Study questions scholar rescue programme practices

Scholar rescue organisations should place more emphasis on advocating for academic freedom in countries where it is repressed, according to a recent study. They should also take steps to improve women’s participation and do more to help alleviate post-rescue precarity, the study recommends.

The study entitled “The state of academic (un)freedom and scholar rescue programmes: A contemporary and critical overview”, published in Third World Quarterly in August, was written by Kudus Oluwatoyin Adebayo, a research fellow in the diaspora and transnational studies programme of the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan, Nigeria.

“I describe current scholar rescue practice and raise critical issues that organisations in scholar rescue and mobility work must confront to meaningfully serve threatened academics around the world,” Adebayo said.

However, he also underlined that “to the extent that they have remained committed to helping academics escape from dangerous circumstances and threats, rescue programmes are serving needs that sustain the spirit of both academic freedom and freedom of scholars”.

The criticisms raised relate to post-rescue precarity, contribution to brain drain, limited political solidarity, and lack of gender inclusiveness.

There are also contextual problems of restrictive visa regimes and immobilisation of at-risk scholars, inclusiveness and diversity, and host country dynamics, over which scholar rescue programmes may have little or no influence.

The study recommends that scholar rescue organisations introduce measures such as promoting in situ academic freedom programmes and advocacy and incorporating post-rescue needs of at-risk scholars as well as improving equality, diversity and inclusion mechanisms to increase women’s participation.

It argues that they should also be building partnerships with and integrate ‘active and vibrant regional academic associations’ to tackle drawbacks in some of the current scholar rescue and mobility programmes across the world, including post-rescue precarity, contribution to brain drain, and limited political solidarity,

However, Robert Quinn, executive director of Scholars at Risk told University World News: “The article’s assessment of scholar protection work as it is done by Scholars at Risk misses the enormously important fact that we are doing everything the author asks to be done!”

‘More in-situ advocacy needed’

In particular, Adebayo called for more academic freedom programming and advocacy in situ.

“To make traditional scholar rescue involving physical relocation less and less required, there is a need to promote initiatives advocating for freer universities and freer spaces for academics and intellectuals in countries where repression of academic freedom is most prevalent,” Adebayo said.

He said scholar rescue mandates should also be expanded to incorporate the post-rescue needs of rescued academics.

“Because post-rescue needs of at-risk scholars do not disappear after escaping a dangerous environment, rescue organisations must re-engage their notion of and insistence on ‘immediate danger’ and appreciate how ‘danger’ and ‘risk’ do not evaporate with border crossing,” Adebayo explained.

“Rescue organisations should improve their equality, diversity and inclusion mechanisms to increase women’s participation as beneficiaries, especially in terms of research fund support,” Adebayo indicated.

He called on rescue initiatives to improve coordination of rescue efforts by multiple scholar rescue programmes. In addition, he said organisations need to work with at-risk academics to strengthen political solidarity.

Impact of brain drain

Adebayo said the impact of scholar rescue on ‘brain drain’ should be addressed, given that most rescued scholars do not return to their home country.

He refers to one 2021 Institute of International Education Scholar Rescue Fund study on the long-term trajectory saying that 76% stay in the country they were rescued to, with a larger proportion, 84%, remaining in the United States, Canada or Western Europe.

“While brain drain is not easy to reverse, ongoing efforts encouraging the safe return of scholars should be intensified by incentivising return, and training scholars to enhance their skills and build capacity while also helping them to formalise networks and collaborative relationships,” Adebayo said.

“Finally, given how the COVID-19 situation will shape scholar rescue and mobility programmes into the future, supporters of the programmes should explore models of virtual alternatives,” Adebayo suggested, without specifying what that would mean.

Response of rescue organisations

University World News has contacted several scholar rescue organisations, including Scholars At Risk (SAR), the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund (IIE-SRF), the Council for At-Risk Academics (CARA) and Academy in Exile, to get their responses to the article’s key findings.

