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Campus close-up: Soas, University of London

Renowned overseas, now the humanities and social science institution is bidding to raise its profile at home, too

Buddhist statue, Soas, University of London

Source: Alamy

On the day that Soas, University of London announced its biggest donation ever – a £20 million gift – Paul Webley, the institution’s director, was attending the wedding of Sir Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter.

“I got almost as many congratulations as Steve and Jeannie [Sir Steve’s wife] did because all these people had heard this announcement about us getting £20 million on Radio 4 on the hourly news,” said Professor Webley.

A £20 million donation would be welcome for any university, but given the relatively small size of the humanities and social science institution, which focuses on Asia, Africa and the Near and Middle East, the sum represents 28 per cent of its total annual income.

“If you give £20 million to Harvard, they say ‘thank you very much’ and add it to the other £20 millions they’ve got,” Professor Webley said. “You give £20 million to us, and we say, ‘Good Lord, look at the transformational impact you’ve had.’ ”

The gift, announced in November last year, came from the US philanthropist Fred Eychaner, president of the Chicago-based Alphawood Foundation, after he took a postgraduate diploma at Soas, on Southeast Asian art, in 2009.

Three-quarters of the gift will be used to fund three academic posts in Southeast Asian art and to provide scholarships for students from the region. The idea is that these scholars become the “next generation of experts” and return to the region to research, preserve and teach art, Professor Webley explained.

The remaining £5 million will help Soas to refurbish the north wing of Senate House in Bloomsbury – the other side of which is the University of London’s headquarters – while disposing of its secondary London site in Vernon Square, near King’s Cross, which Soas found “very hard” to make work as a campus, he said.

“This is going to create a single precinct university,” Professor Webley explained, with the library and other student services concentrated into one site – the student reaction has been “Hooray!”, he added.

And the donation from Mr Eychaner is not a one-hit wonder for Soas: in January it unveiled a £1 million donation from the MBI Al Jaber Foundation to help relocate its London Middle East Institute to a more accessible home next to Soas’ Bloomsbury precinct.

Professor Webley believes that there will be more donors, possibly from the ranks of Asia’s newly wealthy elite who want to contribute to the understanding of their own cultures.

Although other universities obviously do research into Asian societies, Soas was exploring such subjects long ago – “when there wasn’t money there”, he said.

In 1948, for example, Soas established the first lectureship in Korean in the UK. “Who’d even heard of Korea in 1948?” he said.

Now, the East Asian nation sees Soas as “a place that cares about Korea”. The institution receives a substantial amount of research funding from South Korea, and Professor Webley visited the country in his first week as director.

Such is the strength of the institution’s links abroad that Soas is probably better known overseas than it is in the UK, he acknowledges.

“Wherever I go in places like India they’ll know Soas: students have been there, relatives have been there – they know about the place,” he said. But when Professor Webley was appointed director, his wife, a history teacher, found that none of her pupils – even in a school where the vast majority of pupils go on to university – knew what it was.

Part of the reason for this is that Soas was “very small for a very long time, and incredibly international”, he explained. It now has more than 5,000 students, but had fewer than 1,200 in 1990.

About 49 per cent of the students are British, but “historically, that’s a high figure”, he said. “You simply didn’t have so many people who had a nephew or a niece who had been to Soas.”

But this is beginning to change, and Soas has been actively trying to raise its profile. “I’m very pleased that our University Challenge team is doing well,” he said.

With the help of Mr Eychaner’s donation, the university is also planning to increase the size of its student body, and has introduced undergraduate courses in English and in international relations.

Professor Webley insisted that the English course retains a distinctive Soas flavour. “It’s not about English here but English around the world,” he said. “It’s not about Shakespeare.”

In a world where universities are fighting to create a unique identity or brand, it is clear that Soas is several steps ahead. Who else, Professor Webley pointed out, can boast an endowed professorship in Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest yet smallest religions?

In numbers

133 nationalities are represented on the Soas campus

david.matthews@tsleducation.com

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