Britain's JNU may lose its specialism: Indian languages, yoga studies face the axe at SOAS

London: Indian students affectionately call it "Britain's equivalent of JNU" because of its radical student politics, cultural diversity and its distinctive international character. And every year hundreds of students from India and other South Asian countries flock to it to pursue high-level academic research often favouring it over more high-profile British universities.

But, now, the School for Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), which has been home to generations of South Asian and African scholars, is at risk of losing its hard-won and well-deserved reputation as the premium centre of specialised research. Because it is running out of money following unprecedented government funding cuts.

In one fell swoop, a whopping 184 commercially non-viable courses –mostly those sought after by scholars from the developing world --are to be scrapped as part of an austerity drive to save up to £5 million over the next three years. There are fears that this would lead to closure of entire departments and a decline in the quality of research SOAS is reputed for.

Students protest at SOAS.

Students protest at SOAS.

The proposed hit list includes scrapping studies in foreign languages including Hindi, Bengali, Sanskrit, Urdu, Swahili and Persian. A course on Sanskrit texts on Yoga, popular with European and African scholars, is proposed to be thrown out. Also out is “Narratives Of Mobility In Contemporary Hindi Literature”, “Cinema and Society in South Asia”, “Imagining Pakistan : Culture, Politics, Gender; “Society, Culture And Politics In Nepal”, and courses on media and human rights. Other specialisations include “Introduction To Arabic Culture”, “Culture In Africa, South East Asia On Film”, “Islamic intellectual tradition”, “Israeli History And The Israel-Palestine Conflict”, and “Perspectives On African Experience”. These are just a few examples of the scale of the planned slaughter.

Students have reacted with fury calling it an assault on the school's very foundations and a threat to its unique international character.It has been variously dubbed a  “long suicide note”,  and a “bonfire’’ of  the school’s most prized assets.

“To take away those unique courses is to take away the heart of SOAS,” one student told The Observer, pointing out that SOAS was known for its “unique courses which attract numbers of foreign students paying top whack, as well as providing fantastic teaching in subjects that you simply could not get at any other university in Britain or elsewhere”.

Saul Jay of the SOAS Students’ Union, asked: “If the school loses its specialisation in the course of trying to cut £5 million, then what will it be? The ‘School of Studies’ would have nothing to set it apart from other institutions.”

The school has been plunged into a crisis with students staging daily protests inside the complex. Indian students say they fully behind the campaign because they will be among the worst- affected if the plans go ahead.

Most Indian students seek out SOAS because it is the only British university which caters specially to their needs. The diversity of its curriculum has also brought with it an enriching diverse cultural mix with students from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka rubbing shoulders with their peers from South-East Asia, Africa, West Asia, and Europe making it a lively melting pot of world cultures.If these courses are scrapped the institution will lose not only its academic pull, but also its cultural appeal.

Kshiti Gala from Mumbai turned down places at Oxford and Yale universities in favour of SOAS because she believes it is the“best place”  to pursue her area of specialisation — a complex strand of development economics.

"I wouldn't have come here if my specialism was not available. And that's the whole attraction of SOAS--its USP is niche research.For example, many students come here only to learn foreign languages. I know a Czech girl who is doing one of the Indian languages and she was quite upset that these might be scrapped,’’ Gala said.

The move has prompted bizarre conspiracy theories. A student from Delhi who didn’t want to give his name alleged that the move was “racist’’ affecting, as it would, mostly “non-whites”.

“I’m not surprised… there is so much anti-immigrant propaganda right now. Lots of people see us as potential migrants and it could all be part of the plan to reduce migration,’’ he said though, when I pressed him whether he really believed in such nonsense, he admitted that he was “just thinking aloud”.

But conspiracy theories, apart, there is genuine concern that it might lead to a dilution of SOAS’s extraordinary cultural diversity.  Gala, the MA scholar from Mumbai, said she was “excited” to get such huge exposure to so many different cultures from around the world.

“I went to Oxford University the other day, and it is great and all that but it is mostly white—and mono-cultural. So, others feel a little left out in the beginning, at least.”

The controversial plans were revealed when the staff received a letter purporting to be from the new SOAS directorBaroness Valerie Amos with a list of courses proposed to be abolished. It described the courses as “neither of high academic quality nor cost effective”.

When the letter got leaked to the media sparking a row, Amos bizarrely denied having ever sent it. But, she didn’t deny either the planned funding cuts or the list of courses to be dumped. To the fury of the students she dismissed their reaction as a “storm in a teacup”, claiming that it was only the start of a “curriculum review’’; and no decision had been taken.

Nobody, of course, is buying her explanation and she stands accused of telling “porkies’’ and trying to wriggle out of a difficult situation. More to the point, Amos has behaved exactly like a politician that she is.  She’s a high-profileLabour figurewho went on to become British High Commissioner to Australia and then a senior UN official. She has no previous experience of running even a school, let alone an international university.

Ultimately, however, it is not about Amos. It is about the deep financial crisis that the British higher education has been facing for more than a decade now and shows no sign of going away despite the introduction of tuition fee in the face of strong public opposition. And the crisis will only deepen as the cost of running universities increases while the government keeps cutting down funding.

As universities scramble to save money, the first casualty are liberal arts increasingly seen as easily dispensable because a degree in humanities doesn’t have the same currency in the job market as professional courses have.

The crisis at SOAS is a symbol of a deeper malaise. And its victims, this time, happen to be us.

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Updated Date: Oct 16, 2015 09:51 AM

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