SOAS Students' Union has been around for quite a while, and we have a pretty interesting history!
Find out more below about some of the most notable periods in our history; from occupations to marches, banning Elvis to seeing Nirvana play in the JCR, we've got it all.
From Genesis to Bill Hayley
From around 1912, Lord Curzon and other so-called “orientalists” pressed for the creation of an institution capable of training the young men (and perhaps, god forbid just a few young ladies too) of the British Empire in the skills necessary to govern the colonies. It is a moot question to ask what these skills were, nevertheless an idea was born and with that, in 1917, an institution. That institution being the School of Oriental Studies. (SOS – also handily the international distress signal.) The Africa bit was added in 1938, when it was realised that we could well be going to war there as well. Whilst there is a great deal of espionage in both the history of the School, and its dealing with the Union, our story really concerns the formation and growth of the Union. And that starts ten years after the foundation of the School in 1927.
The Union Society was formed “with a view to promoting social intercourse amongst students and staff”. Obviously student representation was right up there as its number one priority, with the first President being – coincidentally – the School Director – Sir Denison Ross. Union membership fees were 2/6 (i.e. half a crown in archaic old money), and unfortunately it is not clear what you got for your money. These days Union membership is free for all students, though it is still not always clear what you’re getting for someone else’s money.
The first of a long line of college magazines was started in the academic year 1934-35, inspiringly titled “The Magazine Of The Students’ Union”. Edited anonymously by “A Student” (possibly doing a unit in Propaganda), it started a trend in campaigning journalism which carries through to the modern day “Spirit”. Much of the machinations of the Union from the halcyon pre-war days have been lost in the mists of time, however with the advent of the Second World War SOAS became a hotbed of army trainees. SOAS chipped in on the war effort by providing courses for hundreds of services students. Indeed these services students got something of a reputation, turning the previously quiet institution into a lively bolshy kind of place. Things would never return to the quiet pre-war days.
SOAS moved to its present building off of Russell Square just after the war, and with the British Empire crumbling around its ears slowly repositioned itself away from merely a civil service training ground. The Union itself was no slouch, taking its momentum from its wartime days creating a raft of student societies. It acquires a written constitution (which it will lose, on and off, for the next fifty years) and a new magazine starts up – “The Mallet”. This may well be a reference to our geographical position, quite near Malet Street, however the spelling and relevance to SOAS itself of the title is again sadly lost. Union subscription fees creep up with inflation to the shocking price of ten shillings in 1953-54. A precursor of the heady times to come…
Elvis to the Beatles
In 1957 SOAS Students’ Union was racked with dissent and split with controversy. The Soviets had just walked in to Hungary and ideological groups within the Union pitted their wits in debate over this item. In the end the Union makes an admirable fund raising effort to help support the Hungarian refugees, only to be split on another even more decisive matter. Should Jailhouse Rock be played in the common room or not. Academics pitch in on the argument, and for a while it appeared that the Union might well grind to a halt. However, with a calm and reverent appeal to common sense, the Union bans Elvis as a fad which will never take off.
In the late fifties SOAS Union was at its most active on the fund raising side. There are various reports of the Union raising money for various causes, but unsurprisingly these often had an international bent. In 1959 the Union raised money for the Algerian victims of the National Liberation war against France. At the same time it was one of the first institutions to instigate a boycott on South African goods. The social conscience of the Union is a common thread which runs through the entire history of the Union, while other aspects may tail off. Oh, and in 1959 they changed their mind about Elvis. Indeed the very Elvis record which was first played in SOAS is proudly still in the jukebox in the bar today. The jukebox quite possible dates back from this period too.
All of this campaigning, and gyrating to rock’n'roll meant SOAS was a pretty lively, if close knit place to be in the early sixties. Becoming overtly political before many other Student Union’s, the UGM’s chastised the University of London Union (ULU) for inviting the fascist Oswald Mosely to speak. A year later they voted to ban nuclear testing too (though it is again unclear whether any nuclear testing ever took place within SOAS previous to this).
