More than 30 students occupy SOAS building in solidarity with UCU strikes

Demands include fair workplace and pay, accessibility, and removal of director Adam Habib

A group of more than 30 SOAS students have been occupying management offices of the uni’s Russell building since Wednesday 23rd February, causing the entire building to be shut down.

Occupiers are calling for the uni to meet the demands from UCU, UNISON, and student and worker-led campaigns, which include the “immediate removal of Adam Habib” – SOAS’s director who used the n-word in a student meeting. Habib apologised at the time, saying he was “mortified” at his mistake and was “committed to taking action.”

A SOAS spokesperson told The London Tab: “The SOAS position on the occupation is that we won’t allow intimidation of staff, and we won’t allow the teaching and learning experience of our students to be compromised. Our responsibility is to all our students and the safety of everyone on campus.”

SOAS Strike Solidarity set out a list of demands to be met by the uni for their occupation to end.

Some key ones call for management to implement the 2021 Art and the Afrikan Mind motion (involving removal of director Habib), take policy measures suggested by the SOAS Palenstine and Uyghur Solidarity societies, and meet accessibility demands from the Disabled Students’ Society.

They also want the uni to “decolonise & demarketise” and make student experiences “affordable, accessible and a livable.” Some measures suggested include cutting management salaries and levelling international student fees to domestic students.

To these, a SOAS spokesperson responded to The London Tab: “The challenge in addressing these demands is that they bundle together national issues, matters that are the subject of ongoing processes via established channels such as the unions, and broader campaigns that run across higher education internationally, such as the calls for ending the marketisation of higher education and for decolonisation.”

Occupiers also made several claims against the uni as the context behind their demands and occupation.

They accused management of using “financial difficulty” as an excuse to charge inaccessible tuition despite making £11.2 million in profit last year. The uni responded by saying they “did not make £11.2 million in profit last year.

“This is a surplus which is invested back into the university. Please note that a surplus is different from a profit.”

Protesters also alleged that the uni gives a “colonial education in London” by continuing to “fail students who were offered Afrikan Studies courses, and do not include a single Afrikan university in their list of partnerships for exchange.” 

A SOAS spokesperson found it “difficult to understand this critique being levelled at us when we have made some of the most substantive commitments in this regard.”

They elaborated to The London Tab that  “as part of SOAS’s broader social justice agenda,” they launched a new BA programme called Africa and the Black Diaspora, which gives students the “opportunity to do meaningful projects, explore the regions of their interest through our summer or year abroad programmes where they will travel to African Universities.

“In addition, decolonisation is at the heart of our Strategic Plan – it is captured in our targets for enhanced representation and advancement of Black staff within the academy and our professional services, and the advancement and support of Black students throughout their studies. 

“Our strategic priority to develop equitable partnerships in Africa, Asia and the Middle East is the very basis of decolonisation. We are proud to say that there are very few institutions in the UK that have as significant an agenda on this front as SOAS,” the uni said.

Apart from demands, occupiers accused the uni of “aggressive and inhumane treatment” towards their peaceful protest in a joint open letter with the SU, UCU, and UNISON that has more than 550 signatures. They denounce the uni for making a “concerted attempt to criminalise students” and denying access to toilets and accessible entrances “as a deliberate means of denying students the right to protest.”

After the entire building closed down to stop those supporting the occupation from gathering and bringing in necessities for the occupiers, SOAS Strike Solidarity emphasised they only wanted to establish “an open occupation” and “only caused disruption to the management corridor, where no teaching takes place.

“The closure of the building and subsequent disruption to learning was entirely and unnecessarily the decision of management. Moving classes online is a deliberate tactic used to prevent engagement of members of the SOAS community with the crucial issues that the occupation and the strikes are raising.

“We condemn the closing of the building, the unnecessary disruption to staff and students, and ask for the building to be reopened, and free access in and out of the occupation for all who desire it, immediately,” they said.

A SOAS spokesperson responded: “Our students have had a really tough couple of years in which learning and teaching has been disrupted, and this action may cause further disruption to the experiences of the vast majority of SOAS students. It is also important to ensure that the institution continues to fulfil its commitments to the rest of the SOAS community.

“The occupiers can leave at any time. They can also request to access toilet facilities at any time. If they leave the occupied area to access facilities then they will not be permitted back into the occupied area, as it does constitute an illegal trespass.”

Photo provided by SOAS Strike Solidarity showing students’ banners calling out the uni for denying them access to toilets

The protest is entering its third day as of this article, as negotiations have been unsuccessful.

Occupiers said: “Provided that we leave, we were offered a written commitment that occupying students would be given access to a pre-determined executive meeting, but considering we were shown no action on ANY of our demands, we reject these suggested meetings and bureaucratic procedures that management want us to succumb to as a means of weakening our demands over time.”

Feature images provided by SOAS Strike Solidarity.

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