Students bar entry into the main building at SOAS. Photo: James Eastwood Students bar entry into the main building at SOAS. Photo: James Eastwood

The shutdown at SOAS today over the suspension of Sandy Nicoll is a sign of the battles ahead. But it could also be the beginning of a movement against cuts in higher education more generally

SOAS, University of London has been shut down today. Hundreds of students and staff gathered outside the main building this morning demanding the reinstatement of Sandy Nicoll, Unison branch secretary, after he was suspended yesterday over allegations of gross misconduct.

The incident involves an accusation that Sandy had let several students and others through a security barrier in the main building yesterday, who then attempted to occupy the Director Valerie Amos’ office.

All of this is taking place in the context of a management document, leaked at the beginning of the academic term, which ranked all courses at SOAS according flawed methodology, and suggested that a third of these courses be cut. Although the document was withdrawn, serious reputational damage was caused and there has been no investigation as to what led to the drawing up of such a document in the first place.

The rationale for the curriculum review – and potential course cuts and job losses as a result – is part of the School’s plan to make £6.5 million in cuts by 2019, in order to maintain a 5% budget surplus recommended by HEFCE. SOAS currently operates with a £1 million surplus.

Staff and students fear that cutting £6.5 million would change what is unique about SOAS – its languages, regional specialisation and a critical approach to social sciences and humanities. 

Students responded by occupying the Brunei Suite. They have been in occupation for over three weeks now, demanding no course closures, no redundancies, no outsourcing and the democratisation of governance at SOAS. The occupation has raised vital questions about what it means to study at SOAS, but also broader questions over the marketisation of education in Britain.

Over the weekend, management turned off the heating and Wi-Fi in the Brunei Suite, turned up the air conditioning, and hired private security to monitor the occupation, barring anyone from entering. The attempt to force students out of the occupation is an infringement of the right to protest.

This led to a massive outpouring of solidarity from students and staff with the occupation. Yesterday afternoon over 300 students and staff gathered outside the Brunei Suite, and entered the building en masse. Security had to step aside.

This victory showed the increasing unity across the School against potential job losses and cuts. The attempt to fragment any co-ordinated response to these cuts by scapegoating the Unison branch secretary has escalated the situation.

A rally is taking place at 1pm on the steps of SOAS involving students and staff. Trade unionists from across London will participate. Pressure must be put on SOAS management to reinstate Sandy Nicoll, reject proposed cuts and any potential job losses, and follow democratic process in determining the future of SOAS. The current struggle at SOAS could become the lynchpin for fighting against cuts to higher education across the country.

Cameron Panting

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