My alma mater, The School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas), enjoys a reputation disproportionate to its size. With fewer than 7,000 students, it is dwarfed by other the colleges of the University of London. Nevertheless, I find that any mention of where I studied tends to raise eyebrows: ‘oh I’ve heard a lot of stories about Soas’ a bank advisor told me recently. I replied that the stories were probably true. When it comes to Soas, they usually are.
The university has come a long way since its founding in 1916. Its original function was as a finishing school for colonial officers, described by Lord Curzon as part of the ‘furniture of empire’. It specialised then, just as it does now, in the culture and languages of Africa and Asia, with a particular emphasis on anthropology, my own discipline.
In the period since decolonisation, the culture of Soas changed markedly. It is now famous for its radically left-wing student union and frequent controversies. According to a report by the Henry Jackson Society published in 2019, Soas hosts more hate preachers than any other university in the UK: a remarkable feat for such a small institution.
As a student at Soas, I benefitted from excellent teaching and the opportunity to study topics I would not have been exposed to at any other university (I am now, for instance, surprisingly well informed on the distinctions between niche forms of Japanese pornography). But much as I enjoyed my studies, by the time I left I was thoroughly disillusioned by the campus culture. Although I arrived a wide-eyed lefty, I graduated in 2016 having learned what too few Soas students ever do: that the left does not have a monopoly on virtue. In fact, it is deeply flawed.
Soas has been the focus of headlines recently, but not (for once) as a result of political controversies. Between 2016 and 2018, undergraduate admissions fell by 37 per cent and in May last year the Director, Valerie Amos, warned that Soas would continue to ‘haemorrhage cash’ without urgent action. Last week it was announced that all research leave would be suspended in 2020-21 to reduce spending on salaries. Staff and students responded to this drastic cost-cutting move by, of course, organising a wildcat strike. The Socialist Worker reported that the mood at the rally was ‘upbeat’ despite the looming crisis.
The income shortfall is primarily the result of an end to government subsidies for specialist language institutions which means that Soas is now mostly dependent on tuition fees. The university has struggled to recover from this loss, in large part because of the long-standing schism between management, who want to make the institution profitable, and a student body who want anything but.
Amos has since announced her decision to leave at the end of this academic year as she will be taking up a position as Master of University College, Oxford. Student responses have been slightly ungenerous. Coverage of her departure in student newspaper The Soas Spirit simultaneously criticised Amos for allowing Soas to fall into financial crisis, while also condemning her efforts to implement staff redundancies, seemingly not recognising the contradiction. Unfortunately – though not surprisingly – the editorial team at The Spirit declined to speak to this former columnist at their paper, citing disapproval of The Spectator as a publication.
I was, however, able to speak to that rarest of beasts: a conservative student at Soas, who asked to remain anonymous. Describing the experience of being a member of the university’s Conservative Society, he says there is a campus culture in which open debate is censured. ‘I found that many students privately shared conservative or centrist views. They would not voice their opinions however, because of the social stigma and fear of being ostracised. I was called a fascist several times (which I always felt was quite cliché) and one person told me bluntly “shame, I thought you were alright for a white person”.’
Often the radicalism on campus takes a more unpleasant form. Not for nothing do some critics suggest that ‘Soas’ ought really to stand for ‘The School of Antisemitism’. Over the course of my three years at Soas, and in an institution in which people generally wear their cultural signifiers with pride, I never once saw a student wearing a kippah, and with good reason. Anti-Israeli sentiment is fierce among a hardcore of students, with protests sometimes spilling over into the intimidation of Jewish students. In 2017, crossbench peer Baroness Deech put Soas at the top of a list of universities that Jewish students would do well to avoid.
An incident in my final year highlighted the internal tensions within the university with particular clarity. In 2005, Soas had become the first student union in the UK to commit to the Palestinian-led BDS (Boycott, Divestments, and Sanctions) campaign, meaning that Israeli products were not sold in any of the bars or shops run by the union. The union then organised a referendum on whether the university should go further by breaking off any formal associations with Israeli institutions, including academic ones. Although a majority of both students and staff voted in favour of the proposal, the management refused to implement it, stating that such a policy would be an assault on academic freedom.
In 2015, students (and a few hangers on) occupied a campus building known as The Brunei Gallery, named because it was built using money donated by the Sultan of Brunei, the leader of a country whose human rights abuses are by any measure far more grievous than those of Israel. It was in that year that Amos was appointed as director, following an illustrious career as a diplomat, UN official, and now Labour peer. For this she was described in the Soas student newspaper as a ‘cog in the colonial machine’ and resistance to her management began immediately, with rubbish reportedly thrown at her office door by students who considered her to be a ‘Neo-Conservative’ stained by her association with Tony Blair’s government. Her plans to cut undersubscribed courses have been met with resistance every step of the way. So too have her efforts to reach out to potential donors: the students who occupied the Brunei Gallery stated explicitly that their aim was to disrupt the building being used for ‘corporate’ purposes.
There is a significant risk that, if the impending catastrophe is not averted, Soas will be absorbed into a larger body, such as the University of London, and so will lose its unique character. Which would be, if not a tragedy, then certainly a shame. Amos was put in the unenviable position of trying to drag a capitalist institution out of financial crisis, while the anti-capitalists who make up the student body tugged her in the opposite direction. It remains to be seen if the next director will win this battle of wills.