘creative tension’ between the ideas of employers and the issues these ideas raise. This means that we do try to equip students with the skills that employers have identified as important but we also try to explicitly discuss the implications of this within the curriculum. The students know about the process of employer consultation that informed the development of the course, and most of them see it as a hugely positive thing –- they want to be employable. Yet, they are also openly critical of the organisations we worked with and are interested in discussing the implications of their structures and actions. This tension is possible because, while employers have input into the skills that are taught as part of the FD, they do not have control of the entire curriculum, or even the majority of it. The academic content of the course allows for the development of analytical skills and critical thinking that balance, or perhaps challenge, an employers’ eye view of London. This provides a way in which we can help students to think about other possible futures for London even while we are teaching them the skills that are used today. Developing the academic side of the curriculum has not demanded the type of partnership working outlined above, however, even working in a more familiar way, developing a degree about contemporary London has provided some very real challenges and it is to these I now turn.

How do we teach ‘London’?

In this section I want to move on from thinking about issues relating to employer involvement to discuss the design of the FD curriculum and some of the problems and pleasures the Birkbeck team has encountered trying to teach a course on London. I begin by describing the content of the course and then go on to discuss the variability in availability of sources. In particular we have found that there are many, and very good texts available for teaching about the history of London or fiction written on the city. However there is much less written about London, as a place, from a social science perspective focused on the contemporary. This leads me to wonder what it is about London that encourages its investigation and representation from some perspectives but not others.

As well as skills the other, larger, part of the Foundation Degree curriculum is ‘knowledge’, what we might think of as the familiar academic content. Despite this seeming familiarity, teaching ‘London’ in fact raises all sorts of questions about what should be included. How do you begin to decide what someone with a degree in ‘London’ needs to know? To add to this confusion the Foundation Degree was always conceptualised as inter-disciplinary and is housed in the School of Continuing Education, a multi-disciplinary faculty. This is appropriate to the subject matter but means there are none of those expected (and cosy?) disciplinary boundaries to limit the scope of the course. Additionally, the FD did not build on existing courses or modules in London Studies but was developed from scratch over a period of fifteen months.

Instead of disciplinary conventions or subject benchmarks the FD has been developed around a, rather idealistic, ‘guiding principle’. The principle is that if everyone working in planning and delivering public services in London had done the degree then London would be a better place. This big idea has then underpinned the development of the aims of the course, its learning outcomes and the modules that make it up. None of the modules directly address this issue and some of the optional modules are perhaps only tangentially related to it but it has been extremely helpful in giving coherence to our thinking while designing the degree and in modifying it since it was launched.

The emphasis in designing modules has been to help students ‘understand’ London. To get under its skin and to make connections between processes, events and trends which characterise the city and which underpin the ‘problems’ that are usually focused on. To achieve this we have tried to organise modules in ways which start to make those connections. For example, there are no modules on the classic ‘issues’ of urban studies. So there are no modules on housing, transport or planning per se. This is to encourage students to think about how issues such as these intertwine and how they are related to London’s demographic and political structures. We have also tried to avoid having modules which are organised along disciplinary boundaries, so there are not modules explicitly on London’s sociology or politics. However, this has been quite difficult to do because staff tend to have expertise and interests in particular academic subjects and are less confident when teaching across boundaries. As the programme expands and the teaching team grows we hope to address this by encouraging more team teaching and group design of modules.

In their first two years on the course students take two 30 credit compulsory modules: ‘London: Power and Inequality’ and ‘Divercity: London’s Unique Population’. They also do modules on qualitative and quantitative methods, personal development planning (PDP), and IT (the last two are compulsory for all FD students at Birkbeck). In their third year students do an individual work-related learning project (30 credits), a methods course integrating theory and practice and choose more options. The list of optional modules available is growing all the time and currently includes ‘Consuming London: Shoppers’ Nightmare or Trendsetters’ Dream’, ‘Sex in the City: Family and Relationships in London’, ‘London in Art, Film and Fiction’, ‘Childhood and Youth in London’ and ‘Governing Global London’.

