SOAS. Photo: Geograph SOAS. Photo: Geograph

After SOAS management’s drastic move, never has solidarity been so necessary and unity so possible to defend education, writes Des Freedman

Protest outside the main building in SOAS at 1pm on Thursday 23 January

When I heard the news that management at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London was unilaterally suspending research leave in 2020/21 and cutting back on fractional staff, I was horrified because we know that it could happen at any institution at any time. The marketplace that has been engineered inside British higher education and that pits universities against each other has destabilised the system as a whole and divided the sector into a series of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’.

This is a sector awash with cash – £1 billion surplus according to the most recent figures – but also scarred by huge inequalities in terms of the financial health of specific institutions given the withdrawal of whole swathes of public funding. With the removal of student number caps and the ability of ‘elite’ universities to hunt for students in ever more aggressive ways, few institutions are safe from financial volatility. Our nerves are only made worse by the aggressive language coming from the Office for Students concerning financial viability and sustainability.

What happens at SOAS matters to all of us: permanent staff, fractionals and students. If management are able, without consultation or agreement, to pick on the most vulnerable and precarious members of staff at an institution as well organised as SOAS, where does that leave the rest of the sector? If they are able, bypassing established negotiating processes, to stop people taking research leave and to increase the workload of staff who remain in post, how safe should any member of staff feel? If they are able to make cuts that disproportionately affect women and BAME staff, how does that sit with our institutional promises to address discrimination and casualisation?

The Goldsmiths UCU executive has now passed the following statement of support for SOAS and has encouraged its members to attend the protest outside the main building in SOAS at 1pm on Thursday 23 January. Never has solidarity been so necessary and unity so possible – for all of us – to defend education as a public good.

“We are horrified by the decision of SOAS management to drastically cut the fractional staff budget and to suspend research leave. No member of staff – especially the most vulnerable ones on precarious contracts – should be held responsible for deficits caused by the introduction of a cut-throat market logic into higher education. No university should be left to “fail” and no institution should be left to fight alone. We send our solidarity to all staff and students at SOAS and demand that the cuts be immediately reversed. If the government was willing to bail out bankers who presided over a massive economic crisis, then the government should bail out universities who are providing a vital public service.”

Des Freedman

Des Freedman is Professor of Media and Communications in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of 'The Contradictions of Media Power' (Bloomsbury 2014), co-editor of 'The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance' (Pluto 2011), Vice-President of Goldsmiths UCU and former Chair of the Media Reform Coalition.

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