Student Questions and AnswersThese FAQs are for students and are updated regularly.
I have heard that some academic staff are taking industrial action by boycotting all work on student assessment. Why is this disruption happening?
The University and Colleges Union (UCU) has asked its members across the UK to take industrial action by boycotting all work on assessment from Thursday 6 November 2014. The action has been called by UCU in response to proposed changes to one of the pension schemes for university staff in the UK - the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS).
This is not a straightforward dispute between employers and employees. The key parties are: the Pensions Regulator, which has required the USS Trustees to come up with reforms to the pension scheme; the USS Trustees, who have a responsibility to run a sustainable scheme; the 69 higher education institutions across the UK where staff can join USS; and UCU, which represents all members of the scheme. As this is a national dispute it cannot be resolved locally or within the university.
How will the assessment boycott affect my academic studies?
The boycott includes setting and marking course work and exams. We are aware that such action could have a serious impact on students and the School is implementing an action plan to safeguard our students’ interests, which are paramount in our decision-making processes.
What should I do if I have already been given my coursework, assignment or essay?
Please complete and submit to the deadline in the normal way.
What should I do if I have not been given my coursework, assignment or essay?
Please check the BLE site for your course to see whether the coursework, assignment or essay has already been set. If not, please contact your Faculty Office, either in person or by email.
Will I receive my assessment marks and feedback at the expected time?
At this stage it is not clear to what extent academic staff will be participating in this action and therefore how you will be affected individually.
In the first instance, please talk to your course convenor. If you are unclear about any aspect of assessment and feedback, please contact your Faculty Office, either in person or by email.
Faculty of Arts and Humanities: firstname.lastname@example.org
Faculty of Languages and Cultures: email@example.com
Faculty of Law and Social Sciences: firstname.lastname@example.org
How will this action affect exams?
At this stage it is not clear to what extent academic staff will be participating in this action and therefore how exams will be affected. Your Faculty will keep you regularly updated. In the meantime, if you have specific queries, please contact your Faculty Office, either in person or by email.
Faculty of Arts and Humanities: email@example.com
Faculty of Languages and Cultures: firstname.lastname@example.org
Faculty of Law and Social Sciences: email@example.com
The Examination Boards for Masters programmes are scheduled to convene later this term. Will this action mean I don’t get my results and final classification?
We anticipate that you will receive your results as scheduled.
How will this action affect Study Abroad students?
Please contact Coryn Shiflet, SOAS Study Abroad Coordinator, by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Who can I contact if I’m still concerned?
Please refer to this webpage for more updates or email your queries to UKAssessmentBoycott@soas.ac.uk
What should I do if I have a query about the assessment boycott which is not directly related to my programme of academic study?
For example, if you have queries about health and wellbeing, mitigating circumstances or fees, please direct your email to:
If you would like to make a complaint, please see Making a complaint - a guide for SOAS students.
Has the School issued guidance on the current outbreak of Ebola in West Africa?
Our thoughts are with those living with the current outbreak of Ebola Virus in West Africa, their friends and families.
Public Heath England has issued advice to universities regarding the current outbreak. Please make yourself aware of what to do if you or someone you know falls ill.
What is Ebola?
Ebola is a rare but serious viral infection.
What is the risk of contracting Ebola?
People in the UK are not at risk of Ebola as the virus is only transmitted by direct contact with the blood or bodily fluids of an infected person. There have been no cases of Ebola contracted in the UK and the risk of Ebola arriving in the UK is very low.
What about people returning to UK from West Africa?
It is not impossible that persons infected in Guinea, Liberia or Sierra Leone could arrive in the UK. The affected countries have introduced exit screening at airports to ensure that individuals who are unwell do not board flights.
The time between contact with an infected person and the time that first symptoms appear (incubation period) of Ebola ranges from two to 21 days, meaning that students returning from affected countries could develop symptoms up to three weeks after arrival.
Any persons arriving back in the UK having travelled from any of the affected countries and who are free of symptoms are NOT infectious and there should be no restrictions on their education or normal activities.
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms of Ebola include fever, diarrhoea and vomiting and intense weakness. Other viruses like flu, malaria and typhoid fever have similar symptoms and only doctors can diagnose what the illness is.
What should I do if I or someone I know has these symptoms?
If someone you know is experiencing these symptoms and has recently returned from West Africa, you should telephone 111 or 999 and explain that they have recently visited West Africa.
How is SOAS governed? Is it democratic?
