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SOAS, University of London

SOAS, University of London
Arms of SOAS
Motto Knowledge is Power
Established 1916
Type Public
Endowment £ 20.2 million[1]
Chancellor Anne, Princess Royal (University of London)
President Graça Machel OBE
Director Baroness Valerie Amos
Students 5,235[2]
Undergraduates 2,931[2]
Postgraduates 2,304[2]
Location London, United Kingdom
Campus Urban
Mascot Arabian Camel and Asian Elephant
Affiliations University of London

SOAS, University of London (the School of Oriental and African Studies[3]) is a public research university in London, England, and a constituent college of the University of London. Founded in 1916, SOAS has produced several heads of state, government ministers, ambassadors, Supreme Court judges, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and many other leaders.

Located in the heart of Bloomsbury in central London, SOAS is regarded as the leading institution for the study of Asia, Africa and the Middle East and is ranked amongst the top universities in Britain.[4][5] It specialises in the humanities, languages and social sciences of Asia, Africa and the Middle East and offers around 350 undergraduate bachelor's degree combinations, and over 100 one-year master's degrees. MPhil and PhD research degrees are also available in every academic department.


  • History 1
    • Origins 1.1
    • Second World War 1.2
    • 1945 to present 1.3
  • Campuses 2
  • Organisation and administration 3
    • Governance 3.1
    • Faculties and departments 3.2
      • Faculty of Arts and Humanities 3.2.1
      • Faculty of Languages and Cultures 3.2.2
      • Faculty of Law and Social Sciences 3.2.3
  • Academic profile 4
    • Library 4.1
    • Department of Linguistics 4.2
    • Rankings 4.3
  • Student life 5
    • Student housing 5.1
  • Notable people 6
    • Directors 6.1
    • Notable alumni 6.2
      • Royalty 6.2.1
      • Government and politics 6.2.2
      • Media/writers 6.2.3
      • Academia 6.2.4
      • Music and the arts 6.2.5
      • Religion 6.2.6
      • Miscellaneous 6.2.7
    • Notable faculty and staff 6.3
      • Faculty of Law and Social Sciences 6.3.1
      • Faculty of Arts and Humanities 6.3.2
      • Faculty of Languages and Cultures 6.3.3
  • References 7
  • Further reading 8
  • External links 9



The School of Oriental Studies was founded in 1916 at 2 Finsbury Circus, London, the then premises of the Earl Curzon of Kedleston, formerly Viceroy of India, and other cabinet officials.

The school's founding mission was to advance British scholarship, science and commerce in Africa and Asia and to provide London University with a rival to the famous Oriental schools of Berlin, Petrograd and Paris.[6] The school immediately became integral in training British administrators, colonial officials and spies for overseas postings across the British Empire. Africa was added to the school's name in 1938.

Second World War

For sometime in the mid-1930s, prior to moving to its current location at Thornhaugh Street, Bloomsbury, the school was located at Vandon House, Vandon Street, London SW1, with the library located at Clarence House. Its move to new premises in Bloomsbury was held up by delays in construction and the half-completed building took a hit during the Blitz in September 1940. With the onset of the Second World War, many University of London colleges were evacuated from London in 1939 and billeted on universities all over the provinces.[7] The School was, on the Government's advice, transferred to Christ's College, Cambridge.[8]

In 1940, when it became apparent that a return to London was possible, the school returned to the city and was housed for some months in eleven rooms at Broadway Court, 8 Broadway, London SW1. In 1942, the War Office joined with the school's Japanese department to help alleviate the shortage in Japanese linguists. State scholarships were offered to select grammar and public school boys to train as military translators and intelligence officers. Lodged at Dulwich College in south London, the students became affectionately known as the Dulwich boys.[9]

Bletchley Park, the headquarters of the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS), was concerned about the slow pace of the SOAS, so they started their own Japanese-language courses at Bedford in February 1942. The courses were directed by army cryptographer, Col. John Tiltman, and retired Royal Navy officer, Capt. Oswald Tuck.[10]

1945 to present

A student from Northern Rhodesia at SOAS in 1946

In recognition of SOAS's role during the war, the 1946 Scarborough Commission (officially the "Commission of Enquiry into the Facilities for Oriental, Slavonic, East European and African Studies"[11]) report recommended a major expansion in provision for the study of Asia and the school benefited greatly from the subsequent largesse.[12] Growth however was curtailed by following years of economic austerity, and upon Sir Cyril Philips assuming the directorship in 1956, the school was in a vulnerable state. Over his twenty-year stewardship, Phillips transformed the school, raising funds and broadening the school's remit.[12]

