Protests have erupted at SOAS today leading to the closure of the Main Building. The protests began this morning as a result of the SOAS Management’s decision to suspend Sandy Nicolls, the UNISON Branch Secretary. Hundreds of demonstrators peacefully gathered at SOAS at approximately 1pm to voice their anger at the university’s decision to suspend Mr Nicolls.
Mr Nicolls was suspended by SOAS management, because they believe that he helped non-SOAS students to get inside the Main Building during the occupation of the Directorate Office on Tuesday 27th October. Sandy has categorically denied the accusation of gross misconduct and has vowed to fight the suspension. In an email sent to SOAS students the next day, Baroness Amos, the SOAS Director complained that “significant disruption, distress and upset to staff within the directorate and surrounding offices” was caused. Students had already occupied the Brunei Suite since 6th October after a leaked document suggested the university was planning to cut the courses.
Speakers at the demonstration today voiced their disgust not only at Sandy’s suspension, but the proposed Trade Union Bill, the proposed SOAS course cuts and the new contract for cleaners at SOAS. Sandy Nicolls himself was the main speaker at the protest and was overwhelmed by the support; “this is not about me as an individual. This is an attack on a union branch that’s stood in solidarity alongside the UCU. It’s about their plans to cut your education and to make your lecturers redundant, to make your staff redundant. That’s what it’s really about.”
Messages of support for Sandy came not just from SOAS students and staff, but from all over the country. They came from Warwick, Cambridge, Islington, RMT London Region, Guy’s and Thomas Trust, and Goldsmith Students’ Union, plus many others. But John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor was the highest profile figure to speak out against Sandy’s suspension: He sent the simple message: “I send my solidarity to you this morning and offer my support for the reinstatement of Sandy Nicoll, John.”
Protests at SOAS have been aplenty since the start of the academic year. Though the shutdown of the Main Building was directly related to SOAS management’s decision on Mr Nicolls, protests have abounded over course cuts and the upcoming Cleaners’ contract. Multiple speakers emphasised the importance of the cleaners’ new contract. There has been an eight year campaign by SOAS to bring the outsourced cleaners in house and have them employed by the university. Next month, the cleaners’ contract is up for renegotiation and renewal and Sandy has been a key union organizer against the outsourcing of the cleaners.
Tom King, the Welfare and Campaigns Officer for the Students Union was vitriolic in his condemnation of Baroness Amos, the SOAS Director. Baroness Valerie Amos, who has been the Director of SOAS for just under two months has faced a mountain of criticism over the proposed course cuts. She has declined to comment on the suspension itself saying it would be “inappropriate.”
In his speech, King took no prisoners over Amos: “How dare you suspend our friend, our comrade, our colleague! How dare you attack our collective right to organise on campus! How dare you try to intimidate student protestors with extra security!” He also lambasted the Director over the proposed course cuts: “Last year, SOAS made a surplus of £1m. They made that surplus despite under-recruiting undergraduate and postgraduate students. SOAS is not in a financial crisis, whatever management says…It’s completely ideological, it’s completely unnecessary, and we’re going to fight it every step of the way and we’re going to win.”
Baroness Amos has already denied that she had backed plans to abolish a third of the institution’s courses. These included over a quarter of undergraduate courses in the arts and humanities department, just under a third of undergraduate courses in the languages and culture department and up to forty three percent of courses in art and archaeology. The worst victim of the proposed slashing are First year Art History courses though. 100% of them face the chop.
The proposed savings have been made “in order that the School can invest in the things it will have to do to remain financially stable,” says the SOAS Director. SOAS Management are aiming for £3 million of saving by 2017-18 despite the fact that they have run a surplus for six of the last seven financial years, and ran a surplus of £7 million in all between 2009-10 and 2011-12.
The demonstration was not without its fun points though. The protestors engaged in a dance called the ‘Strikey, Strikey,’ a play on the hokey cokey. There was also the wonderful sight of people entering the Brunei Suite through the window as security had blocked off the entrance, making them look pointless. Billy Bragg played on the stereo while banners proclaiming ‘Stand 4 Sandy,’ ‘Fractionals for Fair Play’ adorned Russell Square. The non-violent protest passed without incident and the demonstrators continue to occupy the Brunei Suite in their masses.