The SOAS Occupation is both a hopeful and sad reality, which we celebrate on its third week of existence this Tuesday 27th October 2015.
Let us remember where our SOAS Community was at three weeks ago: Heads of Department had a document in their mailboxes outlining decisions made by Executive Board (i.e. Senior Management only) that ordered Departments to plan budgetary cuts according to the 184 courses which would be withdrawn across the University; Estates and Facilities were communicating information about a new tender process which would see all already outsourced workers at SOAS and postal services’ workers brought under new contracts with private companies; a Prevent Working Group was set-up and hard at work implementing the Prevent strategy at SOAS attempting to co-opt the Students’ Union within the process; democratically endorsed processes to implement an Academic Boycott of Israel and to create the position of a Liberation Co-President in the Students’ Union were being dismissed by SOAS Senior Management; and the Governing Body (i.e. the group of people making decisions at the very top) rebranded itself the Board of Trustees. We ask, where is the trust?
In response to the utter disrespect and alarming exertion of power by Senior Management, a group of students and workers took control of a space which (until recently) had no place at SOAS; the Brunei Suite.
Why is the occupation in the Brunei Suite? Well, this high-tech room (fancy chandeliers, cushioned chairs, dressed tables, sleek wooden floor, and trendy-modernistic windows going up the entirety of the outer walls) has always been beyond the reaches of the University’s educational work. The Brunei Suite has been managed, advertised and rented out for purely commercial interests by the University. It was one of Senior Management’s money-making businesses, making money which we – as a Community – couldn’t trace or distribute fairly according to the financial needs in the SOAS Community.
The division us/them is a result of the actions by Senior Management who have been alienating both workers and students’ at SOAS. It is exactly to break this cycle of alienation, division, and tension that SOAS students have reclaimed the Brunei Suite, so that this space can be used by and for the SOAS Community.
Now, let’s be honest about this: an occupation is about putting financial pressure on Senior Management. Why? Because it is quite simply high-time Senior Management begin to institutionally respect what SOAS is: a community of co-producers of knowledge contributing to discourses and struggles for social justice here and there. A community of workers and students. To be clear, at the risk of sounding tautological: we ain’t no customer-service, customer-feeder conveyor-belt oiled by cash and imperial expansionism, and if we are… it might be time we stopped.
And what can the SOAS Community expect from a team of Senior Managers? Democratic, value-driven, and respectful running of day to day affairs of the University. Not authoritarian control.
Direct actions might be polarising at times, however, it is clear that the reality of the political situation on campus demanded a firm response. The fact is that Senior Management was largely unwilling to discuss these issues until we occupied the Brunei Suite. Occupations work in cases when the institution you’re confronting simply has no intention to listen. That has clearly been the case at SOAS, and if you need further evidence, then come to the Brunei Suite.
This is where both our demands and our work comes into the argument. The demands address some of the most pressing values in our SOAS Community which Senior Management is violating. The work the Occupation is doing is creating the SOAS which hasn’t been possible under the structures of management-controlled SOAS.
The talks, workshops, discussions, creations, and nonhierarchical teamwork which have been happening inside the occupation are enabled by the very fact they are happening in a space run for and by the SOAS Community. From self-organising against the good old authority and making collective decisions to having fun nights of music, skipped and free chic-food, and an array of political conversations. United in one occupation we have a variety of causes to fight for, and we’ve seen the potential of collective efforts right here!
To return to the initial statement in this piece: the SOAS Occupation is both a hopeful and a sad reality. The sadness we can contemplate is that it has come to this point, whereby SOAS has been hijacked by a team of Senior Managers wielding obscure balance sheets and million-pound logos. Yet, the hope is that we, in the SOAS Occupation and beyond, are giving space and energy back to the SOAS Community, to once and for all push for bottom-up institutional change and resistance. We are both defending the strength and diversity of the SOAS Community and the SOAS Curriculum, and we are also creating new initiatives and activities to improve the lives and work of people at SOAS. If only Senior Management could care about our lives and our work as well, maybe we could trust them.
On a closing note, it would be quite welcome if Senior Management stopped being so childish, playing with the lights and air-con. We’re here to build a democratic, caring, and respectful academic institution.