An angry student picket forced The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) to cancel lectures following the suspension of staff member Sandy Nicoll. The picket is the latest spat in an ongoing dispute over new director Valerie Amos’s alleged plan to cut SOAS’s budget by £6.5m next year.
Nicoll - who is the secretary of the UNISON trade union branch at SOAS - has worked at the university for 21 years and has been a vocal supporter of the student occupation, as well as past campaigns such as the 2010 anti-fee campaign and Justice for Cleaners.
He was suspended pending an investigation into claims he allowed students to occupy parts of the campus. However, according to the Evening Standard, Nicoll described the allegations as ‘totally untrue’.
Students have been occupying the university’s Brunei building since 6 October in protest of a letter allegedly sent by Baroness Amos outlining plans to slash 184 courses - a third of those offered - from the university’s curriculum next year.
The letter has since been described by Baroness Amos as a ‘misunderstanding’ and, according to The Guardian, she has said that ‘rumours persist’ despite her having told staff and students she has not seen the documentation apparently sent out.
A statement from the occupation groups claims that by suspending Mr Nicoll the university is ‘personally targeting and attempting to make an example of a vocal member of the SOAS community’.
Tom King, 22, welfare and campaigns officer at the SOAS student union described how he asked Baroness Amos if she would rule out compulsory redundancies in the budget cuts. He said: “She wouldn’t, and it’s clear there are going to be job losses.
“The letter said that some courses had no academic quality and it’s an insult to people who work really hard for these courses. It’s degrading to people who teach and study here. These cuts aren’t just to balance the books, they are to run a surplus. It’s unnecessary.”
King also said the courses management wants to cut are ‘small’, adding it’s the specialist courses that mark SOAS out: “If it was just a normal university that did history, politics and law then nobody would bother coming here. They come to get a specialist understanding of the topic.
“We are happy to debate changes to the curriculum. There are changes we would like to see, like more women and black lecturers, but we feel that any decisions have already been made. SOAS have paid for security to patrol the occupation - which we think are being paid around £2,400 a day. This completely contradicts making budget cuts.”
A spokesperson for SOAS declined to offer comment on the accuracy of the £2,400 figure but they have issued a statement apologising for the disruption caused, saying ‘the decision was taken to close the building and the library until the school can provide safe access to the building’.
Some students have expressed frustration but, according to Middle Eastern politics masters student, Becky Boumelha, 22, ‘missing one day of class is not that big a deal when you think of the bigger picture’. She added: “These cuts threaten the nature of SOAS by threatening important courses just on the basis that they don’t meet certain targets.”
Universities are under pressure to make cuts since the department for Business, Innovation and Skills announced a £150m cut to teaching grants in July, which is set to impact the SOAS budget by around £100,000.
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