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Students and Staff walkout in protest of proposals to reshape student support

By Ali Mitib, BA Law and Politics.

On the 24th November, hundreds of students and staff walked out of SOAS en masse in protest of proposals to reshape administration departments. Representatives from the Students’ Union, UNISON, the University and College Union (UCU) addressed the protestors on why these proposed change will be damaging to the student experience.

The proposed changes would restructure student support by introducing the ‘One Professional Service’. In the current system of departmental-based support, departments employ officers who have in-depth knowledge about the degrees programmes of the faculty. This in-depth knowledge allows officers to answer inquiries from students.

Under the new proposals, student support would be moved to Hubs, where all students will go to receive advice and have their questions answered. The proposals state that there will be three Hubs with each hub being staffed by five student support officers who service three to four departments.

While SOAS Senior Management has stated that the proposals are aimed at improving the student experience, this view is not shared by the rest of the university community.

In October 2018, a SOAS Academic Senate Motion calling for the physical co-location of administrative support staff within each department was passed by 91% of participating academics and was co-sponsored by 10 out of 11 Department Heads. When the vote was reported to the Academic Board, Valerie Amos, the Director of SOAS, is reported to have said, “Academic staff had no formal standing to decide matters pertaining to administrative support.”

Students have voiced their opposition to the proposals for not providing not adequately support students due to a lack of ability to provide specialised support. The proposed changes are set to be in place by September 2018.

The creation of hubs has been heavily criticised, as many believe that it will not achieve Management’s aim of improving the student experience. Many critics point to the difficulties students have faced with the Weston Student Hub, which was heavily criticised for offering inadequate advice and support.

In a Students’ Union (SU) petition calling to ‘Save Academic Student Support at SOAS’, the SU stated that Amos’s response to the Academic Senate Motion is demonstrative of a “serious institutional gap in governance.” The petition also states “the Students’ Union was not consulted (at all!) until after the School-wide formal consultation was launched on 12 November. Despite Students’ Union participation in activities organised for ‘staff conversations about the Student Experience’ the Students’ Union have not been given the opportunity to formally feed into and shape the proposals that have been put on the table by Senior Management.”

Speaking at the Walkout, SU Co-President for Democracy and Education, Nisha Phillips, said “When we were up there earlier (working group meeting between the SU, Management and academic support staff) so many support staff kept raising issues that they haven’t been asked properly or that they haven’t been listened to in this discussion and that they haven’t had the opportunity to make their voices heard or to shape any proposal.”

Nisha Phillips stressed the need for “better support for our staff and better support for our students and academics”. She expressed the desire to achieve this but states the current process and the dismissal of concerns of the SU, students and academic staff will not allow these goals to be achieved.

At the walkout, Sandy Nicoll, SOAS Unison Branch Secretary, stated that administration staff delivers a level of service that students deserve but that management are an “obstacle” to this. Nicoll emphasised that there has been no consolation of students, staff or academics on the issues in the support provided to students.

Nicoll states that instead of formulating a consultation document with a working group, Management “start from a proposal that suits them, then they send it out to consultation meanwhile they have a discussion on what they will implement before that consultation has concluded. Nicoll emphasised that the consultation process is a “farce” and “absurd”.

Francesca Floris, SOAS SU Women’s Officer, stated that “Senior management wants to talk about improving student experience but they have not consulted the students about our experiences. That is why we are walking out – management does not want to hear nor do they care about what we have to say.”

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