Luke Lowsley-Williams pitched an article to The SOAS Spirit: a news piece consisting of interviews with lecturers opposing course cuts. His submission ended up being more reportage than news: the story of his journey of changing perspectives, influenced by lecturers affected by the proposed cuts.
Luke Lowsley-Williams, BA Social Anthropology
It all started with the allegedly leaked document that marked particular courses ‘red’, ‘yellow’ or ‘green’ according to varying categories of success. The document then asked for the red courses to be removed. SOAS responded with a frenzied reaction with many movements rising up to fight against austerity and poor management choices.
Nathan Guerin’s article, entitled ‘Two Sides of One Issue: Give Amos a Chance’, concisely sums up the arguments against the ‘Occupy SOAS Movement’ and called for students to “Give Amos a chance. Go home”. This rhetoric was similar to my own. I looked at ‘The Occupation’ with cynicism and mistrust, seeing it as an isolated movement with demands that spread too far and too thin. I use the past tense, as after conducting interviews with some academics, I am now in support of any form of resistance and any method to engage management in a dialogue.
In a small room nestled on the fifth floor I pitched an article that would look at the cuts from the lecturers’ point of view in an attempt to create some semblance of unity with students and academics. As a student, all I saw were members of a small institution fighting each other. I began by trawling through the list of ‘red’ courses to find academics that were invested in fighting these cuts. Seventeen emails and five days later I had received two replies, one explaining that they felt uncomfortable giving their views, the other explicating that she did not have time and I should contact another academic from her department. It was only whenl I began to ask lecturers in person, who knew me, that I began to make head way.
I eventually conducted five interviews with lecturers, which for the most part drew the same conclusion. Two of them felt that they ‘did not know enough about the situation for their thoughts to be in print’. However, all were unanimously against the cuts and all were in support of resistance. All professed to have the interests of their students at heart.
I began with Dr Lizzie Hull who has been at SOAS in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology for five years and began lecturing undergraduates this year. She is also the UCU (University and College Union) Health and Safety rep at SOAS. I opened by asking her about the leaked document. She was clear in answering that the document came as shock, that the “measure[s] proposed were extreme” and that she took issue with the faulty methodology used in generating the document. Moreover, the document highlighted problems of school governance because correct procedure appeared not to have been followed and academics were not involved in decisions about what should be removed from school curriculum.
Throughout the conversation, it was clear that she wanted to separate the issue of cuts from the allegedly leaked document, explaining that the school has withdrawn the document and Director Valerie Amos has taken steps to reassure colleagues that curriculum changes will come from the departmental level. Nonetheless, serious questions about governance and top-down decision-making remain. It was evident by the end of the interview that Dr Hull took the potential cuts both to curriculum and to school finances seriously, questioning the method of austerity being used to justify them. This lecturer was motivated to protect SOAS’s “bespoke” courses and to ensure that jobs would not be threatened.
While hurriedly getting to my next interviewee’s office I began to worry that my interviews would be too factual and not get to the matter of how lecturer’s felt about the matter. Up to that point everyone seemed to be carefully selecting their words in order to compose arguments that put fact before opinion. This was rectified during my next interview.
Mr Yussuf Hamad teaches Swahili, which was marked red in the ‘document’. He saw cutting courses as intrinsically bad for the institution as a whole. To him, once you cut a course and don’t replace it, a gap is formed that creates emptiness and “emptiness does not fill this university”. Low enrolment of students, which is the primary cause for cutting courses, should be looked on as an opportunity, he argued, and as an impetus to improve one’s teaching. It was clear that Mr Hamad saw the cuts as a gross misconduct that would eat away at this university’s very foundation. While explaining to me that the African languages department has been getting smaller and smaller with each passing year he gestured towards the empty desk that lay on the other side of his office.
The desk’s owner was the last teacher of Hausa, the most spoken African derived language with a vast history of its own. Mr Hamad was visibly emotionally invested as he clarified that Hausa, being a vital part of African Studies, was being ignored. “How can you teach African Literature when you ignore African Languages?” he asked, as if speaking to management directly. He stressed that African studies should not reduce the content to a few languages and had an almost angered reaction to the idea of cuts. What moved me most during our conversation was his blatant disregard for his own position, emphasising to me that he had no interest to “favour” his own position, but rather was fighting for the interests of his students and the reputation of SOAS.
Mr Hamad instilled in me a notion that cuts in any form, in any way, were detrimental to SOAS as a reputable institution. I was struck by his conviction and emotion during the interview. This was not a small matter to him. He argued convincingly that dwindling enrolment numbers was not an opportunity to cut a course, but rather to improve it. You cannot have an African Languages department without Hausa, and I would personally be ashamed if SOAS were to carry on publicising itself as a centre for African and Asian studies if we were to lose such a vital part of an amazing degree.
My last interview (that I’m allowed to print) was with Dr Fabio Gygi, who is part of the Anthropology Department. He has been involved with the SOAS Occupation Movement and has fervently supported any resistance to cuts. Dr Gygi began by echoing many of Dr Hull’s and Mr Hamad’s views. It seems that the academics I interviewed were all united in their opinions and rationale in their arguments.
Dr Gygi, however, touched on something more that struck a chord with how I perceived the current climate of austerity. He saw the cause of these current school measures as not only a management issue, but as the result of a wider political context in which higher education now struggles. He went on to explain the constraints put upon lecturers, especially regarding how they spend their time and the lack of trust surrounding what they do with their time. He alluded to how the board of trustees and the ministry of education puts perhaps unwarranted attention to checking up on lecturers, which does little to enhance quality education.
At this point it struck me that better teaching is not quantitative, but qualitative, which is what SOAS’ reputation is built on. We then discussed how this influence is changing the dynamics between teacher and student to something more commercial such as what exists between a company employee and its customer. Dr Gygi saw this rhetoric as dangerous and a threat to the long-standing fundamental principles of higher education. He went on to say that when students mix this new narrative of commercialised education with one of a neo-liberal and democratic political view, it can water down one’s message. He ended by stating decisively that “students and staff are in the same boat”.
This last statement tells the story of my brief enquiry into how lecturers viewed the potential outcome of the alleged cuts being proposed. In short, cuts are bad for both students and staff and equally damaging to the reputation of SOAS. I began this article with a feeling of ambiguous ‘economic rationality’ and I end it with a feeling of deep sadness that this institution can get to place of such mistrust and mistreatment. I will do all I can to ensure that the “bespoke” courses this institution thrives on are not destroyed through reckless austerity measures. This university was founded upon the principle that large departments such as law, and economics would prop up those smaller departments like African Languages which are equally as important. I fear that this principle has been lost. Let’s do all we can to remind those who need reminding that cuts, in any form will not be tolerated.
All photos are stills taken from the Youtube video ‘Studying the language and cultures of Africa at SOAS University of London.’ The lecturer portrayed is Mr. Hammad.