In defiance of SOAS management's proposed budget cuts, course closures and job losses, students occupied their university. Alex Bewley reports
Students at SOAS, University of London, have been occupying the Brunei Suite - one of the main buildings of the Bloomsbury campus - for over three weeks now. After management's draconian response to the occupation last weekend, there are concerns that the occupation could be evicted this week, during Reading Week, when there are fewer staff and students around the campus.
The occupation began following the leak of a document from the university's management suggesting that 186 courses, close to a third, would be cut from the curriculum.
The document was swiftly retracted and dismissed as a “misunderstanding” and a “storm in a teacup” by management, who insisted it was sent in error; however, plans to cut £6.5m from the annual budget still stand.
These revelations came just one month after the appointment of Baroness Valerie Amos as the university’s new director at the start of September. They come as only the latest issue concerning funding, staffing and pay, against which students have been forced to campaign over the past few years.
The protests, which this week escalated, have come to be directed most vigorously at Baroness Amos, an establishment peer with no history or experience working in education, and who campaigned vigorously in support of the Iraq War in 2003.
The outrage from staff and students that followed the document led to the immediate occupation of the Brunei Suite, backed by the Student Union. Several statements and demands were issued, all of which have thus far been met with either silence or flagrant lies from management about the necessity of the cuts and threats facing SOAS.
Whatever criticisms we might have about how the occupation has been conducted, we should support the principle of the right to protest, and the fact that students are raising legitimate concerns over the future of the institution. The occupation has been peaceful and has created a space for creativity, reflection and critical thinking. It has been fully booked on a daily basis as an education space, in which over 70 classes and events have been held. They have provided free teas and coffee, and a chill out area where students can study or relax.
After the management’s initial stance of simply ignoring these legitimate concerns by students - not reacting as a means of diffusing the situation - last Friday they cut off the power to the Brunei Suite and turned up the air-conditioning. This led to a rally on the following Tuesday, in which several hundred staff and students participated.
After the rally, management decided to suspend Sandy Nicoll, Unison branch secretary, for allegedly letting students into the main building in order to protest outside Baroness Amos' office. It is widely believed the suspension is intended to intimidate the unions.
Several students who were standing around in the courtyard outside told us they had not been directly involved, but that the occupation was "really important. People need to be aware of what they [management] are doing so we can try and do something about it."
One said that his BA in Middle Eastern Studies was one of the courses to could be cut. It is these speciality courses, in addition to languages and related subjects, which make SOAS such a unique and vital institution - not just in Britain but in the world.
In speaking up about the cuts, SOAS students continue the great tradition of student occupations and protests at SOAS, and draw on a history of student protest throughout the world. But they also raise crucial questions about the marketisation of education in Britain, the quality of education and the pay and conditions of those that work in higher education - not only academics but cleaners and support staff - to deliver the kind of education students deserve.
If they continue the struggle, they may just win. That victory could set a precedent for preventing cuts at other universities, and begin to turn the tide against cuts to higher education more generally.
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