Scholars at Risk – 332 attacks on HE in 65 countries in a year

An unremitting and destructive deluge of attacks on scholars, students and higher education institutions around the world – 332 in 65 countries over the past year – is described in the latest report by Scholars at Risk (SAR) published this week. The incidents range from laws restricting discussion to armed raids on campuses and assassinations.

Free to Think: Report of the Scholars at Risk Academic Freedom Monitoring Project says it “reflects a fraction of attacks on higher education that have occurred over the past year”. It also reveals that 2,150 attacks on higher education communities in 113 countries and territories were reported by SAR in the decade from January 2011 to August 2021.

Releasing the report on Thursday 9 December, the New York-based NGO urged governments, university leaders and civil society to publicly demonstrate commitment to safeguarding academic freedom and reversing the global phenomenon of attacks on scholars, students and institutions.

Violent attacks

At the most brutal end of the spectrum, “armed groups and individuals carried out severe, violent attacks on higher education communities,” says Free to Think. In some cases academic communities were “targeted as perceived symbols of state authority or sources of opposition to radical ideologies”. In others, individual scholars or students were harmed.

Scholars were assassinated and scores of students and university personnel were killed in attacks by the Taliban on campus communities in Afghanistan, where two decades of progress in higher education is unravelling.

“In Nigeria, armed groups carried out deadly attacks and raids on higher education campuses, often in an attempt to abduct students and personnel. In Myanmar, soldiers and police used brutal force to quash students protesting the 1 February military coup and to take over campuses for military gain,” the report says.

SAR reported more than 140 attacks on student expression, including violent incidents, arrests and prosecutions, and disciplinary measures.

In Bangladesh, the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Pakistan, South Africa, Thailand and Zimbabwe, students frequently faced arrest, prosecution and the use of force in connection with protests and other activities over a range of issues including access, demands for democracy and accountability for past injustices.

Free to Think 2021

Free to Think 2021 was launched on 9 December at a virtual symposium with sessions on Afghanistan, Belarus, Myanmar and the United States. They are among 16 focus areas, the others being: Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Hong Kong, India, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey and Zimbabwe.

This year’s Courage to Think Award went to Dr Ahmadreza Djalali, an imprisoned scholar of disaster medicine who has been sentenced to death in Iran.

“Attacks on higher education are devastating scholars, students, and institutions around the world with life- and career-ending consequences,” said Robert Quinn, founding executive director of SAR, in a news release.

“We are at a crisis moment: a surge of Afghan scholars seek refuge from the Taliban and the increasingly narrowing space for expression in Afghanistan, while lawmakers’ efforts in more open societies, including the United States, seek to restrict what can be taught in lecture halls.”

Scholars at Risk is an international network of more than 550 institutions and thousands of people in some 40 countries. Its mission is to protect higher education communities and members from violent and coercive attacks, in order to expand the space for reason and evidence-based approaches to resolving conflicts and problems.

The SAR Academic Freedom Monitoring Project identifies and reports attacks on higher education in order “to protect vulnerable scholars and students, hold perpetrators accountable, and prevent future violations”.

Wreaking damage

SAR says that higher education communities the world over are overwhelmed by frequent attacks on scholars, students, staff and institutions.

“State and non-state actors, including armed militant and extremist groups, police and military forces, government authorities, off-campus groups, and even members of higher education communities, among others, carry out these attacks, which often result in deaths, injuries, and deprivations of liberty,” the report says.

Beyond their harm to individuals and institutions, “these attacks undermine entire higher education systems, by impairing the quality of teaching, research and discourse on campus and constricting society’s space to think, question and share ideas.

“Ultimately, they impact [upon] all of us, by damaging higher education’s unique capacity to drive the social, political, cultural and economic development from which we all benefit.”

During a year dominated by COVID-19, the report says, academics and students “continued to raise questions, concerns and criticisms about state responses to public health crises, government accountability and societal inequities”.

The academic community also responded to acute and long-standing political conflicts, from Myanmar’s coup to the erosion of human rights in Turkey. “Frequently, however, individuals and groups opposed to their questions and ideas sought to silence them.”

Coercive measures

Many attacks are not directly violent. A range of coercive legal measures including detention and prosecution have been used to restrict research, teaching, expression and association, says Free to Think, often on grounds ostensibly related to national security, terrorism, sedition, and defamation.

“In Brazil, the attorney general and a supreme court justice used their positions to take action against academic speech that found fault with their work.

“In India, authorities are prosecuting more than a dozen scholars and students under the country’s anti-terrorism laws, in an apparent act of retaliation against their expression and views critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his administration,” the report continues.

“In Hong Kong, scholars and students continued to fear the threat of prosecution under the Beijing-imposed National Security Law, which is expected to chill a wide range of academic activity and discourse.” There have been prosecutions, dismantling of student unions and the introduction of courses promoting official propaganda.

In Bangladesh, scholars were fired over public expression critical of political figures. In Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko ordered the suspension and expulsion of academics and students who protested against his controversial declaration as winner of a 2020 presidential election that was widely criticised for falsified results.

Governments restricted and frustrated academics’ and students’ freedom of movement through actions, policies and practices that limit the movement of entire communities of students and scholars. This has often included the denial of visas, deportations of students, and blacklisting of scholars, says the report.

Over the past year, China issued sanctions against scholars, researchers and institutions in the European Union, United Kingdom and United States, in apparent retaliation for research that displeased the government. “Meanwhile, Israel’s government continues to severely restrict the movement of Palestinian and international scholars and students.”

Officials and law-making bodies in a number of countries undermined the autonomy and academic freedom of entire higher education communities through the use of executive and legislative powers. “These actions frustrate the free flow of ideas across borders that is essential to quality higher education and to building global understanding and cooperation.”

Legislative and administrative actions

Legislative and administrative actions by state authorities and lawmakers threatened the autonomy and academic freedom of entire higher education communities.

In Turkey, there were months of protests against erosion of institutional autonomy after the president appointed a political ally as rector of the top Bogazici University. “In the United States, state legislatures advanced and in some cases secured passage of bills that would ban topics and areas of academic discussion in classrooms, most notably critical race theory.”

“The frequency and global reach of these attacks should be alarming, not only to those in higher education, but to society at large,” said Clare Robinson, advocacy director at SAR.

“These attacks demonstrate a shrinking of the space for free inquiry and discourse. If we are to safeguard higher education’s unique ability to foster solutions to the most urgent problems of the day, governments, university leaders and civil society must publicly demonstrate a commitment to prevent these attacks and promote academic freedom.

“We must reject violence aimed at punishing ideas, protect threatened scholars and students, and champion the freedom to think.”