The Guardian published their annual University Guide last week. We all enjoy a list, but much like other rankings of educational institutions, the guide is pretty arbitrary and its findings are far from groundbreaking. As the then President of University College London said in 2010, 'league table compilers...fall miles short of capturing anything like the variety, the dynamism and the diversity of the modern university'.
As I near the end of my two year master's degree at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), I tend to agree. My experience at SOAS has led me to believe that such rankings should measure the ability of universities to inspire students and challenge their perceptions of the world - and nurture activism around this. For those familiar with SOAS, my view will not come as a big surprise. It might even be met with a sigh and a groan, as the university's hippy-leftie-activist reputation is often laughed at and, to be honest, not taken all too seriously. But there is something special happening at SOAS that the league tables are missing.
Academically, SOAS has turned on its head everything I learnt about Politics at A Level and Undergrad. Though ironically SOAS was once used to train colonial officials and spies, today there is a conscious effort to encourage students to examine topics through a non-Western lens and 'decolonise' their thinking. For me, this has meant questioning political and social norms I had previously taken as given. Such as democracy - is it the best system in African and Asian countries? Or development aid - why do governments give it to certain countries and causes? And, in particular, neoliberalism.
Don't get me wrong, I've always been left wing, believed in social welfare and disliked the Tories and all that. But before SOAS all of my thinking had very much been within the realms of neoliberalism; the political ideology which Thatcher and Reagan made the global status quo through the 1980s - dubbed 'the root of all our problems' by the Guardian's George Monbiot. So ingrained have its values of economic liberalisation, free trade and privatisation become since the fall of the Berlin wall in 1990, most of us are not even aware of its existence - let alone in a position to propose an alternative. Before SOAS, I felt strongly against inequality and corruption, so did what I could in my personal and professional life to fight these social ills. After SOAS, I have found myself able to understand the causes of these systemic issues better and think more broadly about how we can bring about change. Surely, this kind of mind opening experience is exactly what 'education' is supposed to give us.
The activist tradition of SOAS students and staff is another area university league tables would do well to recognise. I have not been heavily involved in the social or activist side of SOAS (having been learning part time alongside a busy job) but have benefitted from its results and inspired by what I have seen happening around me. For one, the university food co-op and readily available vegan lunch choices on campus have inspired me to make ethical changes to my diet. Activism at SOAS has also given its cleaners the London Living Wage and other benefits, installed gender neutral toilets, launched a travel buddy scheme following islamophobic attacks on public transport, and become the first London university to divest from fossil fuels. If I was choosing my university for next year, these are things I would like to know about.
The institution of SOAS by no means perfect. According to the union, the school is not putting enough resources into welfare to improve massive waiting lists for counselling, for example. It is also a problem that often there isn't much tolerance on campus for less liberal views. It wouldn't hurt some students to be a little more self aware, and to realise that it's not so terrible if someone isn't vegan, learning Swahili or fundamentally against the neoliberal agenda. But in a world where such values are not promoted enough, I personally am willing to give them a break.
In the Guardian University Guide, SOAS earned a ranking of 30 out of 119 universities. This is not a bad score, but it would look pretty different if the guide took into account the role of a university in inspiring and opening the minds of its students. In a country where young people are seen as politically disengaged, and students are stereotyped for their drinking habits rather than their activism, we must value universities that break this mould.