Only Robert Quinn of SAR responded. He said: “The author is right that more solidarity, more advocacy and more proactive efforts are needed. We agree! We welcome scholars, students, institutions and higher education associations everywhere to join SAR and our partners in scholar protection work. Together we can do even more, for even more scholars.

“However, the author overlooks the fact that at Scholars at Risk we have workshops and handbooks to help scholars overcome professional precarity and adapt to new professional environments; we have special policies to identify female candidates or those from underrepresented backgrounds; and we lead and partner in public and private advocacy such as for improvements in visa policies and for scholars who are imprisoned or prosecuted.”

SAR, which advocates extensively internationally – as is frequently reported in University World News – is building a global network to strengthen solidarity, which now involves more than 600 institutions in 40 countries, according to Quinn.

“We also have a monitoring project and annual Free to Think reports that document attacks. We support the Academic Freedom Index to put pressure on misbehaving states, and to applaud those that improve their practices. We have student advocacy seminars and clinics to build new generations of academic freedom advocates.

“And [there are] many more activities aimed at building solidarity and increasing protection for scholars, students, universities, and academic freedom everywhere.”

In-situ and ex-situ work

Professor Kwadwo Appiagyei-Atua from the school of law at the University of Ghana told University World News: “The study is a very important undertaking as it seeks to address a microcosm of the larger refugee problem which affects academics. I fully support all the recommendations outlined.”

Appiagyei-Atua added: “I think the author should take into account the fact that some violations of academic freedom which may call for intervention may not be related to organised systematic attacks by the host state but through armed attack by a foreign force, such as a state or a terrorist or dissident group in a country.

“In such a situation, in-situ academic freedom advocacy may not work. Similarly, the ability to plan for a long-term engagement with the scholar at risk may not be possible,” Appiagyei-Atua explained.

He argued that while in-situ academic freedom advocacy is critical, it cannot be successfully undertaken without the input and support of the scholars’ local university union of the particular country.

“Such advocacy work should also include development of indicators of academic freedom abuse so that targeted scholars may know the alert levels and think of when to make the critical decision to leave,” Appiagyei-Atua said.

In-situ academic freedom advocacy should be complemented by ex-situ work as well, especially where outside forces are responsible for the deterioration of academic freedom or of general human rights and democracy conditions in the country so that pressure is brought to bear on them as well, he added.

“It is also important to note that not all attacks are orchestrated by the state. Some come from within, that is the university administration or other third parties like a dissident group or a church. In such cases, organisations seeking to offer relocation for scholars at risk should also consider finding temporary sanctuary at universities located within the same country which can provide safety for the threatened scholar,” Appiagyei-Atua said.

He added that organisations helping scholars at risk should always have as part of their plan an emphasis on seeing their intervention as a temporary measure. They should work with organisations such as the International Organisation for Migration to help scholars in refuge to voluntarily repatriate if the conditions which compelled a scholar to leave no longer prevail, such as where there has been a change in government.

Supporting social justice

Professor Kristen Lyons from the school of social science at the University of Queensland in Australia told University World News that although scholar rescue and mobility programmes play a vital role in the global community, including by highlighting the vital role of academic freedom in ensuring robust public debates, and in advancing a social justice and human rights agenda, they must also support social justice.

Lyons, who is the author of a 2021 article entitled “Academic freedom’s precarious future: Why it matters and what’s at stake”, said this includes ensuring diverse representation and participation in such programmes (including especially women, First Nations, ethnic minorities, and so on).

“And while mobility programmes may provide immediate relief and-or safety to academics at risk, this must be matched with support for broader movements for democracy and freedom of speech,” Lyons indicated.

“This will ensure such programmes are tied to broader structural transformations that are so urgently required to uphold academic freedom and human rights.”

Adebayo said with attacks on academic freedom worsening in different parts of the world, and universities, academics and students coming under increasing attack and being subjected to censorship and violence, scholar rescue programmes remain the “most important and enduring response to safeguarding and restoring the scholarly freedoms of academics whose intellectual rights have been threatened”.

However, few scholarly assessments of the scholar rescue environment are available, he said, and for academic rescue work to remain relevant “certain issues must be addressed”.