The intention is that students become familiar with using an inter-disciplinary approach, to looking at problems and solutions within a broad context and to thinking about London in terms of relationships, connections and interdependence. We also hope that by taking this kind of approach to studying London we capture some of the excitement of the city. We do not want to break it down into dry, bounded units but rather to expose its dynamism and fluidity.

The FD has now been running for two years and we are in the process of recruiting our third cohort. This seems a reasonable time to reflect on the success, or otherwise, of this approach and to highlight some of the problems the team has faced. First, it is worth stating that the course is extremely popular with the students who take it. They seem to be untiringly enthusiastic and positive about it. However, so far it has only recruited modestly and does not attract as many students as courses on London’s history.

One of the main problems we have faced is that in comparison to teaching a more traditional academic subject it can be difficult to find sources of information and texts appropriate to use with undergraduate students. Lecturers teaching on the course have to put more work into sourcing materials and combining materials from a range of perspectives. The sources that are available tend to speak from particular places and particular disciplinary positions. Most notably literature is available from within the academy, offering an ‘objective’ and analytical outside view of issues. Reports and other materials are also available from large public sector bodies, such as the GLA, some of which have very good programmes of dissemination and make many materials easily available. Such reports have been written from a particular point of view and for a particular purpose. While they can be extremely useful they do have to be presented with care and often supplemented by other sources or points of view. This means that there are two obvious groups who are largely silent in the view of London available to students. The first of these is the private sector which perhaps chooses to keep silent about its knowledge and opinions. Accessing materials from private companies can be particularly difficult and this can mean that only a partial view is ever possible. This is particularly important when exploring topics such as regeneration and power. The second group that it is difficult to hear from is ordinary people, Londoners as inhabitants with complicated and diverse lives, rather than as consumers, clients, customers or users of particular services. Using fictional sources can go some way to filling this gap but it is not a perfect solution. Writers and film makers, whilst they represent people are not their representatives and, when making their work, may have had no intention of creating accounts of people’s lives that are typical, realistic or understandable.

It is also worth noting that within academic sources there are very different quantities and qualities of work produced from different disciplinary areas. Sources on the history of London are particularly rich and appropriate texts exist for students at all levels as well as for people reading for interest. Within literary criticism there are also an increasing number of high quality books and articles about London, note in particular the existence of this Journal and The London Journal. However, within the social sciences there are very few books about London as a place and certainly no dedicated journals. There are reports of studies that took place in London, studies of planning, housing or governance that focus on London, but few attempts to understand what contemporary London is like.[6] As Understanding London is a social science course it can mean that students have access to fewer sources than is ideally desirable and might well get a bit bored of some of them by their third year. It can also mean that students have to use sources that are quite challenging and they may need more support to do this than would be typical. For example students might be directed to specialist journal articles from the first term of their first year or they could be expected to read studies of other cities and to apply the ideas to London. These are valuable skills for students to learn so this is not inherently problematic, but it does mean that tutors have to adapt their teaching to meet students’ needs. Normally this would involve devoting more time in class to discussing readings to ensure that students were comfortable with them and structuring class discussions so that the key points of readings were made clear before diving into discussing their implications. It can also mean that some students can feel they need additional one to one support in order to understand the materials they are working with.

The differences in the quality and quantity of humanities and social sciences publications on London are not accidental or inexplicable (although I do not claim to be able to entirely account for them). One of the important factors influencing social scientists’ work was the lack of a London wide body in the years between the abolition of the GLC and the establishment of the GLA. This had practical effects in terms of making aggregate data on London more difficult to access and forcing researchers interested in political structures to look at borough level or national scale processes. The interregnum also had a more subtle effect in that it undermined the notion of ‘London’ as a single place and a legitimate arena for research. Since the birth of the GLA there has been a resurgence in research on London which will no doubt feed through into the materials that will become available for teaching. However, I think it is unlikely that contemporary London will ever be as unproblematic or as popular an area of research as the history of London is and the differing volumes of research outputs and texts reflect this. There is something about contemporary London which seems less inviting as a topic of academic inquiry even to people who love the city. Is this because the chaos and complexity of London are part of its attraction? Do we thrive on the excitement of the unknown and revel in the inspiration of the unexpected? Does an attempt to rationally investigate the nature of contemporary London seem too much like dissecting a loved one? Yes it will tell us how they functioned, allow us to see inside them, but it will necessarily entail making them less loveable.