A college of the University of London, the School's fields include Law, Social Sciences, Humanities and Languages with special reference to Asia and Africa. The SOAS Library, located in the Philips Building is the UK's national resource for materials relating to Asia and Africa and is the largest of its kind in Europe.[13] The school has grown considerably over the past thirty years, from fewer than 1,000 students in the 1970s to more than 6,000 students today, nearly half of them postgraduates. SOAS is partnered with the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales (INALCO) in Paris which is often considered the French equivalent of SOAS.[14]

In 2011, the Privy Council approved changes to the school's charter allowing it to award degrees in its own name, following the trend set by fellow colleges the London School of Economics, University College London and King's College London. All new students registered from September 2013 will qualify for a SOAS, University of London award.[15]

In 2012 a new visual identity for SOAS was launched to be used in print, digital media and around the campus.[16] The SOAS tree symbol, first implemented in 1989, was redrawn and recoloured in gold, with the new symbol incorporating the leaves of ten trees, including the English Oak representing England; the Bodhi, Coral Bark Maple, Teak representing Asia; the Mountain Acacia, African Pear, Lasiodiscus representing Africa; and the Date Palm, Pomegranate and Ghaf representing the Middle East.[17] [18]


The main entrance to the Russell Square campus
Part of the Vernon Square campus

SOAS is divided into two campuses within twenty minutes walk of each other.

The main campus known as the Russell Square campus is located in the Bloomsbury area of central London, close to Russell Square. It includes College Buildings (the Philips Building and the Old Building), Brunei Gallery, Faber Building (23-24 Russell Square) and 21-22 Russell Square. The SOAS library designed by Sir Denys Lasdun in 1973 is located in the Philips Building. The nearest Underground station is Russell Square tube station.

The Vernon Square campus in Islington, opened in 2001, is close to King's Cross railway station and a few hundred yards from Dinwiddy House and Paul Robeson House halls of residence. The Ritsumeikan Trust opened its U.K. Office at the Vernon Square campus in 2010.[19]

At its main campus the school houses the Brunei Gallery, built from an endowment from the Sultan of Brunei Darussalam, and inaugurated by the Princess Royal, as Chancellor of the University of London, on 22 November 1995. Its facilities include exhibition space on three floors, a book shop, a lecture theatre, and conference and teaching facilities. The Brunei Gallery hosts a programme of changing contemporary and historical exhibitions from Asia, Africa and the Middle East with the aim to present and promote cultures from these regions.[20] The new Foyle Special Collections Gallery includes the permanent display of Objects of Instruction: Treasures of the School of Oriental and African Studies, the contents of which are rotated.[21]

The Japanese style roof garden on top of the Brunei Gallery was built during the Japan 2001 celebrations and was opened by the sponsor, Haruhisa Handa, an Honorary Fellow of the School, on 13 November 2001.[22] The garden is dedicated to Forgiveness, which is the meaning of the kanji character engraved on the garden's granite water basin. Peter Swift, a designer with experience of adapting Japanese garden design principles to the British environment and climate, conceived the garden as a place of quiet contemplation and meditation as well as a functional space complementary to the gallery and its artistic activities.

The school hosted the Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, one of the foremost collections of Chinese ceramics in Europe. The collection has been loaned to and is now on permanent display in Room 95 of the British Museum.

Organisation and administration


Faculties and departments

SOAS, University of London is divided into three faculties.[23] These are further divided into academic departments. SOAS has many Centres and Institutes,[24] each of which is affiliated to a particular faculty.

Faculty of Arts and Humanities

Faculty of Languages and Cultures

Faculty of Law and Social Sciences

Academic profile

The entrance to the Brunei Gallery, located at SOAS's Russell Square campus
The interior of the SOAS library

SOAS is a centre for the study of subjects concerned with Asia, Africa and the Middle East."[25] It trains government officials on secondment from around the world in Asian, African and Middle Eastern languages and area studies, particularly in Arabic & Islamic Studies - which combined with Hebrew formed the major bulk of classical Oriental Studies in Europe - and Mandarin Chinese. It also acts as a consultant to government departments and to companies such as Accenture and Deloitte – when they seek to gain specialist knowledge of the matters concerning Asia, Africa and the Middle East.[26] However, SOAS also offers a range of degrees in less traditional and text-based subjects, such as Development Studies and Middle East Politics, within which students can learn a foreign language ab initio.

