‘Global crisis’ of violence against higher education

During the past year, 55 violent attacks against higher education communities were reported, in which at least 46 students, scholars, campus security personnel, university staff and other individuals were killed, with hundreds more injured, according to the annual report of the Scholars at Risk Academic Freedom Monitoring Project.

The project collects data on defined types of attacks on higher education. These include killings, violence and disappearances; wrongful prosecution and imprisonment; loss of position and expulsion from study; improper travel restrictions; and other severe or systemic issues (including, for example, university closures or military occupation of a campus).

“While they differ across states and regions and by severity and type, these attacks all share a common motivation: to control or silence higher education institutions and personnel,” the report, Freedom to think 2017, says.

Robert Quinn, Scholars at Risk’s executive director, said: “Over the past year, we have witnessed a continuing global crisis of attacks on higher education communities, as documented in our previous reports. What has become increasingly clear this year is an anti-democratic fear of universities as spaces in which everyone is free to think, question, and share ideas.”

According to Quinn, the report “highlights the toll of these attacks on individual lives and serves as a clarion call to meaningful action for states and civil society to ensure the security, well-being and sustainable future of the university space”.

Severe, violent attacks on universities were again reported over the past year.

“These include attacks in societies experiencing armed conflict or extremism, where higher education communities may be targeted as perceived symbols of state authority or sources of potential opposition to radical ideologies. These also include targeted attacks against individual scholars or students, generally intended to punish or deter inquiry or expression on disfavoured topics,” the report says.

During the past year, large-scale violent attacks were reported on campuses in Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria, while targeted killings of individual scholars and students were reported in Pakistan, Niger and Sierra Leone.

One institution, Nigeria’s University of Maiduguri, has been targeted in a string of violent attacks by armed groups since January this year, resulting in at least 14 deaths and 33 injuries.

The first, on 16 January, involved a girl aged 12 wearing a suicide belt, who was shot dead trying to enter the campus. Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the attack.

Then there were three attacks in a week in May. In the first, on 13 May, three suicide bombers attacked the university, killing themselves and one security guard, on the day of an admissions exam, with 4,000 students expected to attend.

In a similar incident on 18 May three unidentified suicide bombers attacked the same university killing themselves and injuring three others after attempting to enter a female student hall of residence.

Two days later another unidentified individual tried to bomb a hall of residence, but detonated his explosives outside the campus when challenged.

On 25 June, a group of individuals stormed the campus killing a guard and injuring three others, then left for a nearby village where they detonated explosives killing eight people and injuring 11 others.

More recently on 6 July, two attackers attempted to bomb a dormitory at the university but were fired on by security guards, which killed one of them, while the other detonated his explosive device, killing himself.

In all the incidents at Maiduguri the attacks came to a halt when perpetrators were confronted, questioned or shot at by security guards, according to the report.

In a different type of mass attack, on 4 October 2016, armed opposition troops in Syria launched rocket attacks that targeted buildings on the campus of the University of Aleppo. The university was located in an area controlled by the Syrian regime at the time of the attack. Reported casualties range from two to five students killed and as many as 12 students injured.

“This incident raises particular concerns regarding the targeting of university facilities in armed conflict,” Scholars at Risk or SAR noted.

Premeditated attacks on individuals

In addition to mass attacks, there were premeditated attacks and disappearances in apparent retaliation for non-violent expression.

For instance, in Pakistan, on 13 April 2017, Mashal Khan, a journalism student at Abdul Wali Khan University in the northern Pakistani city of Mardan, was brutally attacked and killed by a mob after being accused of blasphemy.

Police reported that rumours had circulated among the student body that Khan maintained a Facebook page that published blasphemous content. An investigation later found that the rumours were spread in order to incite violence against him, apparently in retaliation for concerns he had raised regarding students’ rights at the university.

The mob surrounded him, stripped him and beat him to death with wooden planks.

Earlier, on 6 January this year, Dr Salman Haider, a scholar of psychology from Fatima Jinnah Women University, Pakistan, and a human rights activist known for his left-wing, secularist views, was kidnapped.

Three others, also active in left-wing, secularist groups, went missing on 4 and 6 January, prompting concern that the four were kidnapped because of their activism.

On 28 January, Haider was released and reunited with his family; the other three activists also reappeared in late January. The identity of Haider’s abductors has not been announced.

Violence against student protests

Incidents of violence against organised student expression were reported in increasing numbers this year. In Venezuela, South Africa, Niger, Cameroon, Turkey and India, state authorities responded to non-violent student protests with force, including with rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades, the report says.

In some cases, however, students engaged in violent or coercive conduct, including incidents in South Africa, where campus facilities were damaged, and in the United States, where physical force was used to intimidate and disrupt disfavoured speakers on campus.

In Venezuela, as the general political crisis has deepened, university campuses have been sites of conflict and violence, often involving government troops clashing with student protesters, SAR reported.

Obstructing academic freedom

In many states, authorities attempted to obstruct free inquiry and expression through travel restrictions, including restrictions on entry, exit and residence, either at home or abroad.

The report reserves its most in-depth coverage to the sweeping measures that state and university authorities continue to take against the higher education sector. These include imprisonment and prosecutions; dismissals and expulsions of scholars and students; and restrictions on travel and institutional autonomy.

Over the past year, Turkey issued decrees stripping thousands of scholars of their passports. Since the decrees also expelled the scholars from their university positions and banned them from working at state institutions in Turkey in the future, the removal of their passports completes the ban on their ability to continue their work, at home or abroad.

Thousands of scholars, administrative staff and students have been targeted in apparent retaliation either for their imputed affiliations or for the content of their non-violent research, publications, teaching and other expressive activity, SAR says.

In China, authorities ordered Uyghur students from China who were studying abroad to return home; and reports suggested that family members were held hostage pending the return of their student relative. Reported, too, were the imposition of fines, as well as the detention and disappearance of students who did return, according to the report.

Israeli and Thai authorities prevented individual scholars from crossing their borders, while Chinese, Ugandan and Turkish authorities barred individual scholars from exiting, all apparently in response to non-violent academic conduct or expression.

And, if it is not struck down by the United States Supreme Court, the Trump administration’s executive orders restricting travel from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – adding since the weekend Chad and North Korea – could have severe impacts on higher education, undermining the vitality of US campuses as places of open and diverse cultural and intellectual exchange, SAR says.

In Central and Eastern Europe, legislative and administrative actions over the last year have threatened the autonomy and continuing operations of universities and research centres, including especially, in Russia, the Levada Center and European University at St Petersburg, and, in Hungary, the Central European University.

“Although these incidents do not involve physical harm or imprisonment, they suggest an intent to punish researchers or institutions for their affiliations or for the content of their research, publications and teaching. As such, they represent serious threats to academic freedom and institutional autonomy,” the report says.

SAR notes that the data in this report is not exhaustive and in fact reflects only a small subset of all attacks on higher education communities during this reporting period. Given the limited resources available to SAR, as well as the scope, variety and complexity of attacks occurring, a comprehensive accounting is not yet possible.

But it concludes: “Overall, the thread running through this report is the intent to silence inquiry and discourse. It connects scholars, students and staff on campuses around the world, mapping a global crisis.”

“Scholars at Risk once again calls on responsible states, higher education leaders and civil society to respond to this crisis – to reject the use of violence, criminal investigations and penalties, legislative and administrative interference, and other coercive means to restrict peaceful expression, as well as to reaffirm publicly their support for the principles that critical discourse is not disloyalty, that ideas are not crimes, and that everyone should be free to think, question and share ideas. “