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15 Questions With Director Amos

Interviewed by Khadija Kothia

Baroness Valerie Amos has been the Director of SOAS since 2015. The questions below are a compilation of student submissions, issues relating to current campus discussions, and personal questions about the director herself. 

1. How will the financial situation affect current students?

It won’t. We have a short-term cash issue and a longer-term problem with the way we do business at SOAS to be resolved by 2020-22. We are taking a range of actions, so in that sense, there is an impact on students. For example, the OPS (One Plus Service) restructuring program, which is about improving services, will see a financial shift. But OPS is about improving student services and the relationship between staff and academic staff. So students shouldn’t worry about a direct impact. We are putting students at the heart of the things we are doing to tackle the financial situation, which I hope will have a positive impact on them.

2. The dropout rate was 14% in 2015-16, much higher that the 9.9% average. Why? And what steps will you take to address SOAS’ high dropout rate? 

In some departments, the dropout rate is even higher. We are working to improve this under the umbrella of our teaching and learning strategy. We are updating our curriculum according to pedagogical developments, and recognising that students have diverse qualifications and engagement patterns with higher education. The focus is on understanding and appreciating the individual circumstances of students and how to support them. London is not an easy student environment, it can be quite lonely too. So it’s about looking at the wider experience.

3. Our undergraduate intake has dropped by 40% in the last two years. Why has our intake fallen by such a significant amount? 

Our intake has fallen for different reasons, one being a competitive environment. A while ago there was a cap on student num-bers. When it was lifted, universities could expand and grow as much as they wanted. There is an aggressive market out there competing for students. The last round of results showed that 87 percent of students went to their first choice university. So why isn’t SOAS students’ first choice? Partly it is due to our drop on the league table positioning, which relates to students’ feedback on the National Student Survey (NSS). Generally, universities in London get lower NSS scores for a range of reasons, and we consistently get lower scores from SOAS students on things like assessment and feedback. Then of course, the dropout rates do not help. So, we are looking to work on these factors.

4. What message do you have for final year undergrads who are just about to fill in the NSS survey?

I hope that students will fill the NSS survey in honestly. Sometimes there is a lot of criticism that doesn’t directly link to SOAS but wider education policy. I want the feedback to be honest for academic and professional staff because we want to improve who we are and what we do. But I also hope that students are able to distinguish between their experience at SOAS and criticisms of the wider environment. 

5. Where do you see UK higher education in 10 years?

It’s very hard to say. We have a major review of higher education funding based on further education and post-2018 funding coming up. It might be delayed because Brexit is pushing these issues to the margin. Some reports have criticised choices students make by comparing their course to how much they earn in the future. I think this is a very narrow and unhelpful way of looking at university education. SOAS students really care about what is happening in the world. They go on to do important work for NGOs and in politics as defenders of the most vulnerable people worldwide. That’s not necessarily going to bring in the highest income but does have a huge positive societal impact. So the way higher education is viewed is very narrow and not the way I, or others at SOAS, see it. 

6. In the last recorded NSS results, SOAS positioned in bottom quartile for all but one question – learning resources. Why is the library being hit hardest in the OPS restructuring program?

I don’t think the library is being hit hardest. The OPS restructuring program is based on how we can re-orient services towards improving students’ experience. Students are learning very differently and we need to be up-to-date, including the library. We know students have a lot of love and emotional attachment towards the library. There is a lot of focus on the fact that the library will lose five staff. If you look at what the remaining staff will do, I think you’ll see that the new proposals are focused on student-facing services. At the moment, 10 perc ent of our resources at SOAS are spent on the library. When you look at the expenditure of other national research libraries, you see that we spend way over the kilter, and that’s because they’ve changed faster than we have. 

7. How has the consultation period impacted your restructuring plans? 

We are looking at that now. In the past, proposals are made, consulted on, and then a revised version based on feedback is published. The consultation period ended a few weeks ago, and we have 537 pages of responses across the OPS. That’s in addition to consultation meetings being held. This is all being looked at by directors of all areas, so it is too early to tell. 8. A 73% dependency on student tuition fees is very high and risky. Does SOAS plan to invest or diversify financial income so it’s dependency on tuition fees isn’t so high and risky?

