‘Courageous conversations’: students occupy SOAS library

Recently, we reported on a campaign against major cuts at SOAS library. This week students occupied the library in protest. Seth Uzman reports on the occupation, and sets it in the wider context of education struggles internationally and here in the UK, where UCU and EIS-ULA (see video here) members are currently balloting for industrial action.

Please sign the petition in defence of SOAS library and email your opposition to management plans today (18 January) at  onepsconsultation@soas.ac.uk, cc’ing in savesoaslibrary@gmail.com.

Students occupying SOAS library in support of staff organised video-links and film screenings. Photo via facebook

Over 50 students launched an occupation of the SOAS library on Tuesday night, lasting through Thursday morning, and escalating an ongoing battle against a cuts regime threatening to slash the library staff by 25%.  The ‘sleepover’ on Tuesday followed a rally and walk-out organized earlier in the day by student and Unison activists, supported by over 100 students, faculty and staff.

On Thursday morning, demonstrators disrupted an administrative training hosted in the library, entitled ‘courageous conversations’.  The irony was not lost on activists who have been fighting the cuts since the administration announced them ‘courageously’ during the last week of term in December – just as campus workers and students were chasing deadlines and preparing for the Christmas holidays.

The cuts have proven to be a miscalculation by management. They were immediately met with a swift and aggressive rejoinder before the end of term from students, faculty and staff.  Since then, the administration has been on the back foot, postponing formal consultations with campus workers. This has opened up space and time for students and workers to organize.

However, the university’s relentless disinformation campaign – now patiently answered line-by-line by library staff – reveals an administration that can only offer nonsense to defend its obscene initiatives.  The deep thinkers within the SOAS administration have made all manner of remarkable discoveries: SOAS employs more specialist librarians than other institutions with entirely different academic commitments! Scandal! The shortcut to ‘one-stop shop services’ is for one worker to perform all of them at once!  The division of labour is good – except when it’s bad. If the labour theory of value needed any demonstration, it’s in the absurdities managers throw up to explain why they want less of it.

Tellingly, the attempts of the administration to break and hollow out the library staff extend back to 2005, where it met with defeat after fightback from Unison.  This latest iteration arrives as the administration, headed by Director Valerie Amos, seeks to hollow out SOAS to make it more attractive to other institutions seeking to absorb and re-purpose it. The socially reproductive work that sustains an institution such as SOAS depends on a labour-intensity of a special type. Workers will continue to resist the imposition of lean production models as capitalist crises intensify. This is a battleground that is not going away.


The occupation has already carried out two crucial tasks.

First, it exposed the bankruptcy of the administration’s entire stream of bad fiction: in particular, the lie that students support the cuts or situate themselves as consumers of a commodity once called a university education.

Ironically, for all of management’s talk of establishing a 24-hour library service, students effectively achieved that through their action in solidarity with campus workers on Tuesday night: more than a few students passively supported the occupation and remained after closing hours quietly studying. Students are well aware of the impact that the neoliberalisation of British higher education has had on their classroom experience. To give just one example, as of this year free courses in non-English languages are no longer available.

Moreover, the same tactics students used to oppose tuition hikes in 2010, they have revived to defend the livelihood of campus workers.  Significantly, in the face of a secular decline in student activism at SOAS as the university experience has been increasingly privatized, the occupation has both reclaimed university space and sought to recover an increasingly endangered radical and democratic culture.  Decisions taken by occupiers followed open, democratic discussion and created spaces, through film screenings and discussion, for participants to rediscover the memory of past campus struggles.

Second, the occupation demonstrated that when the library is cut, the entire university bleeds.

Once subject librarians are eliminated, what does it mean for the departments, academics and graduate students working in those subject areas?  It’s the beginning of a larger offensive.  The library security guards, however, internalized this within minutes, who after some stern initial encounters with demonstrators, acknowledged and supported the occupation’s purpose, confessing ‘We know our jobs might be next.’ Until workers politically impose a different set of social priorities on government budgets, all of jobs will be next.

While balloting for strike action among Unison members has already begun, the library is the latest moment of a much broader assault on public and higher education.

The occupations arrive as the strike ballot has also reached 70,000 UCU members at over 140 universities in the UK, as well as EIS-ULA staff in Scottish post-92 universities.  The threat of a strike during exam time (a marking strike), following so recently after the massive university strikes of the previous winter, carries thunder ahead of it that management both hears and fears.

At the same time, the wildfire of teachers’ strikes in the US, whose initial sparks coincided with last year’s UK HE strikes, continues in LA this week as 33,000 teachers strike against austerity in public education. Across the world, education workers in TunisiaIranZimbabweIndiaColombia, the US, and the UK are on the front-lines, confronting an international ruling class offensive that has public education clearly in its sights. The education uprisings don’t merely showcase the class power of workers – though they do this, brilliantly.

They expose the struggle for the kind of society we want to live in but don’t yet have, a society with a set of priorities we might call humane and – as absurd as it might sound – the one we deserve.


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