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SOAS: A Censored Campus

Sam Landis, BA Social Anthropology & International Relations 

Since the onset of term on 26 September, SOAS management, under the direction of Adam Habib, has suppressed freedoms of expression, assembly and protest guaranteed to students and workers. The authoritative tactics adopted this year follow i those taken during of the 2021/22 academic year, which saw decades of iconic artwork  on the walls of our student union painted over, our main building shuttered in the midst of a peaceful and contained student occupation, and the hiring of thirty private bailiffs to forcefully and violently evict occupiers. Despite SOAS capitalising on its history of student activism, protest, and political culture, , management has made it  clear that legitimate action focused on bettering the conditions of students and workers will not be tolerated.

 “Despite SOAS capitalising on the lengthy history of student activism, protest and decolonial sentiment at the university to market itself, management has made clear that legitimate action focused on bettering the conditions of students and workers will not be tolerated.”

This year began with three days of planned strike action from UNISON, the largest trade union in the United Kingdom which represents cleaners, registration workers, IT workers, and others at SOAS. In the face of rampant inflation, the lowest measure for which is 9.8%, UNISON has asked for a 2% pay rise above inflation (an estimated 11.8% total rise) but were offered an inadequate 3% pay rise below inflation (a 3% total rise) –  effectively a pay cut. In protest, UNISON voted to strike, the first two days of which fell on the beginning of SOAS welcome week. Keeping with tradition,  UNISON planned to set up a picket line at the university to encourage students and staff to stand in solidarity with workers, and raise awareness about the situation. Picket lines are essential tools for striking union members to give visibility to their struggle, and are used to place pressure on the institutions denying them fair pay and adequate treatment. SOAS UNISON was shocked to receive an email from COO Khadir Meer days before the planned strike action, stating that picket lines would not be allowed on the main SOAS campus due to fears of ‘harassment and intimidation’. Shunned to the front gates, SOAS hired a barrage of over ten private security guards to prohibit students and staff from constructing a picket line on campus, ensuring strike action would remain on the sidelines.

Within the first few days of welcome week, the private security hired to contain the picket line informed students that they were not allowed to hang or distribute flyers on university property — undermining their ability to engage others in conversations surrounding industrial action and the negligence of management — and partook in several efforts to threaten and intimidate students. One individual helping with UNISON’s strike organisation was told they would be “broken in half”, similarly ,  when a group of students moved to the main campus area to resist the suppression of UNISON’s picket, students were swarmed by eight private security guards who physically tried to restrain them from entering, and  recording their faces with flashing body cameras. The influx of funding directed towards private security both this year and last year, speaks to the larger financial  priorities of SOAS management, which also spent copious amounts of money to remodel our campus while denying workers’  a pay increase to combat the cost of living crisis . This remodelling removed a number of bulletin boards on campus previously used by staff, students and societies to hang flyers, replacing them with charmless SOAS murals. Additionally, management installed an enormous SOAS banner on the side of the Paul Webley Wing where students used to project films. The main building was also still under construction once welcome week began, leaving many unaware how to find the temporary entrance — a side-door tucked in a corner along a driveway. The irony of pushing picket lines off campus to minimise disruption while no one knew how to enter the main building on the first day of school is not lost.

While things have calmed down a bit since the first two weeks of the academic year, efforts to censor students are ongoing, including the threatened removal of the Global Majority tents set up for a “liberating education” week during 10-14 October. It’s safe to say that once another strike is announced, tensions will flare again. As the year progresses, we must recognise that management’s tactics are concerted and led by a man who had dedicated his career to undermining student resistance. As the administration continues to flood your email with surveys about how SOAS cares about student voice, and creates new salaried positions designed to ensure students feel heard and valued, remember what’s happening on the ground. SOAS is becoming a censored campus,  we must unite in resistance against our authoritarian management.

Photo Caption: Student occupiers hold a rally in the face of eviction, March 2022 (Credit: Sam Landis)

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