In 1964 the first ever Union Handbook was published. This little document told SOAS students everything they needed to know about living in London, and studying in SOAS. At the same time a new constitution was granted. This told students how to vote for things they didn’t like. (This constitution got lost somewhere in 1968). And the Union hires its first member of permanent staff, a secretary. (Permanent staff in the Union also have a habit of getting lost as time goes by). And the political arguments rumble on. Most importantly, for students of cyclical trend in history, the government think about introducing a system of student loans. The Union rejects this, and campaigns actively against it, and for a rise in the mandatory grant. This time, British students were successful in blocking the loans scheme – however nothing ever lasts forever and loans would raise their weary heads again.
Much of its battling was done outside the Union, and perhaps in looking to the greater world the Union suffered its greatest blow. Subscriptions to the Union were removed, to be replaced by a direct grant form the School. This of course saved individual students a bit of money, but the Union was a big loser as the School turns out to be one of the stingiest with relation to its grant. This could be seen as the root of SOAS Union’s financial problems over the next thirty years, as they lost any mechanism to control their own funds. Of course the odd student embezzling money didn’t help…
Oh, and if you say you want a revolution…
From Revolution (by The Beatles) to the Sex Pistols
Well, you know – you were probably better off going to France. It’s the summer of ’68 and all over the world students are going crazy. In SOAS they raised the price of the tea by 1d and the coffee by 2d. This was too much for the thronged masses who vote overwhelmingly to boycott all catering services. At which point the School crumbles and rescinds all price increases. However this is just the start of a running battle with the School as rumours about infiltration of SOAS by police spies get bandied about. Things reach a head when the School bans a dance by the recently formed Marxist Group of SOAS students and staff. No reason is given. (Possibly the quality of dancing could have been mooted to deflate the situation, but the School yet again showed its ineptitude at public relations.)
In 1969 a joint Student/Staff Committee is set up to try to stop things getting to the situation they were in the previous year. Student representation on School bodies is discussed at length, yet nothing really comes out of it. The Union still had no right to be on any decision making committee, and its rights to consultation were scarce. Compared with the Head Of Military Intelligence at the MOD who were able to vote at Governing Body. These arguments would go on for years (and in some cases are still going on). Within the Union a vote was passed to support the Black Panthers campaign in the US. A year later SOAS disaffiliates from the National Union of Students (NUS) claiming it was “too reactionary”. Somewhere along the line the Union also tried to have its cake and eat it too.
When we reach the seventies things really start hotting up. First, in 1970, the college bar opens. Upstairs and to the left of the main entrance it soon gains a reputation for scuzziness, and general ill repute, with crates for stools and barrels doubling up as tables. This perhaps lulled the students into not being as vigilant as they should have been, as in 1971-72, the Union treasurer is caught embezzling funds! A massive furore ensues, and the treasurer is subsequently sent to prison. This paved the way for the first Sabbatical President of the Union in 1972-73, the idea being a full time President would be responsible for the overseeing of all the Union’s activities and accountable too. In this, we were a full ten to twenty years behind other Universities. A head start difficult to make up.
In 73-74 either the NUS was less reactionary, SOAS Union was more reactionary or most probably no-one could remember why we disaffiliated in the first place. Back in the NUS, and accountable the Union joined much of the academic world scandalised by SOAS management’s decision to sack two prominent academics Diplab Dasgupta and Stephan Feuchtwang. All the secrecy and machinations behind closed doors had to stop and eventually, in 1974, the Union finally gained observer status on Academic Board. This was, it was agreed, better than nothing especially as they also gained representation on a number of lesser committees. This causes problems when arguments break out in Refectory Committee of food pricing. Refectory Committee disbanded and replaced by a new committee which is not allowed to discuss the price of items. Endless discussions therefore ensue on the relative merits of Texan Bars and Marathons (old sweets for those of you not around in the seventies). A committee without student representation gets to set the prices. Plus ca change.
The College Magazine in these days was called “The Thornhaugh Street Gazette”. Still couldn’t think of a punchy name could they.
