‘SOAS is unusual. It’s a very unique institution’

Paul Webley, Director of SOAS, speaks to our Editor Tom King about the changes and challenges that face the School

This summer marked eight years since Paul Webley took over the directorship of SOAS; a period that has seen considerable change to the School, and the university sector as a whole. “The transformation to what is essentially a marketised higher education system is really quite stark…the level of competition that produces is huge,” he tells me.

When he arrived, Professor Webley says, “SOAS was indeed regularly making, not big losses, but losses every year, and the first thing I was told by Governing Body was ‘we’re projecting a loss next year, could you please turn it round’.” He did and the School is now, for the most part, running annual surpluses, which Webley says has allowed for investment in upgrading facilities. But he says the most surprising thing was that SOAS lacked a sense of purpose. “SOAS didn’t seem to know what it was doing. I was really surprised. SOAS is unusual. Its a very unique institution; small and specialist. It must know what its doing. But it didn’t.” Webley set to work producing a vision for what SOAS is all about and says that people now have a clearer idea of the School’s purpose.

Before joining the School, Webley had spent 26 years at the University of Exeter rising to Head of the School of Psychology and, finally, Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor. He originally studied for his undergraduate and postgraduate degrees at LSE and his research explored the contribution that psychology can make to economics; he is a member of the Journal of Economic Psychology’s Editorial Board.

Looking to the future, Webley identifies a number of challenges for SOAS in an increasingly competitive higher education sector. “We’re in a system now which is very volatile and highly competitive,” he says, with a risk that other universities are trying to move into SOAS’ niche. “For years, what we did, we did distinctly and no-one else did, but what you’ve seen in recent years is other universities both within and outside London introducing Chinese degrees, setting up India institutes like King’s and LSE setting up a Middle East institute.” Does this mean SOAS will have to compete by shifting focus from language courses like Hausa, which are expensive to provide, to ‘cheaper’ degrees? “We see ourselves as an area-based university,” he says, “which has to be informed by languages. That’s what makes us distinctive…if we stopped doing those things, we’d stop being SOAS.” The challenge, Webley says, is the balancing act of cross-subsidising degrees which are more costly from those that are cheaper to put on. However, this can only go so far; “In a market system you respond to the student demand, what else are you supposed to do.”

This year SOAS hasn’t grown in terms of student numbers, in fact the number of undergraduates is down for the first time. A substantial proportion of this year’s intake were recruited through ‘Clearing and Adjustment’; the last minute system for students to apply for spare places at the end of August. So, is SOAS able to attract enough students to sustain itself? “This year was our trickiest year.” Webley tells me, “but do I think we’re doing something that is attractive to students? My feeling would be yes.” Failing to bring in more students will have consequences for SOAS’ coffers, however, so will we be lowering entry requirements to ensure student numbers? “Its all a matter of degree, how flexible are we prepared to be? We’re prepared to be slightly flexible, but we’re not going to admit people here who couldn’t succeed on degrees.” Webley adds that “There’s always a trade off between these two things. We’ve got to maintain the quality of intake, because we want to make sure we have good students who are able to benefit from the education we offer. On the other hand, if we were talking about a one-off year that you were going to be losing money, we might be prepared in this particular year to be flexible to make sure we’ve got the money.”

This year SOAS has slipped in some league tables, which rank universities on a number of variables. Professor Webley says “We actually went up last year about as much we came back down again this year…its not fair to say there’s been a trend downwards.” He adds that “the SOAS league table is very unusual” in that most universities have broadly similar scores on each of the criteria being assessed. “Ours are all over the place. We might be in the top ten for this and then we’re 50th for that.” What can SOAS do to improve its student experience and boost its standing in league tables? He says it’s important that where SOAS has established expectations, like on three week essay turnaround, the School needs to deliver. The personal tutor system is also an area Webley feels is in need of improvement; “when I talk to students I get quite a variable impression, some say it was great, some say I’ve never known who my personal tutor was.” There’s a need to make sure the pastoral network forms a consistent safety net for students, he tells me.

Some university leaders have said the market logic in higher education should be followed to its obvious conclusion by lifting the cap on fees for home and EU students so that each institution can set its own rate, and potentially bring in extra income. Webley, however, is not one of them, but he does have concerns over current funding arrangements. “There is a bit of a concern, because what we’ve got, almost certainly, is a system that’s not sustainable…but also that is constraining our income in a serious way. We’ve got a £9,000 cap which doesn’t go up each year. When the cap was £3,000 it went up each year [in line with inflation] and it got up to £3,600, £3,700…even with low inflation we’ve got to the point where the £9,000 fee is worth less.” So while he doesn’t want the cap lifted, Webley says that the lack of inflationary rises is causing a problem. Will it fall on international students to pay even higher fees to make up the difference? “Well, it means we have to raise the income we have to raise.”

