Adam Habib: SOAS will be ‘voice for developing world in the West’

New director acknowledges social justice agenda must go hand in hand with financial sustainability of troubled institution

January 26, 2021
Adam Habib, director of SOAS University of London
Source: Getty
Adam Habib, incoming director of SOAS University of London

When Adam Habib agreed to become director of SOAS University of London nearly 12 months ago, he expected to arrive in the UK capital to start the role this January.

Coronavirus, and in particular the emergence of a highly infectious variant in his native South Africa, has thrown a spanner in the works, with a travel ban leaving Professor Habib leading a British institution from the southern hemisphere.

With Professor Habib still hoping to make the journey to the UK soon, the juxtaposition is an apt one, for his vision for SOAS is to make it a truly international university, and a lens for the Global South in the Global North.

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“The value of London is that it has a global resonance, and that is also a value of SOAS,” said Professor Habib, vice-chancellor of Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand from 2013 until January. With SOAS’ mandate for the study of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, “it can also be a pathway for voices from those areas or, more broadly, the developing world, and a lens by which to understand global challenges”, he explained.

“I do believe we are in a particular historical moment, where all of our challenges are global, whether it is climate change or the coronavirus, inequality or political polarisation.”

To tackle such challenges, Professor Habib went on, would require “institutional capacity and human capabilities from across the world”. “If we don’t resolve this pandemic in Guinea-Bissau or Mongolia, you won’t resolve it anywhere else,” he said.

And for universities to play their part, institutions like SOAS must move away from the notion that internationalisation means attracting them to London or New York, and embrace collaboration with academics in the Global South, through new networks, joint curricula, co-teaching and co-funded joint research centres, Professor Habib said.

“As a scholar from the Global South, leading an institution in the Global North, it is important to underscore that equality is not a rhetorical game. To create equal partnerships in an unequal world, you need imagination,” he explained.

“In a lot of ways people romanticise SOAS as the ‘Oxbridge of the left’ and that is kind of cute, but we have to go beyond that. It can be a voice for the South in the North.”

Professor Habib said that SOAS’ commitment to social justice and strong research profile offered “an individual and institutional alignment” for his vision of higher education, and he argued that the institution was also “small and nimble enough to pull this off”.

This may go some way towards explaining why Professor Habib has swapped one of Africa’s top universities, with more than 40,000 students, for an institution that – while prestigious – has barely a 10th of the number of students and well-documented financial problems.

Last year, Graham Upton, SOAS’ interim director, warned staff that “recurrent deficits have posed a severe threat to our long-term financial sustainability”, with a fall in international student revenue the key problem likely to demand job cuts and restructuring.

Professor Habib said SOAS’ leadership had “done very well addressing those challenges. For this academic year, SOAS is targeted to run a modest surplus.”

Nevertheless, Professor Habib acknowledged that his social justice agenda must go hand in hand with balancing the books.

“I want to make sure we don’t go back there, that we develop sustainably,” he added. “If you ignore financial sustainability, sooner or later money problems will force you to make decisions that are dangerous for academic excellence.”

Social justice was a long-running – and sometimes problematic – theme throughout Professor Habib’s tenure at Wits, which was marked by the Rhodes Must Fall protests calling for decolonisation and the Fees Must Fall campaigns against tuition fees.

Decolonisation and education funding were issues for the UK as much as South Africa, but they had a “different political flavour”, Professor Habib noted. Referencing Rhodes Must Fall and the debate over statues and commemorative naming in higher education in the UK, if you “take down every symbol of colonialism, you will wipe out 95 per cent of symbolic manifestations [because] Britain was an empire for 300 years”, he said. However, representations of an exploitative and unequal past were “hurtful”, he acknowledged. “What we need is some to be taken down, while others are kept but reimagined.”

Professor Habib said that to address decolonisation and racism, as well as antisemitism, xenophobia and cultural chauvinism, universities have to be “a mirror to society but also a free space of ideas”. “I’m worried that the narrative in the debates is led by lobbyists. I want a conversation led by scholars,” he said.

Professor Habib concluded that he was “less interested in a tribalist narrative; I want a cosmopolitan narrative”. “I want to tackle that here, as it speaks to the fundamental purpose of SOAS: a shared value system in which all can find their home.”


Print headline: Habib: ‘Our challenges are global’

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