Election Interviews: Democracy and Education

This year The SOAS Spirit decided to go further in our election coverage. The SOAS Students’ Union elections can be intimidating, whether you’re a candidate or just a regular student voter. Campaigning is intense, with much of candidates’ success being weighted on who has the widest friendship circle or the best ability to produce a fun video, catchy hashtag or flashy poster. With all of this considered, we decided that the best way for students to get to know their Co-President candidates would be through in-person interviews, which we’ve presented here in the form of profiles.

Interviews by Caitlin Shewell-Cooper, BA Swahili and English

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You may have seen Saul Jones behind a till in the SU shop, or organising free breakfasts in the JCR, but when I meet him today he is canvassing in the bar. He says he finds it strange canvassing like this, but finds it stranger that “people don’t really ask questions.” He’s not one to talk at people. Luckily for him I have many questions, and luckily for me, Saul is open and considered in all his responses. He began studying elsewhere, but took at break to work for a few years. After he “realised that working full time on minimum wage is terrible,” he embarked on his Social Anthropology degree at SOAS.

Saul describes himself as really committed to the Students’ Union, and I am struck by his strong genuine belief in its role at the university. He makes the point that it is part of what makes people want to come to SOAS, so commercially it makes no sense for management to ignore its views (for example, the Justice for Cleaners referendum), apart from anything else. He loves it because it has the capacity to campaign for real change, and this is reflected in his involvement in its activities be it running stalls, on a picket line, or his work as Working Class officer in the executive. The SU “is far and away the best thing about SOAS.” He acknowledges that there are problems (such as the union being hard to contact and the amount of bureaucracy they face) but thinks he has the experience to face them: “I want a chance to carry on the work I’ve been doing.”

This means looking again at UGMs, which he sees as “exclusive, complicated, and sometimes the  person who shouts the loudest get their way.” He wants to introduce a caucus system where everyone has a voice through delegates and representatives, creating more of a consensus model. This emphasis on the SU being a place where people have a voice is something he returns to in much of our conversation, and he wants to emphasise how committed he is in his personal life to the political views he puts forward, saying “it’s not just a political slogan.” He discusses his belief that society can function based on kindness instead of competition, that “another world is possible, we can be living in it now, I really believe that.”

He may be idealistic, but has practical advice: “ask for help.” Saul thinks the school has a major role in providing better access to welfare, particularly as “the number of students is growing but the number of counsellors isn’t, and the waiting time for counselling can be 3-6 months.” He personally wants to be someone students could reach out to, and to create more time for the SU to deal directly with groups of students. Another priority is the looming possibility of course cuts and continued commercialisation which would ultimately make SOAS “a more generic university, more ‘LSE like.'” I suggest that these issues are part of a wider government driven problem in the sector, but he feels that there has been definite mismanagement and a focus on a “race to the bottom” in terms of marketing SOAS. He is blunt here: “if the specialisms of SOAS disappear, there is no reason for it to exist.” This is why we “can’t wait for things to get worse,” and he we challenge wider issues with “smaller acts of solidarity, resistance, people coming together.”

I ask who he would paint on the wall for the upcoming redecoration of the bar, and he suggests “absolute boss!” Lucy Parsons, radical WoC civil rights activist. He is inspired by her life story and quotes her word-for-word “Oh, Misery, I have drunk thy cup of sorrow to its dregs, but I am still a rebel.” This rebel nature is reflected when I suggest SU president role can be apolitical – for him it is “absolutely political,” as the function of the union is to constantly fight for its members, and “our education on every level is politicised.” I challenge him on the perception that there is a “SOAS SU view” and he emphasises that it is wrong to think that their ideas can’t change. He is somewhat stumped when I bring up the issue of people not feeling welcome as part of the SU due their views saying “I’m going to come back to that, I’m going to think about it a little bit more.”

When I ask if he has any favourite members of SOAS he says he has been inspired by Dr Caroline Osella, Dr Parvathi Raman, and “you won’t find anyone who doesn’t love Dr Fabio Gygi, he’s just wonderful.” Who would he invite to an imaginary dinner party? Emma Goldman, Frida Kahlo, and Latin American author and poet Eduardo Galeano. These great activists and thinkers reflect his view that “we can begin to change how some things work; at least for ourselves, at least for our space, and that’s worth something.”

