SOAS vs Cambridge

This week marks the beginning of my year of studying (Postcolonial Studies) at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) in London. Though practically unheard of by many, SOAS has a reputation for being a very political space and an institution with appreciation for critical and sometimes radical analysis and thought. To my mind, entering this space would be jumping from one extreme experience of University – at Cambridge – to the other end of the spectrum. I write the following reflections on this first week at the urging of a friend still at Cambridge and eager to hear about life here.

SOAS. [Photo of SOAS campus building taken in my first week.]
The first immediate and obvious difference which hit me when I arrived on SOAS’ campus was that no one would ever recognise or know me here as ‘the girl who wears the hijab’. People in hijabs were everywhere. Brown people were everywhere; black people; people of colour. The last time I was in an educational space with such large numbers of non-white students was at high school and I am as comforted now as I was then that in this space I will be able to have an identity beyond my visibility as a brown Muslim woman – simply because that identity is not one which makes me particularly distinguishable on this campus. That is certainly a huge difference between SOAS and Cambridge.

The second aspect of this diversity is that SOAS’ international make-up is massive. 56% of their students come from outside the UK and the variation in backgrounds, contexts, ages and experience only serves to add to the mix. Already the implications of such high numbers of international students has been made apparent to me – in sexual consent-workshops where insight from different national perspectives shed new light on the nuances of ‘rape culture’, and in my lecture on ‘gendering migration’ where motives for studying included people’s desire to understand their own migrant or activist experiences from Palestine, Cameroon, Sweden or India. It is undeniable that even in the handful of days I have been at SOAS I’ve been forced to consider things anew, to decenter my own perspective and consider more than ever before that I am the product of my very specific context.

Here, compared to Cambridge, it also feels as though lived experience matters. In my first lecture the lecturer told us to forget about trying to write ‘objective’ arguments but instead to critically examine and be aware of the places and experiences we were writing from as we wrote. I was stunned to be told this after three years of being implicitly asked to supress my own experiences and identity regardless of the topic being written on. Outside of lectures awareness to varied lived experiences seem also to be a matter of great importance. From what I’ve seen so far accessibility and inclusivity is pursued to a much greater extent than in Cambridge. There is academic support for people coming into academia from all sorts of places and after many different lengths of time; mental health workshops, guidance, and free counselling made available from day one; events for students who are parents and carers, and multiple disability and dyslexia services. Of course, these services may not be as effective as they appear to be, and I’m sure there are plenty of ways in which the institution remains inaccessible – including straightforward financial and classist barriers.

On the Student Union front too inclusivity impressed me and was way ahead of Cambridge. In the handbook given out to all students there was a section defining terms including ‘decolonise’, ‘classism’, ‘ableism’, ‘sexism’, ‘racism’, ‘misogyny’, ‘misogynoir’, ‘transphobia’, ‘homophobia’, ‘anti-semitism’, ‘transmisogyny’ and ‘islamaphobia’ etc. On top of that the Student Union’s campaigns included ‘liberation’ of education which encompassed but surpassed an emphasis simply on free education. They seemed critical of ‘diversity’ used as a cloak for racism (in suggesting some identities are the ‘norm’ and others are ‘diverse’ and ‘diversity’ is a goal you can reach which makes your institution more attractive and thus more financially viable) and supported groups organising around different identities to challenge structural violence and oppression.

Even simply the Fresher’s week’s events blew me away. I tried to imagine Cambridge ever having a ‘Nollywood film night’. Tried to imagine them opening Black History Month with a ‘Blackout’ night celebrating various forms of music originating in black cultures without it being completely appropriated by white students and made unwelcoming and problematic.  I laughed at the idea that Cambridge would ever try to find ‘a line up of local black artists’ to perform at an event entitled ‘Blackity Black Black’. Every time I walked into the common room I imagined a Cambridge college which would have paintings of Angela Davis, Kendrick Lamar or Junot Diaz on the walls… It truly was a contrast.

pics or it didn’t happen. [photo of wall with painting of Angela Davis and quote: ‘We have to talk about liberating minds as well as liberating society’ to the right of it.]
And yet, I’m obviously coming from a University which has very real problems with race and inclusivity, so my awe and amazement must not mask the problems also facing SOAS. As the ‘Decolonising SOAS’ campaign have made clear, SOAS faces many of the same problems as any UK higher education institutions – in terms of numbers of BME staff and attainment gaps for example. Due to its origins in 1916 which were deeply bound up with Europe’s colonial project (literally a school teaching about ‘The Orient’ and ‘Africa’ to train administrators and colonial officials for working overseas in the British Empire) there is also a problematic legacy which SOAS itself needs to acknowledge and work through. Just as at Cambridge, students are asking for ‘decolonised’ curriculums which no longer center Western philosophy and theory, and they are asking for more non-white academic staff and faculty members.