Yes, we have to diversify. It’s very high compared to other universities. First, what we offer needs to be more attractive to prospective students. We currently offer the same number of courses as the University of Manchester and we are a lot smaller. We need to invest in growing areas like Law and Politics. We have to focus on developing a pipeline of students coming to SOAS, through IFCELS (International Foundation Courses and English Language Studies), as well as strengthening international partnerships. We have never and don’t plan on opening campuses outside SOAS, but are focusing on partnerships. For example, we have a Finance and Management partnership in Singapore. We are looking at opportunities in China and Ghana. We are also looking to strengthen summer school offerings and shorter-term courses to diversify our income. 

9. There seems to be a rumour going around that UCL is buying SOAS. is this true?

This rumour has been circulating since I stepped foot in SOAS. I think that is partly related to UCLs recent purchase of the Institute of Higher Education (IOE). There are a lot of mergers and strategic partnerships happening across the sector. UCL may like to talk to SOAS, but I am certainly not aware of UCL buying SOAS. I haven’t been offered any money and I don’t think the Board of Trustees have been offered anything

10. What do you think is the link between SOAS and Decolonisation?

Given the way SOAS has developed from initially being set up to train future colo- nial administrators, decolonisation has always been on the agenda. Even alumni in their 60s and 70s talk to me about it. We now have a decolonisation working group between students and academics, and we also have a decolonisation tool-kit. It is important that we look at our history through the frame of the whole decolonisation agenda, and at what we teach now and how the agenda will continue into the future. We are keen to lead the way.

11. SOAS sends a small number of students to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The main objection raised in the case of the Hebrew University is that the campus is in occupied territory. Does this run counter to our aims to decolonise?

This is being led by the team in Languages, Culture and Linguistics, where Hebrew is being taught. There was a big discussion on the Academic Board regarding where the year abroad was being held. The university itself isn’t on occupied territory. Regarding accommodation, I would have to double check that. This isn’t an Executive Board issue but an academic issue that the Aca- demic Board must make. There is a further report coming to the Board on options for students on year abroad schemes. Of course, part of that issue is how we can ensure that we can stay true to SOAS values.

12. What were your biggest aims and visions coming into this role in 2015?

I wanted SOAS to be one of the places that helped make connections across the world in finding solutions to the biggest problems, as well as building bridges and connections based on the work we do, and our research across culture, humanities, and the social sciences. I think we must recognise that whilst we are relatively small we can have a dramatic impact in what we do.

13. What do you think you have brought to your role since taking the job?

I don’t think it is about what I have brought, but more about what I brought with me. I have a lot of global experience, having worked with the UN, and being High Commissioner to Australia. What attracted me to SOAS was the regions we specialise in that I think have a lot to offer to the world. So I hope that I have brought my interna- tional network, my ability to lead and run organisations, and my passionate commit- ment to the values SOAS upholds.

14. Describe your day as Director of SOAS.

I never have a day that is typical, but there are similar elements. I have many meetings and do a lot of public engagement for the university. I am on the board of Universities UK, and am currently co-leading a project regarding the BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) attainment gap with one of the deputies of the NUS. We are in the final stages of this report, which has taken me all over the country. I am on the Board of Trustees and the Resources and Planning committee. I am also Chair of the Executive Board and Academic Board. I have a fund- raising responsibility for SOAS and do a lot of foreign travel on behalf of SOAS.

15. What’s your plan for improving the relationship between manage- ment and the student body?

That’s an ongoing issue. When I first arrived we tried to have all students’ meetings with me, which were poorly attended – maximum twelve students in a meeting. We tried meetings with student representatives from all departments. My door is always open for students and I enjoy the time that students come to talk about their experiences and what they do. So the plan is to continue working with Students’ Union representa- tives and see what the best ways to engage might be.

Do you have any comments you would like to make? Send in your responses to [email protected] and have your replies, thoughts and comments published in the next Spirit Issue.

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