Syraat Al Mustaqeem, BA English
“SOAS Management has revealed plans to restructure the university’s services, with the library facing cuts between £650,000-675,000”
SOAS Library is facing major cuts following news of the university’s financial crisis. A statement released in December 2018 by SOAS Director, Baroness Valerie Amos, revealed that the university was facing a £7.1 million deficit. In an attempt to tackle this deficit, SOAS Management has revealed plans to restructure the university’s ser- vices, with the library facing cuts between £650,000–£675,000. Paula Sanderson, Registrar and Secretary of SOAS, also released a statement outlining the proposed ‘improvements’ for the SOAS Library.
The Library cuts will primarily affect full-time equivalent (FTE) staff. Of 55 FTE roles, 13 positions are to be “disestablished”, according to the Library Change Manager. If management maintains its policy of avoiding non-voluntary redundancies, this will inevitably necessitate a number of roles being reduced in hours, with accompanying pay cuts. These reduced hours or possible redundancy will make the aims in Sanderson’s statement increasingly difficult to achieve, the Library team argue. The larger dispute lies in the unbalanced focus during restructuring on the SOAS Library and its staff.
“Students said, ‘We need to ensure that SOAS doesn’t sacrifice the jewel in its crown: the library.”
After the restructuring, only regional experts will remain in the library. In the current library structure, there is a separation of roles between regional and subject specialists. Current staff in roles that are at least a 70% match to the proposed, new roles will then be offered those positions. Alternatively, speculation is that staff may be asked to reapply to assess their aptitude for the new roles. Some of the staff have worked in SOAS for decades. This, however, offers no guarantees in the upheaval caused in the system. Subjects whose corresponding positions will no longer exist in management’s plans for the future include: Anthropology, Ancient Near East, Art History, Development Studies, Economics, Finance, Gender Studies, History, Jewish studies, Linguistics, Literature, Management, Migration, Politics, Religion, and Sociology.
Renaming of the new structural components has also caused confusion among students and faculty facing these changes. The purpose of such name changes is unclear. These changes include the change of “Schools” to “Departments”, the renaming of some departments (see: Humans Resources to Head of People) and the aforementioned role changes. Sanderson stated, a “…one-stop-shop service at Library reception” and “…direct face-to-face access to librarians” are offered as part of the new structure. These services already exist at the Library in the form of the Enquiries Desk, Subject Librarians and specialist E-Services staff. Critics claim that cuts in staff will adversely affect the efficiency of these systems by reducing them to a single service. Additionally, the specialised significance of SOAS as a National Research Library will deteriorate and could cost the government funds exceeding £670,000. Director of Librarian Services, Oliver Urquhart Irvine says “Structures only exist to provide the services required, so we’ve got to make sure the structure does that.”
Last year departmental structure changed from the previous format of three large departments to 11 smaller ones. This rearrangement in the structure led to new highly paid (Grade 10) roles being added. In an open letter the SOAS Library staff claim to have gotten no answers as to “why they had added a redundant Grade 10 role to the new structure”. As the new OPS restructure is implemented this year, many members of faculty remain opposed to the changes. They claim that this overall process, including last year’s changes, has reflected a disregard for lower grade and part-time staff, whilst securing the roles of management. Addressing staff, Irvine states, “We wish to foster a culture that is ultimately collaborative and open to continuous improvement.”
All students will be largely disadvantaged by the lack of specialists to help with their education, Library staff argue. This is in contrast to claims of there being a focus on the well being of all students, because the plans, as they stand, will have a larger impact on some students more than others. Masters students especially will be affected by the decrease in specialist support by the time they begin their dissertations, in June/July 2019.
SOAS management has organised the consultations over the Christmas period, perhaps hoping to avoid protests, however, the transition has not been smooth. SOAS staff and students have already held a protest and a walkout to voice their unhappiness. On January 16th, a night-time “sleepover” occupation of SOAS Library was held by fifty students. Occupiers laid out sleeping bags and refused to leave after closing time in solidarity with staff. Students said, “We need to ensure that SOAS doesn’t sacrifice the jewel in its crown: the library.”