UK university SOAS to cut costs over COVID-19 and financial problems

SOAS has been forced to slash costs and implement drastic staff cuts after the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated its financial problems. (File/SOAS's Twitter)
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Updated 31 May 2020

UK university SOAS to cut costs over COVID-19 and financial problems

  • Latest figures show that the internationally renowned higher education institution has multi-million pound deficits and risks running out of cash next year
  • SOAS said that it had taken short term action to reduce costs

LONDON: A UK university specializing in the study of Asia, Africa and the Middle East has been forced to slash costs and implement drastic staff cuts after the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic exacerbated its financial problems.
Staff at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), part of the University of London, said they feared that management was cutting costs to make the college an attractive takeover target for an overseas institution or one of its London rivals, UK newspaper the Guardian reported.
Latest figures show that the internationally renowned higher education institution has multi-million pound deficits and risks running out of cash next year.
The effects of the pandemic on student recruitment meant “a material uncertainty exists that may cast significant doubt on the school’s ability to continue as a going concern” over the next 12 months, SOAS’s auditors warned.
One academic at SOAS told the Guardian that the college’s senior managers had “been unable to make significant changes over the last few years, and now it has ended in a big crisis. This is a serious failure of management.”
Its senior academics were ordered to identify staff cuts that were to be submitted on Friday, and departments were asked to balance their budgets while expecting a 50 percent drop in new international students, the report said.
SOAS’s International Foundation Courses and English Language Studies Center, which provides courses to international students, has reportedly been told to make so many cuts that it will effectively disappear, along with its 55 staff.
The college’s highly regarded international development department, which is ranked eighth in the world, will also suffer from major cuts. Its famed anthropology and sociology department is likely to lose between a third and half of its academic staff.
“I think people are in shock,” a staff member said. “This all happened while we are still coping with COVID-19.”
SOAS released a statement on Friday saying the coronavirus pandemic had affected all British universities and that it was “taking decisive action now so that we can continue to ensure we provide an excellent student experience to our new and returning students.”
It acknowledged that although its “accounts show that SOAS has already taken steps to reduce its deficit position,” the “impact of COVID-19 has put finances across the HE sector under even greater pressure than before.”
It added that it had taken short term action to reduce costs including “pausing capital spend, line by line scrutiny of non-pay budgets” and reducing the use of building space in the Bloomsbury area in London, outside its core campus.
SOAS also said that additional proposals for change were being considered and would be implemented ahead of the start of the new academic year in September. 
SOAS, University of London, has been ranked in the UK’s top 20 universities for Arts and Humanities, according to the 2020 Times Higher Education World University Ranking.
The rankings place SOAS 13th in the UK and 57th in the world.


Foreign students fret over being sent home after US visa rule

Updated 08 July 2020

Foreign students fret over being sent home after US visa rule

When the phone rang Tuesday morning, Raul Romero had barely slept.
The 21-year-old Venezuelan, on a scholarship at Ohio’s Kenyon College, had spent hours pondering his options after US Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced Monday that international students taking classes fully online for the fall semester would have to transfer to a school with in-person classes or leave the country.
A college employee called Romero to say he would not be immediately affected, but warned that a local outbreak of COVID-19 could force the school to suspend in-person classes during the year. If that happened, he may need to go home.
Romero is one of hundreds of thousands of international students in the United States on F-1 and M-1 visas faced with the prospect of having to leave the country mid-pandemic if their schools go fully online.
For some students, remote learning could mean attending classes in the middle of the night, dealing with spotty or no Internet access, losing funding contingent on teaching, or having to stop participating in research. Some are considering taking time off or leaving their programs entirely.
Reuters spoke with a dozen students who described feeling devastated and confused by the Trump administration’s announcement.
In a Venezuela beset by a deep economic crisis amid political strife, Romero said his mother and brother are living off their savings, sometimes struggle to find food and don’t have reliable Internet at home.
“To think about myself going back to that conflict, while continuing my classes in a completely unequal playing field with my classmates,” he said. “I don’t think it’s possible.”
And that’s if he could even get there. There are currently no flights between the United States and Venezuela.

WORKING REMOTELY WON’T WORK
At schools that have already announced the decision to conduct classes fully online, students were grappling with the announcement’s implications for their personal and professional lives. Blindsided universities scrambled to help them navigate the upheaval.
Lewis Picard, 24, an Australian second-year doctoral student in experimental physics at Harvard University, has been talking nonstop with his partner about the decision. They are on F-1 visas at different schools.
Harvard said Monday it plans to conduct courses online next year. After the ICE announcement, the university’s president, Larry Bacow, said Harvard was “deeply concerned” that it left international students “few options.”
Having to leave “would completely put a roadblock in my research,” Picard said. “There’s essentially no way that the work I am doing can be done remotely. We’ve already had this big pause on it with the pandemic, and we’ve just been able to start going back to lab.”
It could also mean he and his partner would be separated. “The worst-case scenario plan is we’d both have to go to our home countries,” he said.

’CAN’T TRANSFER IN JULY’
Aparna Gopalan, 25, a fourth-year anthropology PhD student at Harvard originally from India, said ICE’s suggestion that students transfer to in-person universities is not realistic just weeks before classes begin.
“That betrays a complete lack of understanding of how academia works,” she said. “You can’t transfer in July. That’s not what happens.”
Others were considering leaving their programs entirely if they cannot study in the United States, and taking their tuition dollars with them. International students often pay full freight, helping universities to fund scholarships, and injected nearly $45 billion into the US economy in 2018.
“It doesn’t make much sense to me to pay for an American education, if you’re not really receiving an American education,” said Olufemi Olurin, 25, of the Bahamas, who is earning an MBA at Eastern Kentucky University and wants to pursue a career in health care management.
“It’s kind of heartbreaking,” she said. “I’ve been building my life here. As an immigrant, even if you are as law-abiding as it gets, you still are always waiting for the rug to be pulled out from under you.”
Benjamin Bing, 22, from China, who was planning to study computer science at Carnegie Mellon in the fall, said he no longer feels welcome in the United States. He and his friends are exploring the possibility of finishing their studies in Europe.
“I feel like it’s kicking out everyone,” he said, of the United States. “We actually paid tuition to study here and we did not do anything wrong.”