SOAS is a chartered institution. Its Royal Charter, granted in 1916, broadly defines the purposes of the School and sets out its system of governance. The School's Charter can only be amended by the Privy Council.
Our Charter gives Governing Body the authority to create Standing Orders, which define our system of governance. Standing Orders set out the membership and terms of reference (areas of responsibility) of each of the School's committees and the rules by which committees are run, enabling them to function effectively. Standing Orders may only be amended by Governing Body.
As with almost all universities the School is a charity. This means it has charitable objectives and reports on these annually as part of a public benefit statement within the annual accounts. Governing Body is currently applying to the Privy Council to change its name to Board of Trustees to better reflect this role.
SO WHAT DO SOAS COMMITTEES DO?
The role of most SOAS committees is strategic, not operational. They develop School strategies and monitor their delivery. Committee members do not represent a particular group or interest. Instead, they serve on committees as individuals, bringing their skills and expertise to help with the overall governance of the institution, to the benefit of the School as a whole.
WHAT IS THE COMMITTEE STRUCTURE AND HOW DOES IT WORK?
The School has a hierarchical committee structure. All committees ultimately report to Governing Body.
Governing Body has overall responsibility for ‘the general supervision, direction and control of all aspects of the School’. Some committees have a direct reporting line to Governing Body, while some report to Governing Body through other committees.
Both Academic Board and Resources & Planning Committee have a number of committees which report to them, each with a specific area of responsibility.
This hierarchical structure does not mean that every paper/issue will eventually make its way on to the Governing Body agenda. Some committees have delegated responsibility for particular areas.
For example, Academic Board’s overall responsibility is to advise Governing Body on any proposal relating to the academic scope, academic structure and academic standards of the School, but within this, Academic Board has responsibility for approving the School's academic policy, and for agreeing School academic regulations.
Resources & Planning Committee monitors the finances of the School on behalf of Governing Body, and advises on the financial implications of new proposals. As part of its remit it has delegated authority on investments.
WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT ROLES OF A COMMITTEE?
The Committee Chair is responsible for making sure that the committee only deals with items which fall within its remit. The Chair works with committee members to ensure that the committee deals with its business effectively and efficiently and, if necessary, moves it on through the committee structure. The Chair manages the flow of business through the meeting, facilitates discussion, ensures consensus, and allocates any necessary action.
The Committee Secretary fields queries relating to the committee, its membership, its remit, or the progress of business. The Secretary prepares papers for meetings, gathering the information necessary for the committee to conduct its business. As well as producing the minutes of each meeting, the Secretary makes sure that items pass appropriately through the committee structure and reminds individuals of the action points that were agreed at the meeting. The Secretary also liaises with the Chair and members between meetings, if necessary, in order to complete the business of the committee.
Committee Members help with the overall governance of the institution, for the benefit of the School as a whole. Members are not on committees as representatives of particular groups or sections of the School community unless this is explicitly stated in the committee's terms of reference (for example a Trade Union representative on the Health, Safety & Security Committee). Committee members receive papers in advance of meetings, and make themselves familiar with these documents. While the Chair is there to lead the meeting, members take responsibility for making the points they feel are necessary. However strongly members feel about particular issues, they are expected to co-operate with the Chair to ensure the fair and effective transaction of business, and the observance of the courtesies of debate. Committees have a key role to play in the School, and the contribution made by committee members is a vital component in determining how successful committees are.
HOW ARE COMMITTEE MEMBERS CHOSEN?
At SOAS there are two categories of committee member. Some members are ‘ex-officio’, which means that they are members of the committee because of the post they hold in the School. Others are nominated members. Members may have been nominated by, for example, Faculties, the Pro-Directors, the Registrar or the Students' Union Executive Committee, and will have been put forward because of the particular skills, interest or expertise that they have. This means it is not normally possible for another individual to attend a meeting in place of a nominated committee member who is unable to attend. Members are not on committees as representatives of particular groups or sections of the School community unless this is explicitly stated in the committee's terms of reference (for example a Trade Union representative).
WHAT ARE THE PRINCIPLES ON WHICH THE COMMITTEE STRUCTURE IS BASED?
1. Committees should be strategic, not operational.
It has been agreed that the role of most committees is to develop School strategies and to monitor their delivery. Committees are not expected to assume responsibility for operational areas which are the responsibility of others (such as the Professional Services Directorates, or the Deans). This enables a group of individuals, with a range of experience, expertise and responsibilities, to contribute towards establishing the direction in which the School is heading, whilst leaving those with particular operational skills and knowledge to determine how we get there.
