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SOAS Budget Deficit: Alternative financing and restructuring

By Arooj Sultan, BA Economics and Politics and Hannah Somerville, MA Arabic Literature

There are currently five principles that form SOAS’ financial strategy and therefore mould the school’s corporate objectives, and the way in which those objectives are achieved. A reading of those principles makes it clear that the university’s primary objective is to move from a deficit to a surplus. Currently SOAS is operating with an approximate deficit of £5 million, and as per its financial strategy it is looking to reduce the deficit by £3 million by 2020. As per the aforementioned principles this will be done through cost reduction; external funding/financing; income growth; and the establishment of distance learning programs. Although it will primarily be done through cost reduction and external funding— as properly setting up and operating the distance learning programs will take a considerable amount of time, and the income growth may not be as substantial as hoped (e.g 5% yearly inflation increase in all unregulated fees yet enrolment numbers, particularly international students, were the lowest this year since 2011). And to that end, the ‘Questions Worth Asking’ campaign was launched in September 2016. Though the university hasn’t explicitly linked this campaign with its budget deficit combating strategy.

The Questions Worth Asking campaign is the largest fundraising drive by SOAS to date. The campaign aims to answer some of the most complex sociopolitical and economic questions the world is currently facing, such as ‘Is there a solution to the world’s refugee crisis? What happens after war?’ and ‘Should we all speak the same language?’ etc. This campaign aligns completely with SOAS’ unique brand and has been met with great enthusiasm by the SOAS community, as for many SOASians it extends their engagement, further, with the issues that drew them to come study at SOAS in the first place. Questions Worth Asking had already managed to secure £40 million of its £100 million goal around the time of its launch, and has since continued to receive generous donations. However, it is still not close to meeting its ultimate goal and some of the funding received has been conditional, meaning that this campaign may not be as viable a source of external funding as it may initially appear to be. The fact that different portions of the funding are conditional constrains the university from spending the money as it sees fit, for example, on decreasing the budget deficit or investing it in its current departments. The major donations to the campaign in the last few months have been earmarked for specific, rather niche, projects such as the £5million for Zoroastrian studies or the £173,000 for Jewish Music. So while these are important projects that are now getting the attention and development that they require, the university doesn’t seem to making much headway in financing its deficit via this avenue.

All this then leads back to cost reduction being the most likely financial course of action for the school. And, as it has even been stated in their official financial strategy, there will be a greater emphasis on staffing cost reduction. This has led to fears of pay cuts and redundancy among SOAS staff, though the university has previously stated that there are no plans for compulsory staff redundancies. The university plans to save on costs by opting for a sustainable growth design, which it will follow through building all budgets from the ground up (zero-based budget) and major restructuring through the One Professional Service.

A sweeping programme of restructuring took place at SOAS last year and saw the school’s former three faculties transformed into 11 departments. This year a further set of changes, known as the ‘One Professional Service’, is on the cards and is due to affect all professional services underpinning the work of academic staff and students.

The broad framework for One Professional Service was rubber-stamped in summer 2017 and the changes are due to be in place by September 2018. On November 10 a SOAS staff consultation, running until December 11, was launched proposing that the Student and Academic Experience Directorate – which encompasses support services, careers, wellbeing, registry, housing, finance and immigration – be split into six new structures.

It was initially thought that administrative support staff would be physically co-located within the 11 new departments, an idea supported by both the Students’ Union and the SOAS Academic Senate.

But instead student and academic support is set to be split across three ‘hubs’ in strategic locations – alongside the Weston Student Hub, which dealt with 26,000 queries in the past 12 months – with each one servicing three to four departments, staffed by up to five Student Support Officers’How student and academic support could look next year, according to the consultation documents’

The document states: “Whilst a sense of belonging to an academic home is acknowledged as being very important, we also wish to avoid students attending multiple offices when seeking answers to various questions. We know that this particular aspect of SOAS provision is one which causes a high degree of frustration and dissatisfaction amongst both students and staff.”

The proposals have drawn stinging criticism from the Students’ Union, which claimed the One Professional Service would drive ‘yet another wedge of middle management and bureaucracy’ between students and their departments. At the Union General Meeting on November 12, co-president Dmitri Cautain said: “All of it has been proposed in the name of improving the student experience. The most important caveat is that no students have been involved in drawing up any of these proposals.

“They are very disrespectful towards the staff and also very disrespectful towards the students. They are top-down, imposed by management, and this consultation is an absolute hoax.”

The SU has set up a petition opposing the changes, and demanding that all reforms dealing with academic and student support require approval from the SU and the Academic Board. In response a SOAS spokeswoman said a ‘working group’, including some students, would be formed to sit through the consultation process. She added: “The particular focus of the group will be on the student and academic support elements of the proposal. We are working with the Students’ Union to develop wider opportunities for student engagement with the student body – including surveys, focus group works and a workshop building on the interactive approach adopted at the staff workshop earlier this term.”

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