An Indictment of the Course Cuts

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Nigel McCollum, MA South East Asian Studies with Thai

Since the very sorry saga when Pro-Director Professor Rao ‘leaked’ the course cuts documents, we have seen the reputation of SOAS exposed in both the UK and Indian Press.

While of course, each and every one of us make mistakes, I want to just add to the ongoing debate if I may, after many days of reflection: as a mature postgraduate student leaving my career to return to academic learning I made a very conscious choice to apply only to SOAS.

“I would like to think, just like most of my fellow students, I am not an idiot.”

After decades of working in London, Gaza, The Hague and Dhaka, latterly at Director-General level, I realized that no matter how much my roles involved critical thinking and creative problem solving, the global work environment is actually structured to essentially discourage free thinking. I also know first-hand the tools management use to ‘control’ and stifle genuine debate.

Furthermore, I know that the flawed dominant model of running organisations and institutions focuses far too much on the bottom line of a budgetary spreadsheet, which sadly misses all too often the unique selling point of what that organization or institution does best.

Essentially I came to see how ‘Boards and Bosses’ rely too much on Finance Director’s reports, ignoring at their peril the rich nuanced tapestry that makes any organizational structure function and flourish.

From a very personal perspective, I also started to realize that 2 decades on from dropping off the postgraduate road to a PhD, with my family life now re-settled back in London, 2014 was the perfect moment to have a second taste of academic life – to learn, to read, to think, to discuss, to research, to write – all within the freedom and space a university uniquely offers.

And, hand on heart there was nowhere I had ever wanted to do this other than at SOAS: a place I had come into contact with in the 1990s. Travelling back through London after a research sojourn in Tehran people like the late Dr Helen Kanitkar helped me, a student from Belfast, use the incredible SOAS library to start writing my dissertation.

That unique taste of what can only be called the ‘SOAS spirit’ meant I knew, once the right time came along, this was the only institution I would apply to.

So, here I am, in year 2 of the SOAS postgraduate experience. I am very content to spend my own money on fees and cover my living costs always delighted to know that my application was accepted by the only university I wanted to attend.

The perversity is that each and every course I undertook during the last academic year – across two faculties – Languages & Cultures and Arts & Humanities has been deemed in writing to have no academic merit.

I am still waiting for a formal statement stating clearly that this is absolutely wrong. You can state that these documents are ‘withdrawn’ but given the fact they are available online from Adelaide to Zanzibar, the damage lingers and persists.

So, for Pro-Director Professor Rao, ironically an academic economist, to concoct these documents using erroneous and flawed methodologies please understand my anger and sadness.

A clear example of how this methodology is blatantly wrong is one module with combined classes of undergraduate and PGT students had the course marked ‘RED’ for the undergrads and ‘AMBER’ for the MA’s. Same course, same content – different results in the Rao methodology – go figure.

To compound the perversity and dysfunctionality within senior management: the very same Pro-Director who frankly ‘cocked-up’ on a gargantuan scale – undermining her boss we are told, undermining the teaching abilities of the academic staff, undermining the value of fee-paying students degrees, and arguably most importantly severely damaging the reputation of SOAS as a world-class university, and showing it to be one that cannot even use sensible methodologies for carrying out routine reviews – has been re-appointed by the Director to carry out the next curriculum review.

This beggars belief. SOAS rewards managers for sheer incompetence? Even more bizarrely, I have asked a few Human Resources Directors that I am still in contact with – each and every one of them are baffled that a thorough inquiry has not taken place into the conduct of the Pro-Director and the damage this has caused SOAS, and most importantly to learn lessons so this never happens again.

Is this a sign of further incompetence and wilful disregard for the HR policies in place? Or do these policies only apply to staff below senior management? Do we really permit senior management to avoid being held accountable when things go catastrophically wrong? I have heard the (nauseatingly meaningless), word “challenges” used by management. I too have enormous experience of the “challenges” (sic) such organisations like SOAS face in a very budget-driven world. I also have direct experience of restructuring in the midst of these “challenges”. So please, do not think I am just some idealistic, radical member of a student body. I speak from experience, and from the heart.

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Last year at SOAS, taking courses now deemed academically unmeritorious, I actually learnt to see the world we live in from an entirely different set of perspectives. I rediscovered the enormous benefit of sharing ideas, of researching thoroughly, based on teacher-led classes and reading lists (always up to date and always pushing the boundaries).

Essentially, I was given invaluable tools of looking at problems affecting each and every human being in this globalised world we all now inhabit. My course titles may appear “niche” to anyone outside looking in, but believe me my skills at research, analysis, discussion, sharing of ideas, and offering insight and solutions are all thanks to the incredible level of teaching and supervision I have been given by SOAS academics and fellow students.

“The perversity is that each and every course I undertook during the last academic year – across two faculties – has been deemed in writing to have no academic merit.”

Why would anyone want to undermine this? This is more than I ever expected by paying to come to SOAS.

Yes, as my teachers all know, and my fellow students all appreciate, the current dominant economic system is forcing management to see our university only through the prism of spreadsheets based solely on financial performance. This in itself is absolutely wrong.

Our world is not black and white – there are shadings and tones – some extremely subtle – that must also be included in any reading of the spectrum we are attempting to interpret.

That is why we, the student body, and I believe, also the staff/academic body are so deeply upset. The skills at interpreting the multitude of layers that make up our world and dominant economic systems are being ignored in the blind pursuit of profit over excellence. This is a fatal error that will lead to SOAS becoming just a clone of somewhere like the University of Westminster, or worse a victim like the former SSEES (School of Slavonic & East European Studies – R.I.P.).

I would like to think, just like most of my fellow students at SOAS, I am not an idiot. I have invested my time and my hard earned money into courses I can assure you have given me much more value than anyone in senior management could even attempt to understand. In terms of return for financial investment, what SOAS has offered me is a far better than any gamble on the stock market.

Yet, senior management and the Board, using absolutely flawed and questionable methodologies have deemed the courses (which I have worked enormously hard to obtain a distinction in each and every piece of marked work), to be of “no academic merit”.

I would not go to Waitrose or Tesco and spend money on food that was not fit to consume. On that very simple basis, trust us – we are not pumping our cash into courses that are offering us no academic merit. We came here to be a part of the incredible unique teaching and learning environment SOAS offers. Something not one other British university can come close to.

In my case, be it Music or Languages & Cultures of SE Asia, perhaps if you as Directors/Trustees sat in to audit these amazing taught courses and tutorials, you yourself would see how priceless SOAS is.

World-class staff that are offering this country and all those overseas students who sacrifice so much to come here, an enriching educational experience. One that I will be eternally grateful for simply being a small part of.

Please do not undermine what we come here to do. Think outside the box and ensure the courses that make us so powerfully unique remain.

We came here because we know what SOAS offers us compared to other British universities, and we appreciate what a SOAS education offers the world we live in. We chose courses because we recognise the world-class academics/thinkers/teachers that SOAS employs and the value their courses offer us and our future endeavours within this world.

We want our management to work to protect what we know is a priceless education, not to just react to this failed agenda of cuts and budget lines.

SOAS is innovative – be innovative too. SOAS is unique – offer unique solutions to management too. SOAS is a global institution operating out of the heart of the UK’s capital – protect that heritage and value, please do not destroy it or undermine the staff and students that make SOAS the special place it has been for 99 years.

Thank you.

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