Where committees have responsibility for dealing with specific operational issues (for example LTQC), this is set out in the Committee's terms of reference.
a) Committees should be as small as practicable
Committees need to be a size which will allow discussion and debate to flourish, in order that consensus can be reached. It is pretty difficult to ensure that this happens when numbers get into double figures, let alone when the committee numbers 30+. Large committees can also be wasteful of people's time.
b) Committees contribute to the governance of the School.
The role of committee members is not to represent a particular group or interest. Members are on committees as individuals, bringing their skills and expertise to help with the overall governance of the institution, to the benefit of the School as a whole. While members may be from a particular group, and can bring the views of that group to the meeting, once at the meeting, the interests of the School must be the overriding consideration.
The only exception to this non-representative role is where committees (such as Health, Safety & Security) have, for example, Trade Union representatives on them, and are required to do so.
This view of committee membership is supported both in the School's Standing Orders and in the guidance produced by the Committee of University Chairs (CUC), which the School is required to follow.
c) Given the strategic nature of committees, membership should include those who are responsible for ensuring delivery on strategies at senior level.
Much of what committees do is about devising, proposing and refining strategies for the School, and then monitoring its implementation. Directors of Professional Services on a committee need be able to take an overview of what is achievable, and then (where appropriate) to ensure that the colleagues for whom they are responsible actually deliver. It is not necessary for every operational manager whose area falls within the remit of a committee to be a member of that committee or to attend every single meeting. They may attend for items where they have specific responsibility if the committee feels this would help with its work.
Directors of Professional Services should only be members of those committees at which their areas of responsibility are discussed on a regular basis. Otherwise, they should be invited to attend particular meetings where specific items are discussed.
Some academic committee members will be there because they have been nominated by their Faculty in order to bring certain experience or expertise to meetings. However, depending on the committee, for the reasons outlined above, it may also be necessary to have senior academic managers as members as well.
That is not to say that committees cannot ask for reports from individuals who are not members (they can, and have always been able to do this), and individuals can be asked to attend parts of meetings to speak to any papers they may have written, or provide advice where this is required. However, they would not be expected to attend every meeting, and should only attend for a specific item.
3) Committees can invite specialists to attend parts of meetings
In the past, the number of people ‘in attendance’ at some committee meetings outnumbered the members. When the current committee structure was put in place, it was agreed that it was wasteful to have people who were not members attending every meeting of the sub- committees of Academic Board and Resources & Planning Committee, so these committees do not have people ‘ in attendance’. This should not stop these committees inviting individuals with particular expertise to attend parts of meetings to speak to papers if they can make a valuable contribution, and committees currently do this on a regular basis.
a) The ‘owners’ of information are best placed to ensure that this information is communicated to those who need it
Committees are not suitable vehicles for the effective communication of information across the School, and it would be wrong to expect them to fulfil this function for which they are clearly not designed. It is the responsibility of the Committee Secretary to ensure that if someone provides a paper for a committee, and is not then at the committee meeting to hear the outcome of any discussion, they are told what has happened.
However, the owner of a policy/procedure etc is by far the best person to know who else in the School needs to be informed about it, and is therefore responsible for making sure that this is done.
b) Committees with Chairs and membership in common
Where more than one committee has an interest in a particular area, the membership of committees is designed to ensure that there is some level of overlapping membership. It is reasonable to expect members who are on both committees to share with one committee the outcome of any discussion at the other committee.
In addition to this, Chairs of committees have been chosen for the same reason. Wherever possible, committees that have areas in common are chaired by the same individual. It is intended that this should ensure the exchange of information between, and continuity across, committees which deal with related business.
Committee Secretaries also have a responsibility to liaise with Chairs and other Committee Secretaries to ensure that papers move through the committee structure in an appropriate way, and that there is clarity in relation to which items are dealt with by each committee.
School committees are not a mechanism for negotiating with the senior executives of the School. There are formal mechanisms in place for such negotiations, and School governance committees are not one of them. The School and Trades Unions have recently agreed a Joint Negotiation and Consultative Committee for this purpose.
How are students' views shared with senior management at SOAS?
