The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) is a public university and a part of the University of London umbrella. SOAS, honestly, is a school like no other, not just on account of its history, but its raison d’etre, its culture, student politics, and student demography.
To start with its history, SOAS, founded in 1916, had the express purpose of advancing British knowledge of the colonies. The colonies of the British Empire had become perfect sites for British experimentation in anthropology, linguistics, historiography, and so forth. The school’s focus therefore came to reflect the focus of the British Empire, i.e., Asia and Africa. Until WWII, the school became elemental to the education of British administrations and colonial officials.
However, at present, the spirit of SOAS has taken a very different, if not altogether, a 360 degree turn. The school has since its founding been the vanguard of academics on Asia and Africa but where it differs at present is that it has achieved a decidedly post-colonial liberal-progressive mission. Now, it trains people like you and me, and those from other parts of Asia and Africa, to give back, through scholarship, research, and various forms of activism, to the regions they are from. In effect, SOAS is now bent on remedying its colonial past by empowering the erstwhile colonized.
The school has, since its turn, produced several foreign heads of states, civil servants and diplomats and its School of Law is a particularly favored training ground for barristers in South Asia. It is one of the leading institutions for lawyers intending to practice in Asia and Africa. The School of Law offers LL.B., LL.M. and MPhil/PhD programs to over 400 students, the majority of which are foreign students.
SOAS has famous History and Development Studies Programs as well. To cite an example of its depth of commitment to the study of its preferred geographies, when I went to SOAS, the Faculty of Arts & Humanities alone had over 30 South Asia focused faculty members. The Development Studies Program at SOAS also has cutting-edge applications of cultural theories and anthropology allow development frameworks to be thought through in relation to the socio-cultural context of different countries.
In terms of demographic diversity, of the 3,015 students in 2014-15, 43% of the students were international, representing 140 countries, while 60% were female. According to the QS World University Rankings, SOAS has one of the highest percentage of international students in any university in the world. One of my classmates once remarked that at SOAS, most Caucasians were either in Saris or chappals. It is largely true.
Situated in the heart of central London, SOAS is walking distance from the British Museum, the British Library, and the world-famous Oxford Street, where more shoppers gather every day than at any other place in the world. Moreover, the University of London universities have several opportunities for collaboration amongst themselves. So a student at SOAS may well be working with a Professor at LSE, KCL, or UCL, and vice versa. This system allows a great cross-pollination of social and intellectual impulses. And London is a famously student-friendly city with University of London students enjoying a whole host of benefits on account of their university ID card, from access to various events all over the city to discounts on virtually everything, e.g., sporting events, movie tickets, clothing stories, and London’s famous musicals.
Overall, SOAS is a fantastic place of learning, socializing, and fun, and the learning does extend far beyond the classroom. London is also a city like no other for learning and self-development. But that being said, SOAS is not a school for everyone, as a lot does go on in SOAS, from politics to parties that can be distracting for those intending to bury their noses in textbooks. Moreover, the focus on Asia, Africa and the Middle East is also not for everyone, and many students who like a more traditional approach to their undergraduate or post-graduate studies, will find several other options to choose from, among the University of London constellation of very fine academic institutions. I, for one, however, thoroughly enjoyed the SOAS experience.
Sajid Amit is Director, CES, University of Liberal Arts (ULAB). He is an alumnus of Dartmouth College, SOAS University of London, and Columbia University.