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SOAS Greenlights Extensive SU Renovation, At What Cost? 

By Toby Oliver-Clarke and Millie Glaister, Editor In Chief and Executive Digital Editor

A fresh renovation of the downstairs area of the main building – including the Russell Room and the former refectory – has been greenlit. The joint venture between the Students’ Union and the SOAS institution is expected to be ready by September 2023. In a statement to the Spirit, SOAS stated:

We (SOAS) are working with the SU to design a new space for students that supports positive student interaction, well-being and experience. The SU are leading on a consultation and engagement piece with a wide range of stakeholders, the outcome of which will inform the final scheme. Preparatory works are currently underway to clear the area of unused equipment, installations and services.’

The SU has opened a consultation project with students. Initially the SU invited Society Committee members to contribute; following this, they released a survey on Friday 20 January (made available until Monday 23 January) providing an opportunity for the wider community to communicate their desires for the project. The results of this survey are supposed to inform the design brief for the space. However, it is unclear if the results will be made available publicly. When approached by the Spirit, the SU commented: 

The SU is delighted to be working with the School in developing the former refectory space into a purpose-built Students Union. Investment in the SU infrastructure is very welcomed, and this refurbishment will enable us to meet the rising demands for our services. From September 2023 SOAS Students can look forward to a modern, accessible Students Union that enriches their extra-curricular experience on campus.’

The survey has sparked controversy surrounding what will happen to the Prayer Space that occupies part of the area planned for renovation. Members of the Islamic Society shared their concerns for the future of the space. In a message shared in the ISOC group chat members stated that, ‘The SOAS population consists of hundreds of practising Muslims. We should be able to use our rights and privileges in the western world to have a safe place where we can practise the freedom of religion, while also completing our well-earned Islamic (and this is emphasised deeply) and British right of education.’

Thus far, the details of the project are limited, with students only being provided a modest timeline and a general idea of what the space may be. As of yet there has been no mention of the budget, nor the source of funding, though this aligns with standard practice at SOAS.  

This project is separate to the previously confirmed renovations of the SU Bar and the JCR, which was supposed to have happened before the start of the 2022/23 academic year, but has faced multiple delays. The Bar/JCR project has continually raised questions from students concerned about a sanitisation of student spaces. 

This was discussed in the SU Trustee Board Meeting on 13 October 2022, in which it was stated that the murals were to be maintained, but the ‘graffiti’ around the bar was a separate issue. The minutes for this meeting note CEO of the SU, Irfan Zaman, stating that ‘we have to take into account the institution’s desires of what the space should be as they are funding the refurb.’ This has brought to the fore the relationship between the SU and the institution’s management. There is seemingly a conflict between the idea of the SU prioritising students and their experience, whilst being dependent on the funding of the institution, whom many students feel do not reflect their interests.  

“With the refurb already underway and strikes set to begin imminently, time will tell whether the renovations’ popularity will itself soon be in need of maintenance”

Against the backdrop of ongoing union action over real terms pay cuts and working conditions, students are struggling to reconcile the idea of multiple new projects with the institution seemingly taking no action to solve disputes resulting in the loss of 18 days of expensive education in the classroom. One such student, Archie Thomas, told us, “It feels like our priorities and those of the institution are in two completely different places, why are we spending money on this extensive refurbishment when our teachers are forced to strike for fair pay, – it doesn’t feel right.” With the refurb already underway and strikes set to begin imminently, time will tell whether the renovations’ popularity will itself soon be in need of maintenance. 

Photo Caption: “graffiti” on the walls of the SU Bar (Credit: Toby Oliver-Clarke).

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