The school is made up of nineteen departments across three faculties: Arts and Humanities, Languages and Cultures, and Law and Social Sciences. The school focuses on small group teaching with a student-staff ratio of 11:1 and some departments 6:1.[27]


The SOAS library, cited as the jewel in the school's crown,[28] is a library for Asian, African and Middle Eastern studies, comparable only to the British Library.[29] It houses more than 1.2 million volumes and electronic resources for the study of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and attracts scholars from all over the world.[30] The library is also one of the UK's five National Research Libraries.[31] The library is undergoing a £12 million modernisation and enlargement programme (known as 'the Library Transformation Project') that aims to increase capacity and create new student study spaces.[32]

The library is housed in the Philips Building on the Russell Square campus and was built in 1973. It was designed by architect Sir Denys Lasdun who also designed some of Britain's most famous brutalist buildings such as the National Theatre and the Institute of Education.

As a constituent college of the University of London, students at SOAS also have access to Senate House Library, shared by other colleges such as London School of Economics and University College London, which is located just a short walk from the Russell Square campus.

Department of Linguistics

The SOAS Department of Linguistics was the first ever linguistics department in United Kingdom, founded in 1932 as a centre for research and study in Oriental and African languages.[33] J. R. Firth, known internationally for his work in phonology and semantics, was Senior Lecturer, Reader and Professor of General Linguistics at the school between 1938 and 1956.


(2015/16, national)
(2015/16, world)
(2016, national)
The Guardian[37]
(2016, national)
Times/Sunday Times[38]
(2015, national)

Although it is debatable whether University League Tables can accurately compare the quality of small specialised research institutions such as SOAS to general universities with tens of thousands of students and departments in nearly every academic discipline, or even to other specialised institutes with different focuses,[39] in 2005, SOAS placed 4th among United Kingdom universities in a Guardian poll.[40] In the subject tables of this poll, SOAS was placed 3rd for Anthropology, 4th for Economics, 3rd for History and History of Art, 6th for Law, 5th for Music, 3rd for Politics, and 3rd for Theology and Religious Studies. The History Department obtained a rare 6 research rating in the last government assessment, placing it as only one of three departments in the country to achieve such a status.[41] SOAS currently features at 51st for Languages and 52nd for Arts & Humanities in the world's top Universities, according to the QS World University Rankings.[42]

SOAS's Department of Financial and Management Studies (DeFiMS) is ranked in the top-ten for Business Studies in the 2013 Complete University Guide's League Table. The research strength of the department has been previously recognised by the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) where 90 per cent was rated as internationally recognised, internationally excellent or world leading quality.[43]

The results of the 2008 United Kingdom RAE took the form of profiles spread across four grade levels. Hence, there are different ways to present them and to rank the departments. In their published tables, the Times Higher and the Guardian Education chose to use an average of the profile or GPA (Grade Point Average); both rankings placed the SOAS Department of Anthropology equal second, ranking just behind Cambridge with LSE. This is a particularly significant achievement given that SOAS is the only top-ranked department to specialize, more or less exclusively, in the peoples and diasporas of Africa, Asia and the Near and Middle East.[44] According to the 2008 United Kingdom Research Assessment Exercise, SOAS is the national leader in the study of Asia.[45]

Student life

In 2012, there were 5,235 students, 41% were mature students over 21, and 60% were female.[2] According to the QS World University Rankings, SOAS also has the 9th highest percentage of international students in the world at 43%.[42]

SOAS is renowned for its political scene and radical politics, and was voted the most politically active university in the UK in the Which?University 2012. Recent campaigns include students for social change, women's liberty and justice for cleaners.[46]

Located in the heart of Bloomsbury, students are minutes from the British Museum, British Library, University of London Union and the nightlife of the West End. Many University of London schools and institutes are close by, including Birkbeck, the Institute of Education, London Business School, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, the Royal Veterinary College, the School of Advanced Study, Senate House Library and University College London.

