Armed conflict and political upheaval ‘disastrous’ for HE

Crises such as Russia’s war in Ukraine and a number of major student protest movements around the world may be the drivers behind the highest number of reported attacks on higher education in the entire history of the Free To Think series, according to Daniel Munier, senior programme officer at the Scholars at Risk Network (SAR), who leads the series.

The 2022 report, being formally launched on 10 November 2022, analyses 391 attacks in 65 countries and territories between 1 September 2021 and 31 August 2022, and highlights the growing problem of attacks.

“Armed conflict and the effects of political upheaval were especially disastrous for higher education communities over this reporting period,” Munier said.

“Indeed, we noticed significant increases in reported attacks compared to last year in countries and territories experiencing armed conflict, and heightened repression of student voices, especially in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Ukraine, Turkey and India.”

The annual Free to Think report series, which began in 2015, is a product of SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project, which researches and raises awareness of attacks on higher education communities worldwide.

“This year’s report notes heightened pressures in countries experiencing conflict and authoritarianism, like those mentioned above, but we also saw attacks carried out in states with relatively stable democracies,” Munier added.

Major trends and themes

Russia’s war in Ukraine has been a catastrophe for higher education communities in both countries, the report notes.

Russia’s invasion has forced innumerable scholars and students to flee for safety, particularly those opposing the war, while Ukrainian higher education and scientific research infrastructure were frequently hit and damaged by bombs. Russian armed forces were also found to have destroyed and occupied university premises.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban are systematically eliminating the rights to education of female students and scholars, and academic freedom. The Taliban ordered arbitrary dismissals of academic and administrative staff in universities, while Taliban police detained scholars who spoke out against government policy. At least one Afghan scholar went missing and was later found dead.

In Myanmar, academic activity has declined drastically since the February 2021 military coup. The army continues to occupy campuses and arrest and prosecute “an alarming number” of anti-coup students and scholars.

Ethiopia has also been the focus of attacks on higher education due to fighting involving government forces and the anti-government Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). In one example, the TPLF took over and sacked Wollo University, causing extensive damage to one of the country’s top universities, which was compounded when government drone strikes targeted the occupying TPLF forces.

Bomb attacks that have injured and killed higher education teachers and students occurred in Cameroon and Pakistan, while assassinations took place in Afghanistan and Nigeria.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a police officer killed a University of Mbandaka student during a police response to a student protest over registration fees, while in Lesotho, police killed a student and injured several others when they opened fire during a grant protest at the National University of Lesotho.

Violent attacks on higher education also involved non-state armed groups and individual actors in countries not experiencing armed conflict.

Extremists targeted higher education communities as perceived symbols of state authority in Nigeria, for example, where suspected members of the terrorist group Boko Haram attacked the Nigerian Army University Biu’s Tukur Yusufu Buratai Institute for War and Peace, killing at least two employees.

In Pakistan, a suicide bomber killed three Chinese teachers from the University of Karachi’s Confucius Institute.

Restricting student and scholarly expression

Attacks on student expression remain the most frequent type of attack reported by the Academic Freedom Monitoring Project, comprising roughly 41% of this year’s incidents.

In Indonesia, a university ordered criminal action against student journalists who wanted to publish a special edition discussing sexual harassment allegations on campus. Students also faced repeated police repression in Sri Lanka, Turkey and the West Bank.

State authorities also detained scholars and-or restricted their academic activity in Kuwait, China, Iran and Poland. In South Korea, for example, as part of a national security investigation, police searched the home of Dae-il Jeong, a researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, and confiscated his electronic devices and research materials.

Entire communities of students and scholars were also targeted in, for example, Algeria, Israel and Turkey, when state authorities restricted international scholar and student travel; while in China, India and Thailand, officials sought to deter scholars and students from hosting and participating in academic events or sharing their work on campus.

Attacks in stable democracies

Among the numerous examples, this year’s report also identified attacks in societies generally considered to be open and democratic, such as the United Kingdom, South Korea and the United States.

“This year’s report notes heightened pressures in countries experiencing conflict and authoritarianism, like those mentioned above, but we also saw attacks carried out in states with relatively stable democracies,” explains Munier.

“Take for example the sustained campaign of harassment directed against Queen’s University Belfast Professor Colin Harvey, who has recently suffered a new round of violent threats for his work regarding the status of Northern Ireland.”

Free to Think also looks at a deeply concerning wave of bomb threats terrorising historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the US, and lawmakers advancing legislation that aims to restrict classroom discussions of topics they do not favour or consider threatening to their own political agenda.

“Attacks in the US are particularly concerning given the relatively low frequency at which they were recorded in the early years of the Monitoring Project.”

Impact of attacks

SAR and their partners who run scholar and student support programmes have received record levels of requests for assistance over the last year.

Academics and their families’ lives were lost or endangered in Afghanistan and Ukraine, but also in less well-reported crises, such as those in Yemen, Ethiopia and Myanmar. The threats and attacks also have a severe chilling effect on the broader higher education community.

The report highlights broad and arbitrary restrictions on scholars’ and students’ freedom of movement that limit the free exchange of ideas, including in India and the West Bank.

It also notes government officials and lawmakers using their respective powers to interfere in and undermine the academic freedom and autonomy of higher education communities, including in China, Kenya, Nicaragua and the US, as well as the imprisonment and disciplinary actions targeting scholars for their academic work and views in countries such as Iran, Mexico and Russia.

The attacks undermine the security of higher education institutions and personnel, including those directly targeted, and those silenced by attacks on others. They negatively impact research, teaching and public discourse, eroding not only academic quality, but social, political, economic and cultural development, the report notes.

Through ‘brain drain’ they undermine national investments in education and exacerbate inequities within local and global economies, it says.

“The impact of attacks on the higher education sector in these contexts is particularly concerning when considering the crucial role scholars, students and their institutions play in protecting and strengthening human rights, democracy and the rule of law,” says Munier.

“[But] this is the tip of the iceberg. For the big picture, I think it’s very important to consider our Free to Think 2022 report data and contents alongside other tools, such as the Academic Freedom Index, which found substantial declines in respect for academic freedom in 19 countries from 2011 to 2021, and growing concerns about the rise of authoritarianism in many parts of the world,” says Munier.

Due to resource constraints and challenges in gathering and verifying information, the report emphasises that it represents only a fraction of all attacks on higher education that have occurred over the past year.

“This report highlights the problem,” says Clare Robinson, SAR’s advocacy director, “but, perhaps more importantly, it’s a rallying call and roadmap for governments, higher education communities and civil society to reject attacks on university space, redouble efforts to support at-risk colleagues and promote academic freedom. We [must] fight for the freedom to think, question and share ideas.”