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Turning Universities into Borders: The Case of the SOAS Cleaners

by Alberto Toscano
16 Jun 2009 • Comments (3) • Print
Posted: General Issue [7] | Commons

On Friday, June 12 cleaning staff at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), employed by the company ISS, were called to an emergency staff meeting, where they were set upon by forty immigration officers and taken away for questioning. Six of the cleaners have already been forcibly removed from the country, while two remain in custody. Students at SOAS have rightly protested against the intolerable conduct of immigration police and ISS (already criticised for their maltreatment of workers on the London Underground) and the lack of any opposition to this action by university management.[1] This scapegoating of the most precarious and exploited members of the ‘academic community’ is deeply objectionable.

Cleaners at SOAS had recently made important gains, in conjunction with other workers and students, in their struggle for better working conditions and the London Living Wage.[2] In a country where union activity is already curtailed, and where the desire to roll back the gains of the labour movement continues to obsess elites, it is perhaps not surprising if government and employers respond to struggles for elementary rights with such expedients. Yet at a moment when all over Europe economic anxieties are playing into the hands of xenophobes, who propose that we shore up our security by excluding or oppressing those whose lives are most insecure, it is particularly urgent to resist the blinkered authoritarianism that lies behind these arrests, which are not only unjust but hypocritical. Even the mayor of London (hardly a critical sociologist) has recognised the extent to which London’s economy depends on the labour of immigrant and undocumented workers.[3] It is bad enough that this city is the site of extreme economic inequalities, it is totally unacceptable that those at the bottom of the rung – often made invisible by the hours and conditions of their work – should be rewarded for their toil with such contempt.

Needless to say, universities are not special places, reservations for freedoms absent from the ‘real world’ beyond. But they are institutions whose critical vocation and cosmopolitanism should hold them to certain standards. The students at SOAS have clearly been more faithful to this calling than those who facilitated these arrests or turned the other way. They have demanded of their institution a minimal coherence with its reputation for research on human rights and migration. They have rejected the pervasive cynicism that allows us to be critical in theory but indifferent to, or complicit with, practical abuses of power. They have testified to the idea of universities as places where the questioning of how we’re governed, how we work and how we live together is not a purely speculative pursuit.

If tolerated or ignored, current moves to integrate education, business and the state will effectively make a mockery of any vision of the university as an institution that seeks to foster independent thought and broaden our solidarities. This is true both of the often invisible and precarious labour that makes university life possible and of academic life in general. If the government has its way, universities will become extensions of the border, with lecturers and administrators effectively required by law to monitor their students on behalf of the Home Office.[4] This is not a question of some unique moral mission bestowed on academia. What Friday’s arrests and deportations bring home is that universities are workplaces much like any others, microcosms where all the stresses and contradictions of our society – inequality, the exploitation of migrant labour, the expansion of state power – are manifest. But they are also places where we supposedly foster critical thinking – an activity that is irreconcilable with the callous and hypocritical treatment of the SOAS cleaners.

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Alberto Toscano teaches sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea (forthcoming from Verso), and sits on the editorial board of Historical Materialism.
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3 Responses »

  1. Sadly, the cosmopolitanism you refer to in the British universities is likely to become a victim of the current global recession and the peculiar responses it has generated. The collapse of ORSAS seems to indicate that funding opportunities for foreign students will continue to dwindle, and British universities will become increasingly parochial. This constriction parallels the growing mainstream insularity towards the issue of immigrant labour; it reflects a complete blindness to what makes Britain a viable and interesting nation years after the demise of her imperial power.

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