Save Institute of Commonwealth Studies from the axe

The University of London is proposing to close two of its significant research institutes – one working on Latin America, and the other one on Commonwealth studies – precisely when it would seem that this kind of pioneering focus on black history and ‘decolonisation’ are at the top of the United Kingdom’s national and academic agendas.

Indeed, these are perhaps the only two institutes, both based within the university’s School of Advanced Studies (SAS), with proven track records and seriously engaged in studying the Global South.

The Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICS) has been a key institutional hub for the study of the Commonwealth, post-colonial societies, colonial legacies, black British history, refugees and the politics of ethnicity in the UK, across the University of London and UK higher education in general.

Attending seminars and working with fellows and staff there, it quickly becomes clear that it has built up impressive networks of scholars and alumni in all these fields. It operates at the cutting edge of research, focuses on dissemination and operates a first-class library.

The ICS offers sought-after MAs in human rights and refugee protection within a trans-national and interdisciplinary environment, appreciated also by the many PhD and visiting scholars who use it as their base. These have included an exiled Chandrika Kumaratunga, who returned to become president of Sri Lanka, and anti-apartheid lawyer Albie Sachs, grievously wounded by a bomb, conducting pioneering research for South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution.

It has been especially busy during the COVID-19 lockdown, offering a range of online courses and conferences. In June, it hosted a highly successful conference entitled “Taking Stock of the Commonwealth”, with sessions on Commonwealth countries’ responses to the pandemic, universities in a post-COVID world, threats to democracy, the Windrush scandal, reparations for slavery and LGBT+ rights.

A stand-out initiative from recent years has been the Commonwealth Oral History Project – to date with 70 in-depth interviews – which is becoming an invaluable resource for current and future scholars.

Financial squeeze

These are unkind days for universities, facing significant income dips from a loss of overseas students and conference business and costs moving to online teaching and creating safe environments. The University of London’s new strategy document discusses saving money, yet the ICS, it appears, has regularly reported budget surpluses – in contrast to other institutes within the SAS.

The document also discusses investing in new areas of study – and, of course, this can be commended. But there does appear a need for greater transparency as to why these two institutes, with academic impact, should be bearing the brunt?

Indeed, closing the ICS now, just as we launch on a ‘Global Britain’ foreign policy in the wake of Brexit, is perplexing at best. It reminds me of the contraction of Russian studies in the 1980s, just as glasnost and perestroika, not to mention the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, demanded the obverse – which duly came in the 1990s.

Such a move today is also open to wide misinterpretation, being seen as London downgrading the value of UK global understanding, connectivity and history. In these uncertain times, let us not mute Britain’s voice, but seek greater engagement.

No wonder then, that we at the editorial board of The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs – incidentally the oldest English-language international relations journal, founded in 1910 – have written to say we are “alarmed” and “baffled”. All the more so, given that the UK is currently the holder of the chair-in-office of the Commonwealth.

Four past secretaries general of the Commonwealth have also written in protest at the decision to close “a proven centre of excellence”, while 181 academics from all over the world wrote to The Times, complaining the move was “irresponsible and counter-productive”.

Democratic values

Now, it can be argued that the Commonwealth is a declining brand. It is certainly easily misunderstood. Yet it is no simple, historic, post-imperial club, with recent members not even coming under previous UK rule. It may well be underplaying its hand and sometimes lacking focus, but it is a league of democracies which works to promote democratic values, sometimes on stony ground, at a time when such values urgently need defending.

What seems especially galling for the ICS is that a new strategy document put out by the University of London suggests attempts are to be made to find a new home for the Institute of Latin American Studies, but no such offer is being made for the ICS.

Instead, it is, apparently, to be carved up between other London units, without matching expertise, breaking up the established inter-disciplinarity at its Russell Square home.

For a proven academic body that finds itself, today, at the forefront of public concerns and engagement on a range of key issues, this seems rash, ill-considered and damaging, not least to the University of London itself. There is a consultation on. So there is still time to reconsider, or, at least, give due thought to finding it a suitable new haven.

Paul Flather has a been a fellow of Mansfield and Corpus Christ Colleges, Oxford, United Kingdom, and served as the founding CEO of the Central European University set up by philanthropist George Soros. He is president of the Forum for Philosophy, based at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and a member of the editorial board of The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.