SOAS on brand wagon

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By AMIT ROY
  • Published 4.08.11
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London, Aug. 3: The School of Oriental and African Studies, which has long been a popular academic institution for Indian students, now has the authority to give out degrees in its own name rather than issue them on behalf of the University of London.

This makes SOAS a little like Presidency — previously a college but now upgraded to a full-fledged university in its own right.

SOAS was also keen to enter the same league as the three top London colleges which issue their own degrees rather than on behalf of London University as happened in the past — the London School of Economics (LSE), University College London (UCL) and King’s College London (KCL).

As brands go — and SOAS’s switch must be seen as primarily a branding exercise — LSE is a reputed brand, though of late it has been best known as the institution that awarded a PhD to Muammar Gaddafi’s son, Saif ul Islam, and had its palms metaphorically crossed with Libyan silver.

On the other hand, LSE, where Meghnad Desai was once a distinguished professor of economics, has attracted the Indian historian and columnist, Ramachandra Guha, for a year’s visiting professorship — he is now acclaimed for his laugh-a-minute speeches.

UCL is huge and merited a visit earlier this year by the US-based author, Siddharth Mukherjee, who has won a Pulitzer for his A Biography of Cancer.

KCL is making strides too, most recently with the setting up of an India Institute under Prof Sunil Khilnani, author of The Idea of India. It will study, among other subjects, contemporary journalism in India which none of the others do.

The tussle for the best students from India has not quite become a brand battle between the big four but it appears to be heading that way.

SOAS is ahead in one respect — its “brand ambassador” is Fatima Bhutto, one of its former Pakistani students and the author of Songs of Blood and Sword, but generally held to be the best looker in the academic business.

SOAS applied for permission to award its own degrees from the Privy Council which, after rigorous checks by inspectors from the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, agreed to the request. This became effective from Monday.

However, for a while, at any rate, students will have the choice of getting a solo SOAS degree or sticking with one from London University as in the past or a fudge with SOAS (University of London). This is because in some countries, a degree from “the University of London” has greater recognition, whereas in others, including probably India, the SOAS brand is much respected in academic circles.

SOAS’s spokesperson on the change in status is its “pro-director (learning and teaching)”, Professor Nirmala Rao, who took her first degree in Economics at Delhi University and received her MA and MPhil from Jawaharlal Nehru University before coming to the UK in the 1980s.

“This wonderful news is a tribute to all our colleagues in the school,” said Rao, who did her PhD at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London, joined the politics department at Goldsmiths College in 1994, was elected an academician of the Academy of Learned Societies in the Social Sciences in 2003, and honoured with an OBE for “services to scholarship” in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list in June this year.

“It is a tremendous achievement and a national recognition of the quality and maturity of our academic standards and procedures,” she said. “It confirms our standing as one of the leading specialist schools for the study of Asia, Africa and the Middle East.”

SOAS has 4,500 students in the UK and a similar number based in campuses abroad. In London, there are 107 students who have come from India, while in addition there are another 252 domestic pupils who describe their ethnic origins as “Asian or Asian British-Indian”.

SOAS loves to bond with Bollywood, partly because of one its teaching staff, Professor Rachel Dwyer, teaches a course in Indian cinema and has written a book on Yash Chopra.

This year, Sharmila Tagore and Shabana Azmi have addressed meetings at SOAS, as has Arundhati Roy, who provided a characteristically scathing assessment of corporate behaviour in the new India. SOAS has also hosted an exhibition of photographs which reveal how mining in Jharkhand is allegedly turning the state’s tribal lands into “hell on earth”.

Rao told The Telegraph: “SOAS is a very well known brand in India — and there is a JNU-SOAS link. SOAS tends to attract people with socialist leanings.”