Staff and students gather outside SOAS last Friday. Photo: Cameron Panting

Standing together in solidarity at SOAS has overturned management’s suspension of Sandy Nicoll

Sandy Nicoll, Unison branch secretary at SOAS, who was suspended last week on charges of gross misconduct, has been reinstated. The charges included permitting students in the occupied Brunei Suite to enter the main building in order to protest outside the Director’s office.

Three days of protest on the Bloomsbury campus, an unofficial walk-out of Unison and UCU staff, the ongoing student occupation and a letter signed by 187 staff demanding his reinstatement, all came together to force management to concede. The strength of unity across the campus was solid, with support from other colleges and union branches across the country. That unity will undoubtedly be needed again in the coming months.

While the threat of dismissal has been withdrawn, Sandy remains subject to investigation about the incident. More broadly, management is determined to push through £6.5m in cuts to the SOAS budget, and the potential for course closures and job losses remains on the agenda.

That Sandy was brought under investigation on spurious charges in the first place, regardless of the colossal waste of time and money to pursue the charges, only points to a management that is intent on intimidating the unions while the cuts – widely seen as unnecessary – are being implemented.

The source of the whole debacle was a management document, leaked to the unions at the beginning of the academic term, which ranked courses according to criteria that were never agreed with the academic staff teaching those courses. At least part of the reason for the detachment between management and academic staff is the fact that academics have minimal representation in the governing structures of SOAS.

The other is that the new Director, Valerie Amos, has neither a background in education nor experience of teaching. She claims that the decision to suspend Sandy Nicoll was a neutral act, and refuses to speak to the student occupiers while the occupation continues. She also claims that she had no knowledge of the management document before it was released.

Although the document was withdrawn, there has been no investigation into how such a document was produced in the first place. Both unions, as well as the students’ union, have requested that an immediate inquiry take place. This means that the timeline management have proposed for implementing the cuts, which were due to begin this academic year, will have to be put on hold.

This is the nature of the battle ahead. The extent to which staff – including administrative staff and cleaners – and students at SOAS are determined not to let the cuts through, counts for everything. Creative forms of protest on the part of both students and staff will be important. The unions will need to play a vital role in strategising, encouraging and supporting that protest. And crucially, unions need to be prepared to strike. Closing down the campus was key to forcing management to retreat over Sandy’s suspension.

SOAS has a great history of struggle, and it is a centre of critical thinking. It is well placed to turn its academic critique of the free market into a critique of the marketisation of education, and thereby become a centre of opposition to the government’s attack on universities on a national scale.

Cameron Panting

Cameron Panting was formerly National Organiser for Counterfire. He is active within the People's Assembly and Stop The War.