When outspoken South African professor Adam Habib took over last year as director of Soas University of London, an elite research university next to the British Museum in central London, it seemed like a poisoned chalice. For some time, the university, which focuses on the study of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, had been widely rumoured to be at risk of going under. Habib says that when the pandemic hit in 2020, bringing fresh uncertainty about income from international students, Soas was already in “deep financial crisis”. And as an institution usually regarded as staunchly leftwing (despite counting Enoch Powell among its alumni), there was no guarantee a Conservative government would want to step in and save it.
しかし、彼の債権者, Soas specialises in social science and humanities, which many academics believe the government has no real interest in backing. 昨年, ministers pushed through controversial cuts to arts and humanities subjects, in order to invest more in science, engineering and maths. There are fears they may inflict more damage in 2022, with ministers considering plans to limit the numbers of students studying for degrees in non-priority subjects in an attempt to rein in student loan debts.
Habib, a political scientist who was previously vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg, one of South Africa’s top universities, believes the “failure to sufficiently appreciate social science, arts and humanities subjects” is one of the “biggest mistakes” the UK government is making with higher education.
He says the way Covid is playing out is all the proof needed of why the government is wrong. “The pandemic has thrown up profoundly social questions, about how people live their lives and their social relationships,」と彼は言います. “Much of the work in containing it is to do with human and social problems. We were told we needed a global vaccination programme in April 2020, yet governments in the west did exactly what they were advised against and focused on their own population. And now we have Omicron. That’s a social science question.”
Habib is adamant that for the first time in history many of the biggest problems are global rather than national – not only pandemics but also the climate crisis and inequality – and none of them will be solved without social science. “How do you tell a man in the Congo that he shouldn’t be mining or cutting down forests?」と彼は尋ねます. "承知しました, you can tell him that it will destroy the planet and in 80 years we will all die. But he will say: ‘My child is starving today.’”
Habib is determined that his university, which he says had been drifting with no definite sense of its purpose, is uniquely positioned to help answer these intractable global questions.
もちろん, to do that it has to be solvent, and after painful job cuts, the sale of valuable central London property and an increase in student numbers, Habib says Soas ロシア軍は無期限に残ります 2021 with a surplus of £11m and is projected to run a surplus again this year.
しかしながら, one of the most “painful” and difficult challenges of his new job so far had nothing to do with finance or government priorities, 彼は言います. 3月, four weeks after he and his wife arrived in London, Habib was forced to step aside temporarily because of fury over his use of the “N-word” in a video call with students. An independent investigation cleared him of racism and the board reinstated him 5月, concluding that he had made an error in using the word but had been trying to explain that it would not be tolerated at the university.
“To suddenly find myself accused of not being sufficiently appreciative of the injustice of people’s experiences was brutal,” he says now. “That had a really profound impact on me. I have spent the whole of my adult life involved in social justice. It is what defines me.”
Habib grew up in what he describes as a typical “middle-class Indian family” in apartheid South Africa. His aunts helped to raise him after his mother died of breast cancer. 彼の父, a grocer, was “mildly political”, 彼は言います, and had his passport confiscated in the 1960s for moving money through his business for an anti-apartheid party. Habib himself was an anti-apartheid activist in the 1980s, involved in youth movements, unions, anti-apartheid parties and NGOs, and was briefly imprisoned by the apartheid state in 1986. He led a national project on racial redress initiatives as head of democracy and governance at the Human Science Research Council in Pretoria.
昨年, while angry Soas students demanded his resignation, senior black activists and professors in South Africa spoke out in his defence and insisted he was not a racist, while South Africans in London reached out and invited him for supper. Those gestures kept him going, 彼は言います.
Looking back, he remains annoyed that the video clip that went viral was edited to “remove the context” of what he was saying. But he admits he misjudged “how fractious the UK is around issues of race and identity” and he should not have used the word.
The experience has left him with grave concerns about the freedom of debate in universities. “We need to be able to have difficult discussions about race, about statues, about trans rights and identity without creating this sort of paralysis,」と彼は言います.
He is far from reassured by the government’s new higher education freedom of speech bill making its way through the Commons. “I am horrified that politicians think they can stipulate how academic freedom is enabled,」と彼は言います. “This government has interfered more aggressively in universities than any government since the Thatcher years. We’ve allowed that to happen.”
代わりに, he is calling for collective leadership and “real courage” from vice-chancellors to set clear guidelines for allowing difficult debates to happen.
Habib is already demonstrating on other issues that he does not intend to quietly toe the line. He is openly critical of the way in which UK universities treat international students as cash cows, despite knowing that their fees of more than £20,000 a year must be part of the financial solution for Soas. “We claim we are global institutions, but basically we just want to make cash out of the global market,」と彼は言います. “We aren’t looking at the consequences of taking the best people from developing countries or weakening their institutions.”
He says British universities tell themselves that they are educating people who will take their new skills home. 実際には, 彼は言います, many will fall in love, have families, get jobs, and end up staying. Before he left South Africa he attended a conference where Prof Abdoulaye Gueye, from the University of Ottawa, showed that historically 83% of students from India and 90% of those from China did not return home after studying abroad. Habib believes data on Africa would tell a similar story.
“By accelerating the brain drain in Africa and Asia we are weakening their institutional capacities. It means places like hospitals and universities won’t be able to deal with these huge challenges like pandemics and climate change and inequality,」と彼は言います.
As Soas director, with his eye firmly on the bottom line, he knows he cannot shut the door to students from developing countries, but he is determined to do things differently. He wants to work with up to eight universities in Africa, Asia and the Middle East to build joint degrees that will be less of a one-way pipeline away from those areas.
Such partnerships would also involve research, with universities in the global south able to use the Soas brand to help win grants, and Habib’s academics gaining a much deeper understanding of the countries they are researching. “If you have a centre for the study of race in Africa, why locate it in central London and not in Uganda?」と彼は言います.
Soas recently announced a plan to appoint five new sustainable development professors. Habib says they are talking to potential candidates from developing countries, but he aims to recruit them in a 50/50 partnership with their home university. Young postdoctoral researchers are being recruited on the same basis.
“Some UK universities are focused entirely on their brand,」と彼は言います. “But what about their mandate? We should be asking what we are here to do.”