Soas survived the end of empire but can it recover this time?

Richard Adams education editor
Photograph: Richard Wayman/Alamy

For more than 100 years, the School of Oriental and African Studies has been a fixture in Bloomsbury, central London, and among the world’s academic elite, its former students range from David Lammy, the Tottenham MP, to Enoch Powell.

The school’s founding in 1916 was part of Britain’s imperialist project, to train and educate colonial administrators and officers for their future posts. Enoch Powell’s brief time at Soas saw him learn Urdu so – the Conservative leadership candidate thought – he could some day become viceroy of India. But even after Soas shed that role, as Britain shed its empire, the school remained determinedly international, able to attract staff and students from around the world.

As recently as 2005, the Guardian’s university guide ranked Soas as fourth-best in the UK, ahead of its neighbours, King’s College London and University College London.

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But while its physical location, alongside the British Museum, suggests permanence, its recent history is one of increasing uncertainty, eroded by the changes that have swept through higher education in England.

One of Soas’s specialities remains the languages of Africa, Asia and the Middle East. But the study of popular modern foreign languages, such as French and German, has been in decline in the UK for the past decade, as fewer pupils take them at school. That has left Soas’s suite of language courses facing an even tougher domestic recruitment market.

Teaching languages is also relatively expensive. In larger universities, cheaper and more popular courses, such as politics and law, cross-subsidise the costs of modern languages, but Soas is also a victim of its size. While it does offer popular courses such as law for undergraduates, the numbers are too small to offset the costs of language provision. While English universities have a median turnover of about £150m a year, Soas’s is barely £90m.

Matters were made worse in 2015 when the government removed the cap on undergraduates numbers that had restrained individual university growth. Coupled with the £9,000 tuition fee introduced in 2012, institutions suddenly had both the incentive and the means to recruit as many students as possible. Many grew rapidly, eating into Soas’s pool of students at home and abroad.

If a restructured Soas continues to struggle to attract students, the question will be if a government that wants to declare Britain open in a post-Brexit, post-coronavirus world can afford to let it close. The school still attracts policymakers from around the world for training, while the United Nations and other multilateral organisations are filled with its graduates.

“Saving Soas needs a political decision at some point, the government needs to decide that this institution is valuable. But everybody is really sceptical that this government would do that,” said one academic.