As a SOAS student, I’m saddened by the state of our university

‘Am I paying to be ignored and addressed as the N-word?’


As a SOAS student, this is not the same university I attended class at two weeks ago.

It now resembles a battleground, with signs everywhere and students walking around in confusion. The campus is now full of chatter about the occupation. As you enter from Russell Square, a cursory glance to the right means you’ll see a group of students protesting on the roof.

The campus atmosphere gives me a grim feeling as if it’s been abandoned. It feels like something from a war film.

Students of the occupation making their demands known from the roof

I personally feel that as students, we’re all tired of how irresponsible the management and directors have been and we are demanding to receive the education we are paying for, the education we deserve.

As an international student, I feel like I overpaid for the education they gave me last year, which was entirely online. It would take administration staff weeks, sometimes months, to reply to just one email. I was severely depressed because it seemed as if I had no control over the school year. They planned as they went along, and it destroyed the mental health of my friends, my classmates, and myself.

They charged me, an American student, the equivalent of $60,000 USD for a Master’s degree – an unimaginable amount when you see the state of the school right now. What on earth did we pay for?

The demands and the avoidance

Considering that all the students are asking for is for their demands to be heard, this has gone too far. Some of those include:

Accept, implement and advocate for the demands of the UCU and UNISON. 

Accept the demands from student and worker-led campaigns at SOAS, namely: 

  • Provide English classes for the cleaning team as promised by the uni in 2018
  • Meet UNISON’s request that all their SOAS representatives receive a £1,250 bonus, especially key workers on campus throughout the pandemic
  • Refund the BA Afrikan student at the centre of this incident their fees and compensate for the harm caused by Habib
  • Apologise publicly to the student affected by Habib’s violation of the Equality Act 2010 and SOAS Dignity Policy and another student who was affected by Habib’s misogyny
  • Give mitigating circumstances to Black students
  • Work with organisations/groups that will offer anti-Black, anti-racist, and neurodiversity training for staff 

Some of these stem from Director Habib using the N-word during an all-student meeting last school year. He wrote to the school afterwards to “apologise unreservedly” and promised to “recognise the hurt and distress that has been caused and continue to listen,” it was still the last thing students needed to hear during the Covid lockdowns. 

Two SOAS students in support of the occupation

The protest

Protest banners were torn and withering away from Storm Eunice’s fury, fluttering in the breeze like paper flags. I looked at the barely readable signs dangling in the wind and felt so bad that this is what it takes to be heard. It looked like a prison.

How long they had been there, clinging to the bars of university windows, waiting for someone from management to look up at them and make a change? I wondered to myself how management could walk past these signs and somehow convince themselves that we, the students, are the problem? We are clearly being affected by the way they are running the school.

The occupiers were risking their health just to be heard, but it seemed like everything was falling on deaf ears and blind eyes.

In front of the main building was a huge barricade with a sign that read “Students in, Habib Out.” 15 students sat on the steps behind it, wanting nothing more than to be let back into the campus.

One SOAS International Studies and Diplomacy student on the steps told me, “SOAS management is causing more issues by closing the uni instead of addressing the demands of the students.”

And it wasn’t just SOAS students there; the protest is gaining attention and support from students all across London.

Neema from Queen Mary said: “I am here to support the students and faculty.

“The staff members on strike are being held as employees without pay. If faculty strikes during one of their scheduled classes and do not find time to reschedule the class, they will not be paid at all until they reschedule the one class [cancelled because of their strike],” she said.

Students occupying the steps

Then, we heard one of the occupation’s organisers yell to the management through a megaphone: “Show yourself and come speak to the students on the steps!”

I was personally amazed at the bravery of these students. A student on the steps who wished to remain anonymous said to me: “There are currently 15 students occupying inside the main building of SOAS, they are in the hallway outside the directors’ and management offices on the first floor. They have been sleeping there as well.”

I was in shock. These students had been occupying and sleeping inside of SOAS for seven days and had been pushed and pulled by security just for standing their ground and asking for their demands to be met.

I sent them my support in the form of food and water in a bucket hanging from the window on a rope.

SOAS students being violently prevented from going inside the main building by security guards

Speaking to more students, I came across Laila, who studies anthropology at SOAS.

“How was Mr Habib appointed?” she asked me. Coming from Turkey, she thought directors have to be voted in and asked again: “Who voted Habib in?”

These are questions I want answers to as well.

Laila, SOAS Student studying Anthropology

Laila, a SOAS Student studying anthropology

Suddenly, about 100 primary students walked onto the campus with confusion on their faces. I was also confused to see young kids in uniforms before I realised that it was SOAS’s opening day!

The primary students were quickly guided out of the protest and away from the university by their teacher, but I wondered whether they saw the students’ solidarity or SOAS management’s recklessness.

Primary students come on campus for opening day at SOAS

I received a notification and checked my email.

Our director Adam Habib, who was inside the building, sent a blast across the school banning students from being in the main building and saying that if occupiers left to use the toilet, they would not be allowed back inside. This made me think of how a student in contact with the occupiers said, “Students who are inside the building currently are not allowed to use the facilities inside the school and have been urinating and defecating in cups.” 

As I was leaving the campus, I noticed someone looking out of a window. I didn’t think anything of it until I realised it was the management monitoring the protest while a group of security guards sneaked Habib out the side of the building.

“Mr Habib!” I yelled while chasing up to him. He turned his head slightly but did not look back. I thought the protesters must be disappointed to know that he snuck out of the building, turning his back on the demands they were working so hard to make heard.

Adam Habib Sneaking out the side of the Building

Final Thoughts

To my surprise, I ran directly into Habib again near Russell Square. He was with two aggressive-looking bodyguards, but I knew I had to try expressing the students’ frustration to him.

“Mr Habib, I am a student at SOAS and I don’t appreciate what is happening!” I called out.

He told his bodyguards: “It’s okay, she’s okay.” But he didn’t acknowledge what I said and brushed past me. I was left there, ignored like all the protesters and occupiers. It made me think:

Am I paying to be ignored and addressed as the N-word?

SOAS students holding hands in solidarity

In response, a SOAS spokesperson told The London Tab: “We have said throughout that we support the right to peaceful protest at SOAS, but it must be done in a mutually tolerant and respectful way. If it violates the rights of others, through intimidation and/or preventing them from coming to work, and it compromises our operations, which in turn impacts on teaching and learning, then it is our responsibility to intervene to protect the rights of the majority of our collective community.

“The occupiers had access to food, water and toilets throughout – this was never in question. However, if the occupiers left the occupied area to access toilets facilities, then we did not escort them back into the occupied area, as the occupation constituted an unlawful trespass.

“The Director is always very happy to meet with students if they go through the normal process of requesting a meeting via his office. It is inappropriate for individuals to be accosted in the street. It would be also useful to note that the Director does not have bodyguards – these were normal security officers of the university who thought it prudent to walk with him. They were not aggressive, and it is unfair to describe them as such.

“With regard to the issues raised by the student in the stand first of this article, the Director apologised for his use of the N-word last year during a meeting with students where a student questioned SOAS’s responsiveness to anti-black racism and suggested that a staff member had used the word without consequences. The Director responded that if someone used the word against another member of SOAS community, then it would violate SOAS policy and action would be taken. The student’s suggestion that anyone would be addressed in this way is categorically untrue. We collectively abhor all forms of chauvinism and discrimination.

“We stand for anti-racism, and against antisemitism and all other forms of cultural, ethnic and religious chauvinism as set out in our SOAS Charter on Racism, Antisemitism and All Forms of Cultural, Ethnic and Religious Chauvinism.”

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