The fees debate starts up again, this time with regards to overseas fees. With such a large overseas student population, the new government regulations quadrupling overseas fees hits SOAS particularly hard. Even the School Direct (Professor Cowan) attends an NUS protest demo against the hike in fees. Despite the almost unheard of consensus between School and Union, the government plans go ahead. So like all other Trade Union’s at the time, SOAS decides to get active. So at the end of the Spring Term in 1977 students occupy the Registry in protest. The School takes out an injunction against 32 students. Eventually four, dubbed “The Registry Four” are hauled in front of a judge for contempt of court. In a mass demonstration SOAS Students’ march to court and the School’s charges are dismissed. The School then retaliates by taking out four separate injunctions on the Union Secretary. These are dismissed. Then, perhaps in an overly buoyant mood, the students occupy the Registry again in support of the sacked president of North East London Polytechnic’s Student Union. This all ends in farce as even the NELP students withdraw support to their own President and SOAS Students’ sheepishly wander out of the Registry. Nevertheless a point of sorts had been made.
From The Clash to Nirvana
SOAS Union hits the papers again as at a UGM the Union decides to withdraw all funding to the SOAS Israel Society, due to its Zionist nature. SOAS Union defines Zionism as racist and therefore feels it cannot condone the societies actions. Daily Mail is up in arms, not that many people outside SOAS really care. And inside SOAS eyes were turning back towards the refectory. There is a mass boycott over pricing, yet the School refuses to budge. In the end the students give up, needing to eat and grudgingly admitting that it was still cheaper than most of the local places. First London MacDonalds opens on Oxford Street the next year however.
1978 also saw the start of the Union’s long run crèche campaign (or nursery campaign, as the word crèche had not yet been formally accepted into the British language). This campaign was to be revived many a time until the current day, and still nothing has happened. Many of the arguments are to do with space within SOAS, and 1978 also saw the Union getting its new common room and the bar moving to its present, equally grotty location. Both rooms occasionally get painted. There is another protest over education cuts, this time a picket in the main entrance. Again this does not stop the cuts, but it does prevent the delivery of cream cakes to the Director. This in itself is viewed as a small victory.
The campaigning side of the Union is put on the back burner for a while as the might of Thatcher is seen to be unbeatable. Instead the Union pushes a little bit more on the entertainment side – becoming the Reggae venue of choice in central London. All of SOAS skanks for a year, and mighty towers of dub make regular visits. Unfortunately the price of all this culture is mighty towers of debt, to the heavy bass tune of £5,000. This perhaps makes any action and entertainment over the next few years difficult to achieve, so the 81-82 President (Hayden Williams) instead spends his time drafting proposals for greater representation on School committees. Again the School capitulates a touch, granting a few more membership rights. There is also at this time a thorough overhaul, rewrite and finding of the Union constitution which creates a second sabbatical post, that of Vice President.
The early eighties were a quiet period for the Union, perhaps due to many of the new educational policies which had been put in place. The Crèche campaign periodically gathers momentum, getting to a planning stage and then imploding again, and the first president to have two terms of office is re-elected in 1985 (Hazim Abbas). Attendance at Union Ents is reportedly poor, and the Union Secretary is acrimoniously sacked. The post is then removed from the Union, leaving it without a permanent member of staff.
1985-86 yet again saw an ambitious and popular series of Reggae gigs within SOAS. This yet again bankrupts the Union. Who says history does not repeat itself. The President resigns over this, and inept book-keeping and the Union looks particularly shaky. However some subtle reorganization, another presidential resignation (and lack of spending to pay off debts) puts the Union back in relatively good health quite quickly. To replace the entertainment’s, the Union gets active again, shutting the School down twice over the new Education Reform Act, and also campaigning for Palestinian Rights. This will continue for the next few years, with mass Poll Tax evasion, more demo’s against the introduction of Student Loans and going out in sympathy with NALGO supporting Ambulance workers. This gets heavy coverage in OASiS, the eighties student magazine, which took its name from an almost clever rearrangement of letters in SOAS.
And then Ents rears its head again. This time Reggae was left on the back burner in favour of an innovative programme of American New Wave Rock acts. SOAS soon becomes known as the venue in London to see bands such as Mudhoney, Soundgarden and – yes – even a nascent Nirvana. Of course, these things never last, and whilst they were not financially crippled by these events, the School instigates a strict “Students Only” rule after a puddle of urine is found in the main corridor. Nice.
The Spice Girls to... Britney Spears?
