Government launches grants for persecuted students

The Norwegian government is allocating NOK23.5 million (US$3.9 million) in grants for persecuted students expelled from universities because of human rights and democracy activism. It hopes that other governments will follow suit.

Last Tuesday Norway’s ministers of foreign affairs and of development cooperation, Espen Barth Eide and Heikki Holmås, together with University of Oslo Rector Ole Petter Ottersen, met with SAIH – Students at Risk – and the National Union of Students, or NSO.

They unveiled a pilot project to support students who have been expelled from institutions around the world because of work for human rights and democracy.

Eligible recipients could be students who have worked, for instance, in a student organisation or political party, as a member of an indigenous people’s group or in lesbian-gay-transgender engagement.

In 2013-14, grants will be awarded to 20 students for study at a Norwegian university. The pilot project will be administered by the Norwegian Centre for International Cooperation in Education, or SIU.

Barth Eide described the proposal as a genuinely good idea. “The greatest fear of a dictator is engaged students,” he said at the launch.

NSO leader Ola Magnussen Rydje and SAIH leader Anja Bakken Riise said in a statement: “It is fantastic that the government has listened to our proposal. All over the world thousands of students are expelled from universities because of their political engagement. Now Norway is taking responsibility and is setting global students’ rights on the agenda."

In Zimbabwe alone, more than 1,000 students had been arrested between 2006 and 2010, and 187 students had been expelled from institutions. “Many are hence forced into a life of poverty. It is extremely important that students are not scared away from engaging and organising themselves,” said Riise and Rydje.

Ole Petter Ottersen told University World News that the University of Oslo was “fully behind this initiative” and would convey the message to other institutions, for instance through the Network of Universities for the Capitals of Europe, “so that the capacity to receive persecuted students can be expanded”.

The initiative, he added, fitted well with the University of Oslo’s strategic plan, which underlined the international responsibilities of the university. Oslo was supporting Scholars at Risk and had “taken an initiative for a university network against capital punishment”, in which the University of Bergen was also interested.

“To be able to study and follow your dreams at a free university, like Norwegian students can – it is not possible everywhere. In many countries students are losing the right to study, only because they have a belief or a political opinion that does not suit the authorities,” Ottersen wrote on his blog.

The winner of this year’s students’ peace prize awarded by the Norwegian Technological University in Trondheim was Majid Tavakoli, who has been jailed in Iran since 2009. “There are many like Tavakoli in the world, students who in spite of top results have lost their right to study and have been persecuted because of their political statements,” the rector wrote.