The Director has regular meetings with the Students’ Union Co-Presidents. The Secretary and other senior members of staff also meet with them on both a formal and informal basis to discuss a wide range of issues that affect students at the School. In addition, almost all committees of the School have student members and the Director meets with groups of students from each Department throughout the year. The School regularly carries out consultations to gather student views on a wide range of issues - for example, there was excellent engagement with students through open meetings and surveys on the plans to develop the North Block of Senate House. In addition, the School takes very seriously the results of the annual National Student Survey of final year students, which are used to inform Departmental development plans.
You can get in touch with the Students' Union Co-Presidents and Executive to share your views.
Who are fractional teaching staff?
A Fractional Teaching Fellow is part-time and employed on a ‘fraction’ of a full-time equivalent (FTE).
The majority of fractional teachers are employed on fixed-term contracts to cover permanent academic staff teachers who are on Research Leave or Maternity Leave etc. There is also a significant number of permanent fractional teachers employed by the School.
Who are Graduate Teaching Assistants?
Graduate Teaching Assistants or GTAs are employed as part of a programme aimed at providing training opportunities and teaching work experience for SOAS research students. The School recognises the need to maintain a number of teaching posts to help with the training of PhD students who intend to pursue an academic career. As such GTA posts are fixed-term in nature, so allowing the next generation of PhD students to also benefit from such teaching experience.
GTAs are paid in exactly the same way as fractional teachers (see above).
September 2014 - What is the dispute between SOAS and its fractional teaching staff all about?
In previous years there have been instances where fractional teachers have not been paid adequately for their work. This is recognised by the School. In order to improve terms and conditions for these highly-valued members of staff, the School has been in negotiations since May 2014 with UCU, the University and College Union which represents academic teaching staff.
The School has responded by:
• offering substantially improved terms and conditions. These have been benchmarked against other leading institutions and the School believes its offer is as good as or better than any other in the higher education sector. A summary of the improved terms and conditions can be found at https://www.soas.ac.uk/hr/staffinfo/fractional-teachers/.
• providing much greater clarity about the role of fractional teacher through a revised Fractional Staff Policy, which gives clear guidance on the amount of work appropriate for preparation, administration and assessment, in addition to contact teaching.
Which institutions was the offer benchmarked against and what are the differences?
The School looked at LSE, UCL, Essex, Birkbeck and Queen Mary, University of London.
In particular, the SOAS offer improves on these comparators in the following areas:
- training: SOAS sees fractional teaching work as a development opportunity for early career researchers and our new graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) are paid a fixed fee of £200 to attend a three-day compulsory training course that is professionally accredited. Of our comparators, only one offers professionally accredited training and they do not pay their GTAs to attend.
- coursework marking: SOAS pay for coursework marking is based on output of 2.5 scripts per hour, while most comparators calculate it on the basis of 3-4 scripts per hour.
- preparation: like most (but not all) comparators, weekly class preparation is included in the multiplier. However, unlike all comparators, on top of this SOAS pays for full and half course preparation: new GTAs are paid 10 hours plain time for preparation of a full course in addition to weekly class preparation, while Teaching Fellows (TF) and Senior Teaching Fellows (STF) and returning GTAs are paid 5 hours plain time for preparation of a full course. We are aware of no other HEI that pays separately for preparation on top of a multiplier
Attending lectures, revision tutorials: Like most (but not all) comparators, when necessary for pedagogic reasons, SOAS pays for attendance at lectures and revision tutorials in plain time hours.
Broadly what are the improvements in terms and conditions in the SOAS offer?
The new terms and conditions will benefit all fractional teaching staff and represent a major improvement for Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) – the group of our own students to whom we offer teaching as a career development opportunity. They will also place clear limits on the amount of preparation and marking that is expected. For example, not counting any additional marking or lecture attendance that might be agreed:
- a GTA or TF teaching 1hr per week would be 30% better off, and up to 90% better off if they were a GTA who had not taught the course before;
- a GTA or TF teaching 5hrs per week would be 10% better off, and up to 22% better off if they were a GTA who had not taught the course before;
- an STF teaching 2hrs per week would be 13% better off, whilst an STF teaching 5hrs per week would be 8% better off, without including additional payment for marking that is currently undertaken by many STFs within the multiplier.
The new contracts ask fractional tutors to do less preparation - won't this undermine the student experience?
The new contracts set out clear expectations for preparation that are consistent with those at other comparator universities, including LSE, UCL etc. The School is also seeking to deliver better support and mentoring to fractional teaching staff, so they are better able to carry out their roles, and the student experience is improved.