SOAS students explain stance on decolonisation

Students from the prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies, or SOAS, University of London hit the headlines at the start of this year for their campaign to "Decolonise Our Minds", aimed at transforming the curriculum. At last month’s international conference on the “Contribution of Business Schools and Higher Education to Inclusive Development”, students representing the institution insisted they are not backing down on their calls for change.

“We hope the campaign will become an international force for restoring justice,” Ali Habib, SOAS Students’ Union co-president for democracy and education, told the conference held in Stellenbosch, South Africa.

“We also hope to address the structural and epistemological legacy within the university,” he said.

SOAS, which is part of the University of London, was established in 1916 to train colonial administrators to run the British Empire. It was funded as an instrument of the state to strengthen the British colonial commercial, military and political presence in Africa and Asia.

Today, the shadow of its colonial past has not completely faded. In fact, so significant is that shadow that students felt it was necessary to mobilise on their own to implement change.

The institution looks at itself as a post-racial haven in which students come together focusing on people's struggles of the world, said Neelam Chhara, SOAS Students’ Union co-president for equality and liberation.

Remnants of racism

“This is far from the institution’s reality 100 years on … Colonial history has left remnants of racism and other oppressive structures,” she said.

In response, students have in the past launched justice clean-up campaigns, establishing a long history of fighting injustice, she said.

One of the most prominent campaigns is the “Decolonising SOAS” campaign run by the Decolonising Our Minds Society which was established in 2014 to examine how and why curricula at SOAS are not adequately representative of thinkers that emerge from the Global South.

“We came to SOAS thinking that it would be a place that we would talk about Africa, Asia and the Middle East but we found something completely different, so we decided to create our own spaces,” said Ayesha Abbasi, SOAS Students’ Union co-president for welfare and campaigns.

Frustrated by the lack of political and cultural events being organised by white people and the different leftist groups and a dynamic engagement with the legacy of colonialism, the students started to organise their own events – both within and outside the school – which have now become “quite popular”, according to Abbasi.

Curriculum as source of disillusionment

Abbasi said one of the key sources of disillusionment on the part of students was the curriculum. She said in her first-year philosophy class, 26 of the 20 philosophers they were supposed to read were white.

“We challenged this but such demands were quashed,” Abbasi said.

This situation was not “accidental", she said.

“It suggests that gatekeepers of knowledge are white, that black philosophers have nothing worthwhile to offer, which we know is definitely untrue,” she said.

Abbasi said the campaign gave students an opportunity to curate their own curriculum based on explorations of a wider range of sources.

“We recognise this space [the university] as a democratic space … we understand our duty is to bring this space to the community, link our work with anti-racist groups and people fighting for justice,” Abbasi said.

She said decolonising the university in practice meant that students should decolonise the curriculum by unravelling how colonialism has shaped what knowledge is considered appropriate and which people are underrepresented in curricula or entirely excluded.


Speaking about decolonisation was useless without acknowledging the link between colonisation and capitalism, according to Abbasi. The university must redistribute its resources and other forms of reparative justice must be done. The university can also distribute scholarships for those affected by transsexual and gender inequalities, she suggested.

Habib told the conference that some tension had developed with university authorities as students pursued their goals for decolonisation.

“The university has attempted to absorb our campaign as a marketing tool to attract students for cash and wealthy donors from the Global South,” said Habib.

“While the university was acknowledging our campaign, it was not accepting our true demands,” he said.

Habib said the university should offer full scholarships to the most marginalised students from nations most affected by colonialism and imperialism.

He also called on the university to end the casualisation of early career academics and the outsourcing of workers, address the “absurd” rise in fees and accept its racist and colonial past.

SOAS Registrar Paula Sanderson said the black and minority ethnic students had increased at SOAS over the past five years from 47% in 2011-12 to 55% in 2015-16 and 3.9% of these students came from low participation neighbourhoods. Sanderson said while 365 black and minority ethnic students graduated in 2015 with 45 attaining first-class passes, white students continued to do proportionally better.