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It’s difficult to walk anywhere around SOAS with Ali Habib because everyone wants to talk to him. When we eventually make it the quiet of the IOE bar he is incredibly polite and apologetic about being stopped, about cancelling our previous meeting, and surprisingly seems a little nervous about the interview. He is warm and friendly, and once we start talking about what matters to him he becomes focused, listening intently to everything I say.

Ali arrived at SOAS via north London and initial studies at Westminster. He is now in the third year of his History degree, and has been “hooked on this place” since the beginning. He sees the diverse people you find at SOAS as the best thing about it, and is fascinated by the stories,” but dislikes how unorganised the institution can be. He struggles to name a favourite member of staff here, but decides on Dr Philipp Wirtz “he has this weird sense of humour that nobody gets, but I find him hilarious” and Mr Jahan Latif from the IT department who will help you out with anything, be it printing or the Ramadan Tent project. Ali is an avid football fan, supporting Roma, and Man City, “apart from that, I don’t have any time!”

What made him want to stay on at SOAS? He says he has seen the SU work really hard and wants to be part of that, but there are “some issues that need to be dealt with.” One is the need to challenge the school about lecture recordings: “we bought the technology in 2014, and I’m wondering why we haven’t used this until now,” and on practical issues such printing credits and recycling.

“It’s very rowdy, it’s people against each other,” is Ali’s perception of UGMs. He wants to create caucuses that mean marginalised groups have more of a say in union policy, hopefully improving attendance which “hasn’t been great this year.” One of his policies is to move the UGMs to the new Senate House courtroom, which would be more accessible. He also wants to increase student participation through linking the work of the SU with other universities, using his connections at  UCL and LSE SUs to strengthen joint campaigns, to decolonise the curriculum for example. “Decolonising SOAS matters because we are the School of African and Oriental studies.” He says we need a less male, Euro-centric academia: “I’ve been studying history for three years, and I have rarely come across texts from the regions I have studied.”

He mentions the attainment gap, particularly with BME students who are “20% less likely to get 2:1 or a first.” He sees biased marking as contributing to this and has a policy to introduce anonymous marking across all departments. He is worried by the potentially for course cuts and commercialisation of SOAS, but starts by saying that “as long as the students are committed, the future will be bright. When they let all these changes affect the way they think, that’s when the problems will occur.” He cites the occupation of the Brunei gallery as an example of students reacting quickly to a problem. “Not everyone agreed with it, for sure, but they achieved some objectives.” He is confident that SOAS students are people who don’t blindly follow authority, and have empathy for others. For him, this is epitomised in the Justice For Cleaners as it shows how different parts of the SOAS community can fight for each other.

Ali would choose to have Malcom X on the wall of the bar, (“and maybe Franz Fanon, but everyone’s gunna choose him”). He has a picture of X on his wall at home, and admires his willingness to not only challenge the status quo but to change his opinions according to what he learnt, and this is reflected in his openness to a range of views: “because I am representing every single student I cannot let my own politics affect that work.” He gives the example of the Kurdish issue: “even if I support the Kurdish struggle, I cannot let that affect the way I deal with people opposing that view. I have to make sure everyone is represented, everyone’s voice is heard.”

When I ask why he thinks he would be a good fit for the role, he explains his active involvement in societies and activities like the Yemen society, Islamic finance and ethics society, and the Ramadan Tent Project. He tells me about an NGO he started partly thanks to what he had learnt at SOAS called Yemen Growth Forum. He sees this leadership experience and his good relationships with current and past executive officers as the reasons he is ready to take on the role.

A massive priority for him is continuing to campaign for more inclusive scholarships for refugees –  “it took them 7 months to implement 7 scholarships!” – and he has plans in place for the continuation of this campaign. He is also disappointed with the lack of action after the BDS referendum, where he thinks more can be done. When asked who he’d have over for a hypothetical dinner party he chooses Francesco Totti – “the guy’s my idol, on the football pitch there’s no-one like him” – Maradona, and, of course, Malcom X. Walking back over to SOAS, I mention I admire anyone who wants to spend another year at university having finished their degree, and his response surprises me. “To be honest, I don’t. But there’s so much we can still do, like we’ve been fighting for the refugee scholarships for three years now, and we’re not there.” It seems Ali Habib isn’t finished with SOAS quite yet.

 

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