The nineties showed an increase in Union / School mistrust. The Union gained another Sabbatical in 1991, making the grand total up to three, and opened its first snack bar. This was to be plagued with problems, not having a permanent member of staff to oversee it, and rumours were rife about the profits not always going straight back to the Union. This coupled with opposition by the School, meant the was a sarnie war with the catering services. However there were other more positive aspects to this period. During the Gulf War SOAS Union helped set up a helpline for Arab Students, who were being victimised by the Home Office.
“The Spirit” starts up in 1991, the new magazine once OASiS winded down. This put it in the right place to report the news when the first of the nineties Library Occupations occurred. This was in 1993, and it was ostensibly over book shortages and the introduction of library fines. After a three night occupation the School capitulated, offer a cash injection of £11,000 to buy new books and removed the fining system. It was reinstated over the summer three years later.
Outside the School a number of students were involved in the “March For Grants” demo, a few getting batoned by police action, and a couple of court cases ensue. The government proceed however with their plans and the grant dwindles, whilst reliance on loans and overdrafts increase. The financial situation was starting to get perilous again, and the School starts talks with the Union about putting a permanent member of staff in place to regulate the finances. The Union refuse this seeing it as School interference. In the meantime certain bills do not get paid.
In 1994 the Union runs a number of highly successful open meetings with representatives from Palestine and Sein Fein. The college bans the Islamic fundamentalist group Hizb ut-Tahrir after they go on a strong recruitment drive around the University of London. A 400 strong UGM debate for hours which the School and Press wait outside. The Union overturns this ban, falling out with the NUS and ULU. This further leads talks to disaffiliate with the NUS (though since the Union had not paid any subs for a while, it was actually in danger of getting chucked out). In the end the rest of the University of London’s stance on Hizb ut-Tahrir make them withdraw from their recruitment campaign.
There is a large degree of dissatisfaction with the 1994 editions of “The Spirit”, prompting the editor in 1995 to rename the organ “The New Spirit” to distance themselves from the old magazine. This is concurrent with more run ins with the law as the bar is raided a number of times on suspicion that drugs are openly being used and sold there. A number of arrests are made, though not of SOAS Students. The Union demands more money from the School, the School demands more accountability – as under the 1994 Education act they became responsible for the overall control of the students budget. Audits fail to convince the School that good practice is in place, and a showdown ensues. The School forces the Union to drop one sabbatical officer and replaces them with a Student Union Administrator. The Union fights back with a policy of non-co-operation with the newly appointed Administrator. The Administrator lasts nine months, whilst getting into a number of slanging matches with the two Co-Presidents.
Unfortunately the Union’s credibility suffers yet another blow at this point with the union attempting to pass a vote of no confidence in the Finance Co-President over allegations of fraud. Rumours are rife and the Union become split. The charges are not proven but the damage is already done. The School refuses to release the students grant directly to them, only after double signing and receipts going through the finance department. The Welfare President also tries to run for a second term, without the School’s permission. She gets in, and more wranglings ensue. In the thick of this, there is another Library Occupation.
The Great Occupation of 1997 (as it was known) was over the School refusing to buy library tickets to Senate House Library for all students. This lasted three weeks, during which all students had 24 access to the library, including sleeping and reshelving. The usual injunctions are sought, the usual court orders were obtained, and as usual a compromise was reached with the School promising to buy all the tickets demanded. A compromise is also found over the Welfare President, who becomes an employee of the School for a year. In early 1998 a new Administrator is appointed, and the Union decides to co-operate with him.
Under the steady hand of a permanent member of staff and with less in the way of political ructions, the Union yet again pulls itself out of debt and instigates a building plan to renovate the Snack Bar. This is a resounding success, increasing the Union’s services and financial viability. “The New Spirit” is renamed “The Spirit” as it was not new any more, and in an attempt to distance itself from the magazine that existed before. At the same time the School enters into a “co-operation agreement” with UCL. SOAS Students see this as merger through the backdoor and oppose it vehemently. This results in the First SOAS Festival of Arts and Diversity, a proposed yearly event to push the uniqueness of SOAS. A uniqueness based, largely on a history which has been chequered to say the least, but has never been dull.