Over 9,000 victims of violent attacks on higher education

More than 9,100 higher education students and staff members were injured, killed, abducted or arrested in attacks on education over the past five years, according to the latest edition of Education under Attack, published by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA).

During the latest reporting period, 2015 to 2019, researchers found evidence of 11,000 separate attacks on education across all sectors.

These included bombing and burning of schools and universities, and killing, maiming, raping, abducting, arbitrarily arresting, and recruiting students and educators at, or en route to and from, educational institutions by armed forces, other state actors, or armed groups during armed conflict or insecurity.

“Pursuing an education is a fundamental right, yet in an increasing number of countries, the lives of students and educators are at risk simply for teaching and learning,” said Diya Nijhowne, executive director of GCPEA. “Schools and universities should be safe havens, not sites of destruction or fear.”

Regarding higher education specifically, more than 1,200 reported incidents of attack were reported. Three quarters of these cases involved armed forces, law enforcement or paramilitary groups detaining, arresting or using excessive force against university students or personnel. In India, Sudan and Turkey, more than 1,000 university students and personnel were injured, killed or detained as a result of such attacks.

GCPEA collected more than 300 reports of attacks on higher education facilities, including arson, shelling, air strikes and bombings in raids by armed forces, other state security entities and non-state armed groups between 2015 and 2019.

Rising number of countries affected

Lead researcher Marika Tsolakis told University World News that a rising number of countries are seeing attacks on higher education in particular.

“Compared to the 2018 edition, we have seen attacks on higher education emerging in several new countries across the world. Attacks on higher education occurred in 73 countries, an increase from 52 in the previous report.

“In the past five years, the countries most affected by attacks on higher education were: Ethiopia, India, Iran, Palestine, Nicaragua, Sudan, Turkey and Venezuela.”

Six newly profiled countries solely or primarily experienced attacks on higher education.

Attacks on higher education facilities were most frequently reported in Yemen, with 130 attacks reported, often involving shelling, explosives or airstrikes. Afghanistan and Syria also saw between 20 and 30 such attacks during the reporting period.

While many countries experienced attacks on schools as well as universities, six countries solely or mostly suffered attacks on higher education: China, Iran, Nicaragua, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Uganda.

These incidents were most prominently reported in Ethiopia, India, Iran, Palestine, Nicaragua, Sudan, Turkey and Venezuela, but incidents occurred in 36 out of 37 countries profiled in the report.

In India, in 2018 and 2019, over 1,300 university students and staff were arrested for their participation in campus or education-related protests. Police also used excessive force to disperse protesters, injuring hundreds.

Attacks on university facilities included an incident on 26 November 2019 during which a grenade exploded outside the main gate of the University of Kashmir, in the Jammu and Kashmir region, injuring four people, as University World News reported.

In Turkey, many academics who were detained in the period covered by Education under Attack 2018 were sentenced in 2018 and 2019; and repression of higher education students and staff continued throughout this period.

Between 2017 and 2019, GCPEA documented over 60 reports of attacks on higher education in Turkey, in which over 650 academics, as well as university students and personnel, were injured, arrested and detained, or charged. As of 1 May 2019, 185 academics had been given prison sentences, of which 149 were suspended and four were deferred.

GCPEA found reports of over 200 university students, professors and education personnel being arrested, detained, imprisoned or forcibly disappeared in China during the 2017-19 period. Some were severely injured or died in detention.

Human Rights Watch also reported that the Chinese authorities ordered students studying abroad to be forcibly repatriated in 2017 and in total 20 Uyghur students were returned to Xinjiang by September 2017, where some were detained. One former Xinjiang University president was arrested at Beijing airport en route to Germany and was allegedly sentenced to death in 2018 and later given a two-year reprieve.

In 2019 there were six reported incidents in Hong Kong that led to the arrest of several hundred students engaged in anti-government protests that intensified after a student from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology died as a result of injuries sustained during clashes between police and protestors. In some cases, police raided university campuses and used sponge grenades and rubber bullets to try to drive students off campus.

In Palestine, there were a number of incidents of Israeli forces arresting scholars or students and detaining them without criminal charges. For instance, Scholars at Risk reported that in November 2019 Israeli security forces arrested the director of the Bisan Center for Research and Development located in Ramallah, whose scholarship related to education and academic freedom in Palestine. He was detained for two months in prison without any criminal charges.

