ICwS and ILAS under threat

Just two weeks after the start of the new academic year, the School of Advanced Study announced its plan to dissolve the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICwS) as well as the Institute of Latin American Studies (ILAS). In an email signed by the Acting Dean of the School, Professor Jo Fox, students were informed that the institutes’ research and key initiatives will be absorbed into SAS’s other member institutes, and the ICwS and ILAS officially dissolved in early 2021.

While Professor Fox quickly assured her readers that the proposed changes will not affect students’ abilities to complete the degree programmes started at the ICwS and ILAS, concerned students, staff, and alumni took to Twitter to voice their opposition to the closures. Professor Philip Murphy, the director of ICwS, tweeted “I’ve not commented publicly about this because I care passionately about the future of the School, but I can no longer stay silent” before revealing that “the directors of ICwS and ILAS were excluded from the planning process.” UCL’s Niall Geraghty added that “the loss of @ILAS_SAS and @ICwS_SAS would be devastating for their respective fields. On a personal note, without the support I received from ILAS, I doubt I’d be in academia today.” Researchers at SAS’s other member institutes also reacted shocked as the plans were only announced within ICwS and ILAS and not the wider SAS community, who now wonder whether their own institutes might be the next to be axed.

Some ICwS and ILAS researchers fear that the loss of the institutes will not only result in academic job losses but also negatively affect their scholarships, research, and networking opportunities. There are only a few dedicated institutes and postgraduate programmes in Commonwealth Studies and Latin American Studies within the UK, and the closure of not just one but two research centres at the same time could diminish the impact the research has in the wider academic community. There is also the fear of diluting the research by basing it more firmly within the framework of historical and legal studies than before. University of Durham’s Classics and Ancient History department called ICwS and ILAS research “highly important work.” Kate de Sullivan Estrada, director of the Contemporary South Asian Studies Programme, University of Oxford said: “We @OSGAOxford stand in solidarity with [ICwS & ILAS] colleagues and deplore the declining commitment to contextually-sensitive understandings of world regions among decision-makers at the University of London.” The Oxford School of Global and Area Studies even posted a Defense of Area Studies in the UK in solidarity with ICwS and ILAS.

Professor Fox explained in her email that the school plans to continue the study of empire, colonialism, and decolonization in the commonwealth, with a new focus on Black British History, and also proposed an annual Commonwealth conference. For many of the researchers opposing the closure online, this is seen as doing too little at a time of renewed focus on Britain’s colonial legacy, and a looming post-Brexit need for expertise on the Commonwealth. The SAS’s closure plan has been likened to burying a critical part of history that is little discussed in other universities, but still highly impactful and influential in the development of world events today.

Within hours of the announcement, petitions were started online to save these two leading research institutes. At the time of writing, the petition to save the ICwS had 2.990 signatures, while the petition to save the ILAS had 8.250 signatures from around the world. These petitions were also shared by the institutes themselves on their official Twitter pages. Support for the ILAS and ICwS can also be found in high places, as universities and research institutes across the country, as well as Sir Ronald Sanders – the Ambassador to the US and Organisation of American States – openly voiced their concern and would rather see an expansion of the research than the dissolution of the institutes. Historian Pablo Bradbury summarised: “ILAS is at the heart of Latin American Studies in the UK. Closing it down would be devastating, and in the current climate looks like an attack on internationally-focused research.”

Labour peer Frank Judd tabled this Question for Written Answer in the House of Lords on October 26: “To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they are making to the University of London’s School of Advanced Studies [sic] about the implications for the whole Commonwealth community and our post Brexit relations with Latin America of the proposals to close the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and the Institute of Latin American Studies and what actions they are taking to help make such a proposal unnecessary.”

Professor Fox and the School of Advanced Study assured students in the email that the changes are “meant to enhance [the school’s] national and global impact” despite current financial problems, and “to turn the remaining member institutes of SAS into a National Centre for the Humanities.” Yet SAS already prides itself with being “UK’s national centre for the support and promotion of academic research in the humanities” according to the school’s website, thus making the proposed changes even more detrimental to its research and reputation.

The consultation period for these proposed closures will run until November 28, 2020. Support, questions, and concerns can be voiced by emailing sas.orgchange@sas.ac.uk and the student representatives committee.

Written by Cornelia Kaufmann, IMLR PhD Candidate

1 Comment

  1. […] who had only taken up their studies two weeks before the announcement, as well as senior staff. SASiety learned that the institute directors had not been consulted, as they publicly aired their grievances on […]

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