London Connection Q&A: Baroness Valerie Amos, Director of SOAS

Baroness Amos discusses making connections, supporting creative thinking, and valuing diversity
Baroness Valerie Amos
"I am passionate about opening up access to higher education:" Valerie Amos
I feel very strongly that the excellence of our research and teaching is enhanced by our diversity and through our international collaborations and partnerships

Baroness Valerie Amos joined SOAS as its Director in September 2015. From 2010, she served as Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator at the UN. Other roles in the public sector include Chief Executive of the Equal Opportunities Commission. Between 1994 and 1998, she was an adviser to the Mandela Government on leadership, change, management and strategy issues. Appointed a Labour Life Peer in 1997, she became a member of the Government in 1998. She was a Foreign Office Minister, Secretary of State for International Development, Leader of the House of Lords and Lord President of the Council. She also served as UK High Commissioner to Australia before joining the UN. In June 2016, she was made a Companion of Honour in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list.

Having been in the Director’s role for over a year now, what do you see as being SOAS’s unique qualities?
SOAS is special for a number of reasons. Our diversity is a major strength, with students from over 130 countries. This adds markedly to the quality of the debate at SOAS and we encourage students to look at the world differently. To challenge conventional orthodoxy. To think global. To ask the questions that no one else is asking. And to make connections – across disciplines and regions. It is all about informing and shaping the world in which we live. Connecting communities, building bridges, nurturing understanding across cultures and continents. Making a difference.

"For a relatively small school we have an incredible history and our influence has been significant."

In June 2016, SOAS commenced a year of events and activities to celebrate its centenary. What have you most enjoyed in the centenary programme? 
There have been many highlights. The opening of our new building the Paul Webley Wing, with its focus on enhancing the student experience. Alumni-led events in over 100 cities across the world! Special events and conferences in Hong Kong, New York, Delhi, Accra, Abu Dhabi and Fort Hare. 

Our centenary lectures and conversations featuring Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka; actor, social activist and UNESCO Special Envoy for Peace and Reconciliation, Forest Whitaker; the food writer Claudia Roden; lawyers and human rights activists Raja Shehadeh and Hina Jilani; and philanthropist and art collector David Khalili.

We have collaborated with major cultural institutions in the UK, such as the British Museum, where SOAS’s World Languages Institute and the Endangered Languages Archive created an immersive multimedia installation, Last Whispers, with the artist Lena Herzog, to explore the loss of world's linguistic and cultural diversity.

The digital Centenary Timeline highlights the School's remarkable history, people and collections. If you had to single out something from the timeline, what would it be?
For a relatively small school we have an incredible history and our influence has been significant. If I had to pick a couple, I would choose the influence and transformational impact of the work of SOAS scholars, such as Ann ‘Nancy’ Lambton, who became the foremost Persian scholar of the 20th century, and SOAS historian Shula Marks who challenged the liberal interpretation of South African history.

In terms of ensuring SOAS’s future as a top flight university, how important has the opening of the refurbished Paul Webley Wing in Senate House been?
The new building embodies SOAS’s commitment to foster and support collaborative and creative thinking. The new facility provides academic space, lecture theatres, and formal and informal learning spaces, set around the remarkable glass atrium. This has created a unified campus for SOAS in the heart of London and with the Weston Student Hub we have been able to bring together essential student services, including Welfare, Registry and Careers, providing the convenience of a single access point for student services. It is about looking ahead to new ways of working.

"It is important to offer learning through a variety of platforms to promote and encourage diversity."

SOAS strives to reflect world issues in its curriculum. With a recent new programme such as the MA in Global Diplomacy by online learning, do you think that academic study in this area can have a positive influence on practice?
Global diplomacy is one of the areas where we focus on academic rigour combined with exposure to experience and practice. We have recently worked with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office Diplomatic Academy to develop our South Asia stream of the MA Global Diplomacy programme to enable students to deepen their understanding of international affairs and contemporary diplomatic practice.

SOAS is the largest provider of postgraduate online and distance learning programmes in the University of London’s International Programmes. More than 3,000 students in over 160 countries access our world-class research and teaching and gain a range of specialist postgraduate qualifications. 

The 'Understanding Research Methods' MOOC developed by the University of London and SOAS was runner-up in the 'online and distance learning' category at the Guardian Higher Education Awards in 2015. What are your views on MOOCs and what are SOAS’s future plans in this area?
We received excellent feedback for our first MOOC – and were delighted to make the shortlist of the Guardian University Awards 2015. Nearly 60,000 learners from around the world have enrolled onto SOAS MOOCs since the first, ‘Understanding Research Methods’, launched in 2015. Since then we have launched three more MOOCs through the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy and Centre for Financial and Management Studies. Looking forward we will continue to invest in our virtual learning environment as it is important to offer learning through a variety of platforms to promote and encourage diversity.

"At SOAS we want to do everything we can by diversifying our learning and teaching approaches, and making education more accessible."

Following the Brexit vote, what are some of the measures that SOAS can take to mitigate against some of the repercussions it might throw up?
My concern is not just about Brexit but about the messages we are sending globally about Britain’s openness to the rest of the world. I feel very strongly that the excellence of our research and teaching is enhanced by our diversity and through our international collaborations and partnerships. I do not want to see these put at risk. That will remain our focus going forward. Getting the message out about SOAS valuing the diversity of our student and staff base. We want more collaborations and partnerships not less.

You're a strong advocate of access to higher education. You must be incredibly proud of the fact that SOAS has 3,000+ students studying for a University of London award via distance learning?
I am passionate about opening up access to higher education. About recognising that there are barriers which many students have to overcome to secure a university education. At SOAS we want to do everything we can by diversifying our learning and teaching approaches, and making education more accessible.

Watch a playlist of SOAS Centenary Lectures