On 7 March 2018 Israeli forces allegedly disguised as Palestinian journalists arrested the president of Birzeit University’s student council. According to Scholars at Risk, they beat him before taking him into custody and aimed firearms at those watching. The academic was taken to an interrogation centre near Jerusalem and allegedly interrogated without counsel.

Attacks on higher education across the world were reported at similar rates as in the previous reporting periods, when more than 800 attacks on higher education students and personnel and more than 350 attacks on facilities were reported.

Motives for attacks

Tsolakis told University World News the motives for attacks on higher education vary depending on the context.

“In some cases, we see the indiscriminate or targeted attack of university campuses. Yemen is a stark example of that, with over 130 universities affected by bombings and gunfire or military use of higher education facilities.

“In particular, we have seen a sharp increase in the use of force against university students and staff who are protesting for education reforms or demonstrating on campus. In these cases, law enforcement, or pro-state armed groups, are intentionally, and violently, stifling academic freedoms.

“We have also seen governments arresting and sentencing students and academics for reasons directly related to their scholarship. This isn't limited to any one region – we see the same patterns being repeated in contexts as diverse as Nicaragua, Sudan, Turkey, Guinea and India. In other cases, such as in Colombia, non-state armed groups are also systematically threatening higher education staff.”

She said further research is needed to understand the specific gender dynamics of these attacks – there is some emerging evidence from specific countries about how female students and scholars are targeted either because of their gender or because of their academic work on women’s rights.

“We have also seen increases in sexual violence against female students when there is a military presence on or near campus.”

Military use of facilities

A significant and preventable cause of some attacks was the use of education buildings for military purposes, which also puts them at risk of attack by rival forces. Armed groups and armed forces used schools and universities as bases, detention centres or weapons stores in 34 countries between 2015 and 2019.

Armed forces, armed groups and security forces were also reportedly responsible for sexual violence involving those on the way to or from school or university in at least 17 countries during the same period.

For example, in Nigeria, when Nigerian state armed forces and the Civilian Joint Task Force, a paramilitary group, were sent to secure schools and the University of Maiduguri, they engaged in sexual violence against female students, GCPEA researchers revealed.

In Nicaragua, police and state security forces committed sexual violence against both male and female students, including rape and forced abortion, during interrogation or detention.

Devastating impacts

Attacks on education not only kill or injure individual students and teachers, they also have longer term impacts on communities that can last for years. With buildings or teaching materials destroyed and students and teachers living in fear, schools and universities close and some students never resume their education, impeding long-term development.

Tsolakis said: “Apart from the devastating effects on individuals harmed by attacks, we are concerned about their effects on academic freedom, quality of higher education and research, and general access. It creates an environment of fear and intimidation that hinders learning and research necessary for both human and economic development.”

GCPEA has called on governments and armed groups to end attacks on education and refrain from using schools and universities for military purposes.

Governments need to hold those responsible for attacks to account, develop gender-responsive safety and security plans to prevent and respond to attacks, and strengthen monitoring and reporting of attacks on education. Donors, international organisations and civil society should support governments in these endeavours, GCPEA said.

Political commitment

GCPEA called on countries to endorse and implement the Safe Schools Declaration, a political commitment to protect students, educators, schools and universities in armed conflict. Currently, 104 countries have endorsed the declaration.

By endorsing the declaration, countries commit to taking concrete steps to protect education in armed conflict, including by using the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict. Half of the countries profiled in the report are not signatories.

“As we mark the fifth anniversary of the Safe Schools Declaration this year, all states should endorse and use the declaration to ensure that girls and women, as well as men and boys, can learn and teach in safety,” Nijhowne said. “Perpetrators of attacks on education in armed conflict and insecurity must be brought to justice so the right to education can be secured for everyone.”

Tsolakis said more research on how to prevent these violent attacks against higher education students and staff is also needed. “The Safe Schools Declaration is one important tool, with concrete actions for how states can prevent attacks on or the military use of universities, as well as protect higher education students and staff from violence,” she said.

Brendan O’Malley is managing editor of University World News and was lead author of the first two Education under Attack reports in 2007 and 2010, published by UNESCO, and lead author of the 2014 edition, published by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack.