Mel Plant, BA Arabic and Turkish
Since last Thursday, a controversy has been raging within the walls of SOAS. Students who shy away from SOAS politics are being brought into the fold with the leak of two documents by an anonymous source within the university, revealing plans to cut at least 184 courses. The leaked proposal to axe key courses, both at undergraduate and postgraduate level, has prompted a backlash from the student body at large.
With many proposed cuts targeting language courses, core modules and first-year courses, many have asked why such courses have been targeted. Languages such as Urdu, Swahili, Korean and Arabic are marked as courses to be cut in the document, with all first-year History of Art courses also singled out. While highly-populated degree courses like Law and Politics suffer less in the outlined proposal, Monday night’s emergency meeting revealed that students and staff across the spectrum feared that the methodology and lack of accountability behind the proposal would mean the death of SOAS as we know it: a vibrant institution of speciality courses.
The emergency meeting, held in the JCR, was called to discuss the implications of the leaked documents and to plan a way forward in reaction to them. Students’ Union Working Class Officer Saul Jones chaired the meeting, linking the lack of transparency evident in the proposal to official plans to outsource all support staff and commenting that the plans could lead to ‘huge job losses’ as well as ‘incredibly damaging and far-reaching’ changes that could ‘pull apart our university.’ This theme was continued throughout the meeting, as students directed their comments towards a surprise guest who shared the JCR’s makeshift stage with Jones: SOAS’ Pro-Director Nirmala Rao.
Though the leaked document entitled ‘Module Performance at SOAS’ explicitly states that ‘the Director has decided that all  red-rated modules should be withdrawn,’ Rao immediately shifted the blame for the apparent decision to cut courses away from the Director, Valerie Amos. As Amos herself has done in emails to heads of departments, Rao insisted that Amos had not seen the document and had not partaken in any decision-making process. Instead, Rao signalled that the origin of any proposal lay with senior management, going as far as to claim ‘full responsibility.’
As new Director of SOAS, Amos has already attracted controversy amongst the student body for her lack of academic credentials and alarming voting record as a peer. Thursday’s release of the documents and subsequent backtracking by the administration and Amos herself over her responsibility for proposed course cuts has led to a cementing of her already-poor reputation within the university.
Rao, who seemed to struggle throughout the meeting, began by abandoning the leaked documents, saying that the methodology involved was indeed flawed and that they had been withdrawn. Though Rao praised the diverse environment at the university, she appeared to struggle with the demands of students in the room to hold true to SOAS’ reputation as the ‘world’s leading institution for the study of Asia, Africa and the Middle East.’ She expressed that she ‘understand[s] SOAS students would like to see a range of courses,’ and that SOAS is ‘legally obliged’ to deliver courses for which students have travelled from all over the world. However, Rao reiterated that a curriculum review is absolutely necessary – though ‘student experiences [would] not be affected’ by such a review.
Rao’s prediction for student welfare raised laughs from the audience, particularly from members of the Students’ Union, prompting the Pro-Director to exclaim ‘if you don’t want to believe it, don’t.’ This ‘take it or leave it’ attitude prevailed throughout Rao’s 45-minute appearance in the JCR, as she repeatedly insisted that the leaked documents were just a ‘first step’ in a curriculum review process that would include academics, department heads and students and was regardless ‘no longer valid.’
Rao’s claim that the leaked documents were only a ‘first step’ in a curriculum review process is not reflected in the documents themselves, which include ‘next steps’ to withdraw red-rated courses which are ‘neither of high academic quality or cost-effective.’ Students’ Union Co-Presidents Hannah Slydel and Tom King, alongside activists from Democratise SOAS, criticised these ‘next steps’ as being endemic of a culture of institutional unaccountability within SOAS. A Democratise SOAS activist asked students and staff to sign a petition consisting of simple demands to review these problems. Rao’s claim that students and staff are and will always be involved in decision-making processes stands in stark contrast to the fact that only 2 students stand on the school’s academic board and the Executive Board’s rejection of a bottom-up curriculum review.
As the meeting dragged on and students countered Rao’s claims, the Pro-Director urged students in the room to ‘calm down,’ saying that the controversy was the product of an ‘overblown’ response to ‘invalid’ documents. She insisted that any curriculum review would primarily act in the interests of students, but used language which prompted criticism by many students and staff in the room, referring to ‘taking stock’ of SOAS’ ‘portfolio of courses.’ Co-President for Democracy and Education Hannah Slydel viewed such terminology as descriptive of the ‘marketisation of education’ and a senior management culture which is ‘deeply anti-education.’
Students and staff present at the meeting voted that they lacked confidence in Rao’s claims that though ‘curriculum reform will go ahead… to attract good students’ and create an ‘financially sound and academically robust’ course ‘portfolio,’ courses could be ‘repackaged without doing away with any of them at all.’ Ultimately those present at the meeting felt that Rao’s constant reiteration that the document was ‘invalid’ and that students and staff would be consulted in the curriculum review process were false, deciding after senior management figures had left the room to begin a process of combined direct action and petition. Suggestions for action varied from legal solutions to occupations, and students will gather today at 5pm in the Russell Room to decide upon further action.