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Adam Habib de Soas: “UK universities must stop taking the best people from other countries” | Soas

When outspoken South African professor Adam Habib took over as head of Soas University of London, an elite research university next to the British Museum in central London, it looked like a poisoned chalice. For a time, the university, which focuses on the study of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, was in great danger of going bankrupt. Habib says that when the pandemic struck in 2020, bringing further uncertainty to the earnings of international students, Soas was already in a “deep financial crisis.” And as an institution generally seen as decidedly left-wing (despite counting Enoch Powell among its alumni), there was no guarantee that a Conservative government would want to step in and save it.

In addition, Soas specializes in the social sciences and humanities, which many academics believe the government has no interest in supporting. Last year, ministers imposed controversial cuts in arts and humanities to invest more in science, engineering and math. There are fears they will do more damage in 2022, with ministers considering limiting the number of students studying for degrees in non-priority subjects in a bid to curb student loan debts.

Habib, a political scientist who was previously vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg, one of the best universities in South Africa, believes that “the fact of not appreciating enough social science subjects, in arts and humanities ”is one of the“ biggest mistakes ”the UK government makes with higher education.

He says the way Covid is unfolding is all the evidence needed as to why the government is wrong. “The pandemic has raised deeply social questions, about the way people live their lives and their social relationships,” he says. “Much of the work to contain it relates to human and social issues. We were told we needed a global immunization program in April 2020, but Western governments did exactly what they weren’t advised and focused on their own population. And now we have Omicron. It is a question of social science.

Habib is adamant that, for the first time in history, many of the biggest issues are global rather than national – not just pandemics but also the climate crisis and inequality – and none of them will be. solved without the social sciences. “How do you tell a man in the Congo that he shouldn’t log or cut down forests? ” he asks. “Of course you can tell him that it will destroy the planet and that in 80 years we will all die. But he will say, ‘My child is starving today.’ “

Habib is determined that his university, which he said was adrift with no defined sense of purpose, is uniquely positioned to help answer these intractable global questions.

The campus of Soas University in London. Habib wants to work with universities in Africa, Asia and the Middle East to create common degrees rather than bringing all students to London. Photograph: Richard Wayman / Alamy

Of course, to do that he has to be creditworthy, and after painful job cuts, the sale of valuable property in central London and an increase in student numbers, Habib says Soas has completed 2021. with a surplus of £ 11million and is expected to generate a surplus. again this year.

However, one of the most “painful” and difficult challenges of his new job so far had nothing to do with government finances or priorities, he said. In March, four weeks after arriving in London with his wife, Habib was forced to withdraw temporarily due to anger over his use of the ‘N word’ during a video call with students. An independent investigation has cleared him of racism and the council reinstated him in May, concluding that he had made a mistake in using the word but tried to explain that he would not be tolerated in college.

“To suddenly find myself accused of not appreciating enough the unfairness of people’s experiences was brutal,” he says now. “It had a very profound impact on me. I have spent my entire adult life involved in social justice. This is what defines me.

Habib grew up in what he describes as a typical apartheid “middle class Indian family” in South Africa. His aunts helped raise him after his mother died of breast cancer. His father, a grocer, was “slightly political,” he says, and had his passport confiscated in the 1960s for transferring money through his business to an anti-apartheid party. Habib himself was an anti-apartheid activist in the 1980s, involved in youth movements, labor unions, anti-apartheid parties and NGOs, and was briefly jailed by the apartheid state in 1986. He led a national project on racial redress initiatives as a democracy leader. and governance at the Human Science Research Council in Pretoria.

Last year, as angry Soas students demanded his resignation, high-ranking black activists and professors in South Africa spoke out in his defense and insisted he was not a racist, while South Africans in London reached out to him and invited him to dinner. These gestures supported him, he says.

Looking back, he remains upset that the video clip that went viral was edited to “remove context” from what he was saying. But he admits he misjudged “how hostile the UK is to issues of race and identity” and that he shouldn’t have used the word.

The experience left him with serious concerns about the freedom of debate in universities. “We need to be able to have tough discussions about race, statues, trans rights and identity without creating that kind of paralysis,” he says.

He is far from reassured by the government’s new bill on freedom of expression in higher education which is making its way into the Commons. “I am horrified that politicians think they can stipulate how academic freedom is activated,” he says. “This government has interfered with universities more aggressively than any other government since the Thatcher years. We allowed that to happen.

Instead, he calls for collective leadership and “real courage” on the part of vice-chancellors to set clear guidelines for tough debates.

Habib is already showing on other issues that he does not intend to follow suit quietly. He openly criticizes the way UK universities treat international students like cash cows, knowing that their fees of over £ 20,000 a year must be part of the financial solution for Soas. “We pretend we’re global institutions, but basically we just want to make money in the global market,” he says. “We are not looking at the consequences of removing the best people from developing countries or weakening their institutions.”

He says UK universities are telling themselves they are training people who will take their new skills home. In reality, he says, many will fall in love, start a family, find a job and end up staying. Before leaving South Africa, he attended a conference where Professor Abdoulaye Gueye of the University of Ottawa showed that historically 83% of Indian students and 90% of Chinese did not return home. them after studying abroad. Habib believes the data for Africa would tell a similar story.

“By accelerating the brain drain in Africa and Asia, we are weakening their institutional capacities. This means that places like hospitals and universities will not be able to cope with these huge challenges like pandemics, climate change and inequality, ”he said.

As the director of Soas, with an eye on the bottom line, he knows he can’t shut the door on students from developing countries, but he’s determined to do things differently. He wants to work with up to eight universities in Africa, Asia and the Middle East to create joint degrees that will be less of a one-way pipeline away from those regions.

Such partnerships would also involve research, with universities in the south of the world able to use the Soas brand to help secure grants, and Habib academics gaining a much deeper understanding of the countries they study in. “If you have a breed study center in Africa, why locate it in central London and not Uganda? ” he says.

Soas recently announced plans to appoint five new sustainability professors. Habib says they are talking to potential candidates from developing countries, but he aims to recruit them through a 50/50 partnership with their home university. Young postdoctoral researchers are recruited on the same basis.

“Some UK universities are focusing entirely on their brand,” he says. “But what about their tenure? We should ask ourselves what are we here to do.

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