Roar writer Andrew Nunes on the imminent and indefinite closure of the Institute for Latin American Studies (ILAS) at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study (SAS).
The decision to close ILAS is currently a source of anxiety and much uncertainty for many academic researchers of Latin American Studies at the SAS. It is also a signifier that Latin American Studies are considered a peripheral subject of interest and research, and that letting go of the institute will not affect the larger university too seriously. It will, however; it will impact the future of Latin American Studies at the University of London and the precedent it sets for the consideration of further closures. Only last year, on January 31, 2019, Heythrop College left the University of London and ceased operations, predominately due to rising costs.
Finance has serious implications for educational institutions, and the economic impact of Covid-19 has intensified pre-existing financial issues. It is the root argument as to why ILAS will close during the SAS’s restructuring. Yet this reason is not fully sufficient in explaining the decision.
In general, universities in the UK have experienced economic losses over the summer of 2020 due to the lockdown put in place by the Conservative government, a measure that led to the cancellation of international summer schools and conferences which generate additional income. Therefore, it is understandable that universities will need to work to recover those losses incurred during the summer through possible department cuts, mergers, or even closures. However, this reasoning has its flaws.
Tuition fees are the main source of revenue for universities, and as 2020 data shows, numbers of new students have surpassed those from 2019. A loss of revenue from fees is not a problem for most universities this year. As a result, despite summer losses, economic recovery has been possible, at least theoretically. Minimal financial recuperation for universities has been enabled in a situation that could have been much worse – the loss of ILAS is, perhaps, not due to economics, but another motive undisclosed.
ILAS matters, and the problems posed by the recent pandemic are evidenced by its proposed closure. Established in 1965, ILAS has been part of a burgeoning interest in the study of Latin America and the Caribbean in the UK. During the 1960s, this focus gained momentum due to geopolitical conjunctures, namely decolonisation and the 1959 Cuban Revolution. This global climate led to the establishment of various institutions and departments in the UK, including ILAS. Since its founding, ILAS has provided research on the literature, art, history, politics, and economics of Latin America and the Caribbean. It is also the editorial and administrative home of the Journal of Latin American Studies, now at risk of having its editing and proofreading outsourced.
6/ Another proposal is to outsource editing and proofreading tasks for our academic journals. Given the University’s recent history when it comes to outsourcing, we think this is highly toxic.
— Senate House UCU (University of London) (@UCUSenateHouse) October 23, 2020
Due to the continual failures of the British government to negotiate a deal with the European Union, a no-deal Brexit is very likely come 2021. This much-contested national decision highlights a country that is ever more isolationist, and institutions like ILAS will be needed, more than ever, to maintain a dialogue with the intricate and multitudinous workings that make up other nations; spaces where artefacts, be they cultural or political manifestations, are produced and analysed, and in turn contribute to further knowledge and understanding.
What is more, ILAS is a provider of scholarships connected with culture sectors, as well as diplomatic and business organisations in Latin America and the Caribbean, that are all now at risk due to the proposed closure. Also at risk is the scholarly network developed by ILAS, which has produced many great initiatives across the world. One example is the Global Decolonisation Workshop that seeks to “cultivate a global forum for knowledge exchange and debate in the interdisciplinary field of decolonization studies” to widen the field of study beyond its typical emphasis on British and French empires. As such, the legacies of the Spanish and Portuguese empires in Latin American and the Caribbean are given prominence as a point of inquiry – regions often overlooked in world history.
Initiatives in Latin America and the Caribbean are no safer due to domestic policies in the region. In Brazil, for instance, President Jair Bolsonaro planned to dismantle the Humanities from universities with budget cuts in 2019. Moreover, Brazil’s education minister Abraham Weintraub has sought to curb intellectual freedom in the country. As such, the loss of ILAS will potentially sever already delicate connections between the UK and Latin American/Caribbean universities and organisations that need support and affiliations; safe spaces to hold, receive, and disseminate ideas that are threatened by populist governments.
The University of London is made up of seventeen independent member intuitions, including King’s, and three academic bodies – one of which is SAS, where ILAS is based. The loss of ILAS would be a loss for us all, despite the independence each member institution enjoys. I call for more intercollegiate unity across member institutions, and urge everyone to voice their displeasure at the decision being made to close ILAS, in solidarity with the entire University of London, via the official petition.
 Paquette, Gabriel, ‘The “Parry Report” (1965) and the Establishment of Latin American Studies in the United Kingdom’, The Historical Journal, vol. 62, no. 1 (2019), 219-40.