However, I must say that the very fact that the ‘Decolonising’ campaign has so much traction and breadth is inspiring. A lesson Cambridge activists could take on board is the solidarity which the campaign here seems to have built up. The campaign has formed a coalition of undergraduates, some academics, postgraduates, precarious staff (such as PhD students who are over-worked and under-payed) and also staff such as the cleaners. The ‘Justice for Cleaners’ campaign is a truly impressive and consistent effort by a largely migrant work-force to get justice. Their collaboration with the ‘Decolonising’ campaign makes its focus on decolonising even more nuanced – about exploitation and invisibility of non-Western labours in both the past and present.

So far then, I’m impressed. Already I feel being here has proved to me the importance of diversity even just in itself. To be surrounded by people from all sorts of different places and with different backgrounds is important for thinking and learning (and unlearning) – Cambridge would do well to appreciate this. However, it is not enough. Seeing people here angry about the same things I was angry about at Cambridge proves to me something else: the structural nature of racism, classism and heterosexism. I am impressed by how much further along with the conversation SOAS is and how many of the things we were fighting to be understood about at Cambridge have already been normalised here. But hearing the same concerns and queries proves to me that for as long as students are constrained by the fact we are consumers paying for the knowledge provided by the institution, we will be debilitated and too afraid to cause and strive for a genuine disordering of the status quo.

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16 thoughts on “SOAS vs Cambridge

  1. It is interesting to hear so much about SOAS at such a perfect time. My son has also begun his studies there. The intention was one year but may turn into more than that since he seems to have found a second home.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really enjoyed reading this. I also went from Cambridge (History) to study at SOAS (Graduate Diploma in Economics) and found SOAS a breath of fresh air. As a white, cis-gender, Christian-heritage male I suppose I didn’t help decolonise either university… But the curious thing was that I felt much more anxious about my background at Cambridge than at SOAS.

    I’ve often wondered why this was. Perhaps partly it was to do with me being an older, more mature individual. But I also think it was because I was moving from an environment where everyone had pretty much the same personality type to one where people brought very different priorities and expectations to their studies. My experience was that at undergraduate level Cambridge selects purely for neurotic, obsessive types (like me). SOAS gets students with lots of different types of social and emotional intelligence. That’s another type of diversity that I really appreciated. It made it easier to appreciate what I had to gain from people around me, and more of a sense of what I might have to bring to the table.

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      1. Okay, ta for permission. It will potentially be read by hundreds of staff including academics, that cool? If you email me your eddress I can keep you posted if anyone says anything. Until friday I was the evening librarian there and involved in various struggles on campus. No need to post this comment since it’s really an admin message. c

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  3. I enjoyed reading your blog (shared by Amrita) and learned some new things, the most imp being the effort to decolonise the curriculum. I wish you and your colleagues much success in that and hope to read about in future posts.

    cheers

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  4. There are some excellent observations here in what is a very thoughtful and well written piece. I currently lecture at London College of Fashion and I think academic heaven for me in the UK would be somewhere between LCF and SOAS. You’ve certainly highlighted issues that are prevalent at UAL (and probably most UK universities) and I think further discourse followed by focused action is definitely the way forward.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hello! I saw a link to this page on fb a few days ago and thought I’d come and explore your blog a bit more-I love it! It’s so interesting to hear what you have to say especially because I feel like a lot of your experiences reflect my own (also brown and wear a hijab haha).
    I originally made my blog, which was inspired by another one I used to read, to discuss my experiences in today’s society as a working-class Muslim girl of south Asian heritage but I’m nowhere near as good at articulating myself as you and am often scared to post it how I’ve written it in case it causes offence.
    I’m only a second year undergrad but my experience at University (which is at least 75% middle-class, white British, southern females) is drastically different to that at high school and I can’t help but often feel like an outsider. It’s so strange because before University I was still friends with so many white people but they never made me feel as conscious of myself as I do now.
    But it’s also nice as these negative feeling have made me much more aware of who I am, the problems I may face etc and more than anything, I am proud of it. I’m not afraid to point out and accept my differences even though others may feel uncomfortable acknowledging them.

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    1. Hey, I’m really glad to hear it! You have every right to write what you want! Writing has so many different purposes and can therefore take so many different shapes. It’s my opinion that you can write first and foremostly for yourself, and especially if you’re someone not widely represented in the media already. I just had a quick look at your blog and I think its fab! You should 100% keep writing.

      Also I completely agree with you when you say that going through alienation or whatever has actually made you more politicised about your identity and even proud of it. Good can always come out of bad! Thanks for commenting and hope to keep following you 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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