Higher education vital to post-conflict rebuilding

The past two decades have witnessed many failed attempts to reconstruct nations in the aftermath of war. The litany of failures includes the squandering of vast resources in post-2003 Iraq and the inability to stabilise Afghanistan despite spending billions of dollars over more than a decade of intervention.

There are many reasons why this has been the case, but central to explaining this dismal record is the fact that war-torn societies have again and again been denied the opportunity to own the reconstruction process; to play a key role on the ground in terms of planning, designing and implementing reconstruction policies, programmes and projects; and, most importantly, to hold national and international reconstruction actors to account.

A lack of capacity at all levels of these societies – including a shortage of appropriately qualified graduates combined with rapid deskilling (as a result of lost job opportunities) or displacement – has often provided the international community with an excuse for why the role of local actors in reconstruction is unavoidably limited.

While the skills and capacity gap is now widely acknowledged, conventional ‘neo-liberal’ reconstruction policies, which are partly responsible for the poor record of reconstruction efforts, have not sufficiently realised the importance of higher education for redressing it.

Preoccupied by issues of hard security and a multitude of short-term humanitarian challenges, higher education is very rarely considered a key priority in post-conflict environments. Rather, investment in higher education is commonly viewed as a luxury that war-torn societies can ill afford.

Local leadership

Years of study and experience have led us to conclude that, for local societies to occupy the leadership role in the complex recovery process, as is necessary for its success, a bold and transformative long-term approach to rebuilding is required – one that places higher education at the centre of its agenda.

Only by investing in domestic capacity building can nations meet the increased demands that emerge in the aftermath of war for skilled workers and advanced knowledge in a wide range of priority sectors for reconstruction and state-building, including health, engineering, education, law and the economy.

In addition, higher education, when approached strategically, has the potential to bring divided societies together, despite their varied ethnic and religious backgrounds, to engage in critical inquiry on open and diverse campuses.

Offering an avenue to constructively engage the critical age group of 18 to 25 year-olds is of particular value when it comes to dealing with the consequences of violent conflict in our times.

To ensure that higher education can begin to contribute towards recovery as discussed above, it is imperative that more is done to protect the sector – its scholars, students and infrastructure – during and in the immediate aftermath of conflict.

Sadly, over the past few years higher education has increasingly been caught in the crossfire of violent conflict.

This trend is powerfully illustrated by the recent bombing of universities in Syria, Gaza and Yemen; the shocking campaign of violence that claimed the lives of up to 1,000 Iraqi academics; and the tragic attack on Kenya’s Garissa University College in April 2015 in which 147 people were killed.

Effective protection is therefore vital to minimise the deleterious impact of conflict on higher education’s human, physical and institutional resources.

Some efforts have been made to protect institutions of higher education, including increased physical security through checkpoints and blast-walls and enhanced policing of campuses, while international efforts have focused on rescue schemes that protect displaced and threatened scholars and students.

Various global actors have also committed to protecting schools and universities from attack, as outlined, for instance, in the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict and the Principles of State Responsibility to Protect Higher Education from Attack.

Rebuilding higher education

Protection of higher education is preferable to costly rebuilding efforts that can take a generation to complete. Yet for many societies picking up the pieces in the aftermath of war, rebuilding higher education is a necessity.

In the case of post-invasion Iraq the higher education system was shattered – 84% of universities were burned, looted or destroyed. In extreme examples, including Afghanistan and Somalia, entire higher education systems have been brought to the brink of total collapse due to protracted conflict.

Higher education systems are complex, multi-faceted institutions that require significant financial and technical resources, even in comparison to national primary and secondary education systems.

Rebuilding and revitalising higher education in the aftermath of war is therefore a major challenge that requires a collective effort between a range of national, regional and international educational actors.

There is a pressing need for creative thinking on how best to respond to the challenges higher education faces in conflict-affected countries and how to harness the capacity of the global sector so it can contribute toward recovery and transition.

The aftermath of crises and conflicts can bring about an opportunity to reform and realise improvements during rebuilding, rather than merely restoring flawed social and economic systems.

The starting point for such recovery must be a better understanding of the remarkable resilience demonstrated by academic communities throughout conflict.

The need to protect and rebuild higher education will be the focus of a meeting in York, United Kingdom, on 17 July 2015.

The meeting – jointly hosted by the Brookings Doha Center, the Institute of International Education and the University of York – will bring together higher education leaders from conflict-affected countries and officials from international organisations working to support higher education in conflict.

Under the chairmanship of former Portuguese president Jorge Sampaio, participants will engage in a dialogue over how best to protect and rebuild higher education in conflict zones and how to enshrine that critical goal as a collective global responsibility.

Sultan Barakat is director of research at Brookings Doha Center and senior fellow in foreign policy at the Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution, USA. Sansom Milton is a research fellow in the Post-war Reconstruction and Development Unit at the University of York, UK. The authors address the protection and rebuilding of higher education at greater length in a recent policy briefing published by the Brookings Doha Center.