Student housing

The courtyard of Dinwiddy House

SOAS operates two halls of residence in central London, both owned by Shaftesbury Student Housing.[47] The primary accommodation for undergraduates is Dinwiddy House which is located on the Pentonville Road. This contains 510 single en-suite rooms arranged in small cluster flats of around six rooms each. The halls are located within minutes of King's Cross St. Pancras tube station and the Vernon Square campus.[48]

A few minutes walk from Dinwiddy House and also on the Pentonville Road is Paul Robeson House, the second halls of residence. This was opened in 1998, and is named after the African American musician Paul Robeson who studied at SOAS.[49] This accommodation is occupied by postgraduate students, and those attending the international SOAS Summer schools.[50]

SOAS students are eligible to apply for places in the University of London intercollegiate halls of residence.[51] The majority of these are based in Bloomsbury such as Canterbury Hall, Commonwealth Hall, College Hall, Connaught Hall, Hughes Parry Hall and International Hall, whilst further afield are Nutford House in Marble Arch and Lillian Penson Hall in Paddington.

Notable people


Edward Denison Ross by John Lavery

Since its foundation, the school has had nine directors. The inaugural director was the celebrated linguist Sir Edward Denison Ross. Under the stewardship of Sir Cyril Philips, the school saw considerable growth and modernisation.[52] Under Colin Bundy in the 2000s, the school became one of the top ranked universities both domestically and internationally.[53] The current Director is Valerie Amos.

Appointed Director
1916 Sir Edward Denison Ross
1937 Sir Ralph Lilley Turner
1956 Sir Cyril Philips
1976 Sir Jeremy Cowan
1989 Sir Michael McWilliam
1996 Sir Tim Lankester
2001 Colin Bundy[54]
2006 Paul Webley[55]
2015 Valerie Amos, Baroness Amos

Notable alumni

SOAS alumni include:


Government and politics


The Chinese-born British writer Jung Chang, who is best known for her family autobiography Wild Swans.


Bernard Lewis, renowned orientalist

Music and the arts



Notable faculty and staff

Faculty of Law and Social Sciences

Faculty of Arts and Humanities

Alexander Piatigorsky, Russian philosopher[68]

Faculty of Languages and Cultures

Reginald Johnston, Chinese linguist and tutor to the last Emperor of China


  1. ^ "2011/12 Annual Review and Financial Statements" (PDF). SOAS. 2012. p. 27. 
  2. ^ a b c d "School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London (S09) - Which? University". Retrieved 8 December 2012. 
  3. ^ "SOAS Standing Orders: Charter and Articles". Retrieved 16 July 2015. 
  4. ^ " | Education". London: 17 January 2008. Retrieved 29 April 2010. 
  5. ^ "University League Table 2013". The Complete University Guide. Retrieved 3 July 2012. 
  6. ^ Nature, 1917, Vol.99(2470), pp.8-9 [Peer Reviewed Journal]
  7. ^ University of London: An Illustrated History: 1836-1986 By N. B. p.255
  8. ^ Nature, 1939, Vol.144(3659), pp.1006-1007
  9. ^ Sadao Ōba The 'Japanese' war: London University's WWII secret teaching programme p.11
  10. ^ Nisei linguists: Japanese Americans in the Military Intelligence Service ... Page 160-161
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  16. ^ Visual Identity, SOAS, University of London. Retrieved on 2013-07-17.
  17. ^ Visual Identity The SOAS tree leaves, SOAS, University of London. Retrieved on 2013-07-17.
  18. ^ SOAS Visual Identity FAQs, SOAS, University of London. (2012-10-12). Retrieved on 2013-07-17.
  19. ^ Japan Society of the UK - Opening Event of the SOAS-Ritsumeikan Global Partnership - Japan Society of the UK. Retrieved on 2013-07-17.
  20. ^ The Brunei Gallery - SOAS, University of London: A Venue for Asian, African and Middle Eastern Art in the Heart of London. Retrieved on 2013-07-17.
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  22. ^ SOAS Honorary Felows: Haruhisa Handa. Retrieved on 2013-07-17.
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  42. ^ a b "SOAS scores well in world university rankings, SOAS, University of London". Retrieved 8 December 2012. 
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  66. ^ "How the ‘White Widow’ Samantha Lewthwaite was obsessed with Islam as a schoolgirl". NewsComAu. 28 September 2013. Retrieved 16 July 2015. 
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  68. ^ Alexander Piatigorsky obituary | World news. The Guardian. Retrieved on 2013-07-17.

Further reading

  • Arnold, David; Shackle, Christopher, eds. (2003). SOAS since the sixties. London: SOAS, University of London.  

External links

  • SOAS, University of London website
  • Game, John 'The origins of SOAS as a colonial institution, training district'
  • SOAS Student Union website
  • SOAS graduates list

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