So what is it that Professor Webley does on a day-to-day basis? “Usually lots and lots of meetings”, he tells me. “What have I done this morning? I’ve had a pre-meet to discuss a meeting, another pre-meet to discuss a meeting, the meeting itself, which was Executive Board.” and, of course, managing a constant stream of emails. Generally, Webley says his role consists of three things; managing, leading and representing SOAS. This is everything from meeting with ambassadors and taking decisions on staff promotion to providing an overall vision for the School and selling us to the outside world.

Resting behind his desk is a hard hat – emblazoned with SOAS’ new golden tree – and a pair of sturdy-looking boots, a nod to the development that is surely dominating the landscape both metaphorically and literally – Webley’s office has a direct view over the Senate House building site. He says he’s extremely disappointed the project has been held up and now fears completion may be pushed back to Spring 2016. However, the timing may prove fortuitous; the grand opening, pencilled in for June, will be just in time for SOAS’ centenary celebrations. “Seizing an opportunity out of something that’s very irritating”, as Webley puts it. Students will also perhaps be relieved that a move midway through the academic year now seems unlikely.

The move to North Block has thrown the future of Vernon Square into doubt. It still seems likely that the building will be sold off, but Webley recognises that real estate in central London, which the School owns outright, has the potential to be an asset worth hanging on to. One proposal has been to transform the campus into a new student halls to provide accommodation that SOAS is sorely lacking. “That doesn’t seem feasible in terms of the planning,” Webley says; Islington Council are not keen on having any more student halls in the area. Nonetheless, Webley tells me, “We need to find a solution for student residences long term. There just aren’t enough places.”

Not only are there too few places currently, but eventually the agreement which guarantees rooms for SOAS students at the Sanctuary-run halls on Pentonville Road will expire. The halls, previously owned by the School, were sold off before Webley’s time – a decision he feels was a mistake – and he indicates that his preference in future would be for halls run and owned by the School. “My take on student residences is that I don’t quite understand what the need is to involve private providers in them at all.” Webley says, “If it works, if you can run your halls of residence so that you charge a sensible sum for them that covers the costs of them and makes a nice surplus to cover other things, why can’t you run them yourselves?”

More immediately, what is SOAS doing about the cockroach infestations, broken showers and mice running round kitchens at Dinwiddy? “We have striven mightily in the past to do something about this, the problem is…we have no say in the matter” Professor Webley says “We have all the responsibility but no power, we can do nothing. We can talk to them but the relationship is between the students and the Sanctuary management.”

Last year, saw substantial disruption to the School’s running, for a number of days the main building was effectively closed down, due to staff’s strike action over pay. Professor Webley says these were part of a national pay dispute and “it’s not surprising that after a number of very low years of pay increases, all of which were less than 1%, that actually employees were looking for a larger pay rise…nor does it seem to me surprising that on the other side of the coin for the institutions to be saying….we haven’t actually got the money…its a consequence of less money coming into universities.”

The cleaners’ and fractional teaching staff disputes are about SOAS though. Webley says he’s not optimistic about the ‘shared services’ model that would see cleaning staff employed by a company across a number of University of London colleges. In any case, this option was not favoured by the Justice for Cleaners campaign, which wants to see cleaners directly employed by SOAS. The issue, Webley claims, is not about outsourcing, but about terms and conditions. “We have a large number of outsourced contracts and I actually find it slightly irritating when people focus on the issue of cleaners…cleaners do not have the worst terms and conditions of any staff here at SOAS…its actually the security staff.” He says Governing Body are seeking to improve the employment conditions of outsourced staff and this will be done “over time”. On the fractionals’ campaign, he says, “we put a lot of time into negotiations…its clear that at least some fractional staff are not happy with the outcome. We have offered improved terms and conditions this year.” Its clear that the Fractionals for Fair Play campaign, as well as Justice for Cleaners, are set to fight on.

Now, barely a six weeks into term and the higher education union, UCU, has imposed a marking boycott that could mean students receive no formal feedback or marks until a deal is struck over planned pension changes. Webley thinks the action is premature and should be suspended until negotiations have progressed further. He repeats the line that SOAS use in every dispute: “Our priority is to minimise the impact on students,” and says it is likely staff will try to provide as much feedback to students as possible within the framework of the boycott. Does he have any concerns about the proposals that could see staff’s pensions slashed by as much as 27%? “We send our view off to UUK [Universities UK] which is the negotiating body for us, we may disagree with what people say… [but] its not helpful for people to break ranks.”



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