For anyone who is a London enthusiast developing a course like this is clearly a huge privilege. It has been a chance to immerse myself in the literature, to talk about London with other equally enthusiastic people for hours and hours and to spend time each week with a group of students who are just as fixated with the place. Yet, as I have described above, it has also been troubling and has made me question what knowledge about London is and what it should be. It has revealed that studying contemporary London is not as easy as might be imagined and that a desire to understand London might be at odds with the very enthusiasm that makes that fuels our interest in the city.


Developing and teaching the FdA Understanding London has been an absolute pleasure and an extremely interesting process. Working with the students has been a constant source of new ideas and making links to other organisations in London has added an additional dimension to academic work that is rarely available. However, the process has also been thought provoking and sometimes troubling. Some of these troubles emanate from the strictures of working on a Foundation Degree and the difficulties of marrying the demands of the labour market to the academic goals of developing critical and independent thinking. But other troubles have come from the nature of the subject itself, from the problem of trying to turn a huge and vibrant city into an academic subject.

The popularity of courses on the history of London and the volume of academic work on London from history and other humanities subjects suggests that this problem does not exist if London is approached as a historical or fictional subject. In fact we decided against using the name ‘London Studies’ to describe our awards because there was almost unanimous feeling that this ‘sounded like history’.[7] Why is this? ‘Gender studies’ does not have the same associations, why do we imagine London only as being a subject of historical investigation?

I think there is something more than tradition at work here. It is not just the case that courses on London’s history have been around for longer than courses on contemporary London, although they have. I wonder whether there is something about our relationship with the contemporary city – the real city that we live and work in and that we mostly love – that holds us back from seeking to understand, explicate and analyse. Is there something about the excitement and vertigo of contemporary London that we are attracted to? We don’t necessarily want to understand how it works and why it makes us feel as it does. In seeking to reduce London to something knowable, bounded and tied down perhaps we are afraid that we will undermine the very thing that attracts us.


[1] See QAA benchmark at and also Foundation Degree Forward at

[2] See for mission statement of the College.

[3] See QAA benchmark statement for Foundation Degrees

[4] See Foundation Degree Forward ‘Working with Employers: Making Partnership a Reality’ for what is seen as best practice in this area.

[5] See work by Helen Jarvis for the best examples of this, particularly Jarvis, H (2006) Work/Life City Limits, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan and Jarvis, H et al (2001) The Secret Life of Cities: The Social Reproduction of Everyday Life, Prentice Hall. Also McDowell et al (2006) ‘Connecting time and space: The significance of women’s work in the city’. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 30 (1) pp 141-158.

[6] But see Buck, N. et al (2002) Working Capital: Life and Labour in Contemporary London, London Routledge and Hamnett, C (2003) Unequal City: London in the Global Arena, London Routledge for notable exceptions.

[7] The strength of this association was brought home to me at an open evening when I was talking to a prospective student about our courses. The student asked me what period London Studies covered. I replied that it was not a history course but was about contemporary London. He responded ‘so you go up to the 1960s or something, recent history?’ I said, ‘No, it’s not a history course. It’s about contemporary London, the present.’ He looked perplexed and obviously thought I was being unhelpful so he tried again, ‘So more recent than the sixties, up to the 1980s or something?’ At this point I really didn’t know what to say. I repeated that it was not a history course, and mentioned words like ‘sociology’ and ‘politics’. The student was becoming frustrated and insisted ‘but you must cover some period, it’s about London. What period do you cover?’ The student was not stupid or ignorant he just could not imagine that contemporary London could be studied. For him London had a great and fascinating history and that was what university courses would be about. The contemporary was somehow an unsuitable subject for academic investigation, too prosaic or sordid perhaps.

To Cite This Article:

Rosie Cox, ‘Teaching the global city: Developing a Foundation Degree on contemporary London’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 4 Number 2 (September 2006). Online at Accessed on [date of access]