School of Oriental and African Studies Archive

Scope and Content

Publicly available records currently consists of the SOAS Picture Archive (SOAS/SPA), which contains historic images of SOAS buildings, events, significant individuals and groups of people; conferences organised by the Centre for African Studies; files of statistics on students produced by SOAS Registry; and committee minutes.

Administrative / Biographical History

In the early 20th Century, teaching of Asian and African languages in London was inferior to teaching in other European capitals, being distributed among the colleges of the University of London and Oxbridge. This unsatisfactory situation was addressed by the Reay Committee which reported in 1908 recommending that the teaching should be concentrated in a single school and the scope of instruction should be broadened to include the history, geography, culture, law and literature of Asia and Africa as well as including a major library. The report also recommended that the proposed School should be part of the University of London. A Committee of Management was established in 1913 and the School of Oriental Studies received its Royal Charter in June 1916, admitting its first students in January the following year. At that time it was housed in the former London Institution building in Finsbury Circus. Construction of the first phase of the current premises, within the University of London campus, began in 1938, when the present name School of Oriental and African Studies was adopted. The Bloomsbury premises were fully occupied by the end of the Second World War, in 1946. Moving into the University of London precinct reinforced the academic role of the School, which in earlier years (by use rather than by design) had been more focused on vocational training. Practical teaching had always been a requirement of the School's existence as establised in the Foundation Charter, but the School adopted academic departments as far back as 1932. War with Japan in 1941 had also shown the need for traininig in Asian languages and the School responded by inventing and delivering crash courses for service personnel. This influenced the establishment of the Scarborough Commission which reported in 1946 recognising the School's central position in Asian and African studies and recommending a programme of expansion. However, the School's post-war development was curtailed by public economies.

During the late 1950s the School concentrated on extending its accommodation, increasing its student numbers, and developing the study of modern Asia and Africa with new departments of Geography, Economics and Politics. An Extramural Division was also established which took Asian and African Studies into schools and teacher training. Another innovation in the 1960s was the creation of five Area Centres to facilitate cross-disciplinary research and organise the new one-year taught MA courses. Development of postgraduate courses offset the decline in undergraduate numbers due to the development of higher education in Asian and African countries and a reorganisation of the undergraduate courses ensured that the 1960s was a period of growth. THe new building, with the library as its central feature, opened in 1973 but the following decade brought cuts in university funding and the school was further hit by the introduction of full-cost fees for overseas students which necessitated a major restructuring. Eventually the University Grants Committee (UGC) were persuaded to commission a report on the needs of business and government for Asian and African Studies. The resulting Parker Report of 1986 highlighted the decline in provision in the university sector but increasing demand from government and business for expertise, and proposed remedial measures to redress the balance. A further boost to the School was introduction of non-formula funding to protect its work in the early 1990s. In 1995 the Brunei Gallery and Teaching Block was opened, and the School also acquired the former Faber and Faber building in Russell Square and opened its first student residence in 1996. By this time the School had a student population of more than 2,500 and considerable distance learning provision.

Access Information

Restrictions apply across the collections, please see the series level description for specific restrictions applicable to various record classes. Broadly, administrative papers of the School are closed for 30 years.

Restrictions Apply

Other Finding Aids

Handlist available

Archivist's Note


Conditions Governing Use

For permission to publish, please contact Archives & Special Collections, SOAS Library in the first instance

Copyright held by SOAS, University of London unless otherwise specified.


See 'The School of Oriental and African Studies: Imperial Training and the Expansion of Learning' by Ian Brown (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016)