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Students snubbed by security

By Gabriel Mullins, BA History

 “No Students’ Union representative was consulted during the decision-making process behind this policy document.”

Photo caption: Plan of the proposed gates in the foyer of the Main Building. (Credit: @soasdisabledstudents on Instagram)

SOAS students were ignored in the implementation of new rules banning protests against Director Adam Habib. Under the new guidelines, forms of expression including protests on the SOAS steps and those aimed at individuals, such as the Director Adam Habib and other management figures, are effectively outlawed. Protests must be formally approved, ultimately at the discretion of Habib, and Head of Security, Cornelius Potgieter. Plans to install digital security gates in the foyer of the Main Building have also been revealed, prompting outrage at a lack of consultation, and raising questions over accessibility, union access, and student data protection. 

Speaking about the imposition of the protest rules, Maryam Choudhary, the outgoing SU Co-President for Activities and Events, said, ”No Students’ Union representative was consulted during the decision-making process behind this policy document.” Commenting on the gates, Choudhary said that she was again “disappointed with the lack of engagement with the Students’ Union,” with the proposal document released to the committee on which she sat only a day prior to its meeting.

Students were officially notified of the protest guidelines by the University Communications Team’s ‘Student Bulletin’. Strong objections have been voiced on social media and on campus. The ‘guidelines’ published on MySOAS state that protesters “must not block access to SOAS buildings or conduct any activities on the SOAS steps,” and that “individuals in our community must not be personally targeted … whether on social media or physically on campus.” The document refers to existing policies, such as the Dignity and Respect Policy, and the Policy on Freedom of Speech and the Conduct of Events, but does not quote from them or point out from where these rules can be drawn. 

Choudhary continued, “It is difficult for the SU to support or engage with this when they were not involved in or engaged with during its development.” She explained that the school promised to develop the rules with the SU, with part of the action log for the previous meeting of the relevant committee reading, “The Student Union Representative, the Head of Security and Safety and the Director of Estates will have further discussions outside of the meeting to ensure the policy and procedures for undertaking rallies and protests are workable and understood by staff and students.” She alleges that she was not approached by anyone from the School and that her first email to a senior bureaucrat was ignored. The School has broken its own commitment by failing to properly consult the Union. 

The SOAS Spirit has seen an internal report concerning the guidelines, presented on behalf of the Communications Team by Khadir Meer, the Deputy Vice Chancellor of Finance and Operations, to the Health, Safety, and Risk Committee. This claims that the rules were approved by the Executive Board in light of a survey conducted by ClearView research, on behalf of the trustees, designed to explore “community attitudes to protest and occupation at SOAS.” Students taking part in the survey were told that ClearView’s report would be shared with the community, and many voiced their support for protest action. For example, more respondents agreed than disagreed that “direct action is necessary at SOAS.”

The Spirit has also seen an internal document outlining the Estates Department’s plans to install security gates in the lobby of the main building. These were detailed in a presentation entitled ‘Improving Student Experience’, also based on the survey conducted by ClearView research. 

The presentation acknowledges that security currently operates a system of “personal pass checks which frequently lead to confrontation and accusations of discrimination and intimidation.” It then attempts to justify the installation of the gates on the grounds of reducing this “friction,” and the number of security guards present in the area. However, the proposal is made in the context of the “realigning” of roles within the estates department, a corollary of which is to cut spending wherever possible. It also calls for the continuation of security outsourcing for protest events. 

SOAS Disabled Students Society has criticised the proposal on the basis of a number of accessibility failures. Stella Dixon, President of DisSoc, told us, “This infrastructure does not resolve securitisation, it just outsources it to a gate. It might reduce immediate microaggressions on entry but it does not remove the presence of security and the oppressive institutional environment we face as disabled students. Security has not received any disability training (as discovered in an FOI we submitted), and as president of DisSoc, I have heard multiple cases of harm towards disabled students from security, running the full spectrum from being made uncomfortable because of visible autistic traits to security blocking ramps in the event of a protest. It also does nothing to combat the silencing of student voices through disciplinary procedures, and does nothing to rebuild trust in an environment where students fear being placed on a management watchlist for speaking out.”

Commenting on the protest event guidelines, a SOAS spokesperson said: 

“SOAS is committed to being a place where all members of our community can freely express their opinions and challenge views and perspectives through discourse, spoken word, different art forms, and peaceful protests. To promote a safe environment for all our staff, students, and visitors, we have put together guidelines for our community to facilitate peaceful protests on campus. The guidelines are a living document aimed at serving every student at SOAS. They will be updated based on the feedback we receive from community members. SOAS Provost Joanna Newman is meeting with Sabbatical Officers this month to gather feedback from the Student Union.”

Commenting on access control arrangements, a SOAS spokesperson said: 

“SOAS is committed to maintaining a welcoming and inclusive environment for all members of our university community. At peak times, the main entrance to SOAS can be very busy and it is challenging for front-line staff to support visitors and check the ID cards of those entering the building. To ensure the safety of the SOAS community, we are proposing the installation of automated entry systems in our buildings, bringing SOAS into line with the access control arrangements of the other universities in the area.  This change will allow our front-line staff to focus on assisting visitors, students, and staff, and make it easier for students and staff to collect replacement ID cards.”

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