Hundreds killed in attacks on higher education – Report

Violent attacks on higher education students, staff and institutions around the world are occurring with “alarming frequency”, according to a new report, which documents 485 killings in 18 countries in the past four and a half years.

States and other actors who depend on controlling information and what people think are going to “great lengths to restrict or even silence higher education communities and their members”, according to the report, Free to Think, published by the Scholars at Risk Academic Freedom Monitoring Project.

“These attacks not only threaten the safety and well-being of scholars, students, administrators and staff,” according to Robert Quinn, the Scholars at Risk, or SAR, Network’s executive director. “In conflict countries, like Syria and Iraq, failure to protect higher education will cripple any efforts to rebuild those societies when the fighting eventually stops, dragging everyone into a never-ending cycle of violence.”

In Pakistan, for example, Muhammad Shakil Auj, the dean of Islamic studies at the University of Karachi, was shot and killed by unidentified gunmen in September 2014 while on his way to a reception given in his honour, the report says.

An outspoken and progressive religious scholar, he had been receiving death threats since 2012, when a local seminary issued a ‘fatwa’ declaring him “worthy of murder” following a speech he gave in the United States.

Similarly, Mohammad Juma’a, the dean of the Imam al-A’adham School in Iraq and a prominent political activist, was killed by unidentified gunmen in April 2014 near his home in Samarra, the report adds.

Targeted assassinations against scholars accused of blasphemy have occurred in Pakistan and Bangladesh, while assassinations linked to political motives have occurred elsewhere, including in Iraq, Russia and Libya.

Mass killings

In other cases, institutions have been targeted for mass killings. For instance, in an attack on Garissa University College, eastern Kenya, in April this year, al-Shabaab militants killed 142 students, singling out Christian students one by one, as reported by University World News.

Nigeria has been particularly badly hit by such attacks, the report says. In September 2014, suicide bombers affiliated with the armed group, Boko Haram, entered a full lecture hall on the campus of the Federal College of Education, Kano, Nigeria, and blew themselves up, killing at least 15 people and injuring an estimated 34.

There were similar attacks at other Nigerian institutions, including Kano State School of Hygiene in June 2014 (eight people killed, including the bomber, 25 injured), Kano State Polytechnic University in July 2014 (six people killed, including the bomber, and seven injured), and the Federal College of Education, Kontagora, in November 2014 (two people killed, including the bomber, several injured).

“Disappearances” have also been reported. These include detentions, abductions or other deprivations of liberty by states, quasi-state agents or their proxies followed by a refusal to acknowledge or to disclose the fate or whereabouts of the persons concerned, the report says.

In September 2014, 43 students at Mexico’s Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers’ College of Ayotzinapa disappeared, as reported by University World News. Their whereabouts remain unknown. In June 2014, Taliban militants kidnapped an estimated 43 professors and students from Afghanistan’s Kandahar State University – they were released roughly two weeks later.

Some scholars and students also routinely face threats of violence designed to punish, block or otherwise alter the content of their research, teaching or studies.

In April 2014, for example, Political Science Professor Mohammed S Dajani of Palestine’s Al-Quds University was threatened with violence and accused of treason for leading a student trip to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland as part of a course in conflict resolution. (Israeli students who were a part of the programme were taken to a refugee camp in Bethlehem to learn about the experiences of Palestinians living there.)

Many incidents go unreported

The Scholars at Risk report, released on 23 June, relies on data collected between January 2011 and May 2015 and cites 333 attacks arising from 247 verified incidents in 65 countries.

However, it says the data reflects “only a small subset of all attacks on higher education during that time”, due to the limited resources available to monitor such attacks.

“Many incidents go unreported as victims and witnesses of violent acts may be unable or afraid to come forward for fear of retaliation,” the report says.

The report looks at attacks that include threats or deliberate use of violent or coercive force against higher education institutions and their members, including leadership, administrators, academic and other staff and students.

The 333 attacks include:
  • • 111 incidents of killings, violence and disappearances;
  • • 47 cases of wrongful prosecution and 67 cases of imprisonment;
  • • 37 cases of loss of position or expulsion from study;
  • • 12 cases of improper travel restrictions;
  • • 59 cases of other severe or systemic issues.
In some cases non-state armed groups carried out attacks – for instance, there were targeted killings of members of the higher education community in Nigeria by Boko Haram, in Kenya by al-Shabaab, in Pakistan by various militant extremist groups, and in Mexico allegedly by the armed drugs group, Guerreros Unidos.

In other cases states interfere with academic rights. For instance in China, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, state authorities have imposed travel restrictions to block or punish academic speech or content.

According to the report, the incidents share common negative outcomes. They not only undermine the security of those institutions and personnel who are directly targeted but also those who are “intimidated or silenced by attacks on others”.

They impose restrictions on access to higher education by targeted and vulnerable individuals and groups. They undermine research, teaching and public discourse, eroding academic quality and hindering social, political, economic and cultural development.

They contribute to the flight of scholars and students – or ‘brain drain’ – undermining national investment in education and exacerbating inequities within the global knowledge economy.

And they “disrupt increasingly important flows of higher education staff, students and research between countries, depriving everyone of the fullest benefits of cross-border intellectual exchange and research”.

“Perhaps most importantly, they impede the ability of the sector to function as a place where people representing the widest range of society can go to ask questions about complex and contentious issues and learn to resolve those questions guided by reason, evidence and persuasion, without fear of repercussions,” the report says.

The report says recognising the similarities in types of attack and their negative outcome as part of a single, global problem of attacks on higher education is a “critical first step to devising solutions”.

“The next step is a robust and immediate response at the international and state levels, from within the higher education sector itself, from civil society and from the public at large,” the report says.

Robert Quinn said: “If we don’t want conflict and chaos to spread further, states and civil society need to pay attention to the early warnings of attacks on scholars and universities in fragile and volatile places like Pakistan, Thailand, Venezuela and Egypt.”

The report calls on states to abstain from attacks on higher education and to ensure that higher education communities are protected under law and are free from improper external interference, insecurity or intimidation.

It calls on the higher education sector to:
  • • Take reasonable measures to provide security for members of the higher education community;
  • • Document and report incidents to state authorities, civil society or the international community; and
  • • Develop policies and practices that reinforce a culture of respect for principles of academic freedom and institutional autonomy.