Better reporting of attacks on higher education needed

The Scholars at Risk Network (SAR) has called on the international community, governments and higher education institutions to improve reporting of attacks on higher education and threats to academic freedom.

In its latest annual Free to Think report into attacks on higher education and academic freedom, released on Tuesday, its researchers reported 391 attacks on higher education communities in 65 countries and territories between 1 September 2021 and 31 August 2022.

The report says the attacks – which include violent attacks on the university space, wrongful imprisonments and prosecutions, the use of force against students, terminations and expulsions and imposition of travel restrictions, threats to institutional autonomy, and other pressures violating the rights and safety of individuals – have become a distressing worldwide phenomenon.

To increase protection, a stronger response is needed, it says.

“Too many attacks on higher education go unreported. And even fewer of those that are reported receive adequate attention resulting in any kind of meaningful accountability or redress. This must change,” the report says.

SAR argues that recognising these incidents as a single global phenomenon – despite variations in target, type of attack and location – is a “critical first step” in devising solutions.

“The next step is to encourage a robust response at the international and state levels, from within higher education itself, and from civil society and the public at large. While action may look different for different parties, everyone has the capacity to help,” the report says.

SAR calls on states, higher education communities and civil society around the world to respond to these attacks: to reject violence and coercion aimed at restricting inquiry and expression; to protect threatened scholars, students and higher education institutions.

It asks them to reaffirm publicly their commitment to academic freedom and support for the principles that critical discourse is not disloyalty, that ideas are not crimes, and that everyone must be free to think, question and share their ideas.

Robert Quinn, SAR’s founding executive director, said: “Higher education communities around the world have suffered varied, ruinous attacks over the past year. They range from the Taliban’s repression of scholars and students in Afghanistan and Russian forces’ devastation of Ukrainian university infrastructure, to Israeli-imposed restrictions on academic travel to the West Bank and United States lawmakers’ efforts to constrict discourse on campus.

“These attacks have deadly and career-ending consequences for scholars and students, but they also endanger society at large, by undermining higher education’s unique ability to drive the social, political, economic and cultural progress from which we all benefit.”

However, too many attacks go unreported, he told University World News, “because many targets of attacks have been isolated from their communities of support, and also because as a sector we have grown too complacent, treating these recurring incidents as facts of life instead of conscious acts of intimidation that can and must be resisted through greater solidarity and accountability”.

Concerning trends

SAR is an international network of more than 600 higher education institutions and thousands of individuals in more than 40 countries offering protection to scholars and students – and its Free to Think series of annual reports is a product of SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project, which researches and reports on attacks on higher education to protect vulnerable scholars and students, hold perpetrators accountable and prevent future violations.

In reviewing global and regional trends, including spotlights on 24 countries and territories, Free to Think 2022 notes with concern:

• The violent impact of war, conflict and political upheaval in Ethiopia, Myanmar and Ukraine, where academic activity has been upended and campuses have been destroyed, occupied, raided and taken over for military or other strategic gain.

• State and higher education actors stifling student expression, especially in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Turkey.

• Imprisonment, prosecution and disciplinary actions targeting scholars for their academic work, views and expressive activity, including in Iran, Mexico and Russia, among other countries.

• Broad and arbitrary restrictions on scholars’ and students’ freedom of movement that limit the free exchange of ideas across borders, including in India and the West Bank.

• 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 United States.

“Attacks on higher education communities are a distressing, global phenomenon that we see in Free to Think and the hundreds of requests for assistance we receive from at-risk scholars every year,” said Clare Robinson, SAR’s advocacy director.

Robust response required

A robust response is needed at the international and state levels, from within higher education itself and from civil society and the public at large, the report argues.

This requires action “ranging from states monitoring and responding to attacks on higher education, including via international diplomatic channels, to university faculty and students campaigning on behalf of imprisoned scholars and students”.

A key recommendation is that intergovernmental, regional and supranational bodies should develop policies, structures and guidelines to protect and promote academic freedom regionally and globally.

An example cited is the release in November last year of a set of Inter-American Principles on Academic Freedom and University Autonomy by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, in coordination with a Specialized Academic Network of university and NGO partners.

Another good example was the European Union’s introduction in 2021 of a new requirement into the rules for participation in Horizon Europe – the EU’s key funding programme for research and innovation with a budget of €95.5 billion (US$95.3 billion) – stipulating that “the programme should promote the respect of academic freedom in all countries benefiting from its funds”.

Free to Think calls on states to highlight attacks on higher education within their own reporting on human rights and publicly commit to protecting higher education.

The United States Department of State does this, for example, by including a section on ‘academic freedom and cultural events’ within its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.

Where possible, states or state agencies should establish funding mechanisms to support at-risk or displaced scholars and students, the report says.

Important role for universities

But higher education institutions themselves also have an important role to play, by demonstrating solidarity for colleagues worldwide who are under threat; and by supporting scholars impacted by attacks by offering positions of academic refuge, the report says.

There are numerous scholar rescue organisations that universities can work with on the latter issue, including SAR, the Council for At-Risk Academics (CARA), the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund (IIE-SRF), PAUSE, the Philipp Schwartz Initiative or similar programmes.

SAR network members alone this past year have created more than 170 temporary positions in response to events facing scholars around the world, including the situations in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Yemen and Ukraine, the report says.

University leaders should help prevent the normalisation of attacks by condemning them wherever they occur, and by speaking out in the case of individual scholars being threatened or illegally detained, SAR argues.

Institutions should also promote understanding and respect for core higher education values like academic freedom, institutional autonomy, accountability, equitable access and social responsibility, including by proactively developing a set of ritualising practices on their campuses, it suggests.

“This means creating and repeating regular, visible and meaningful opportunities for everyone to discuss these values and their meaning in practice in the community,” the report says.

SAR is also calling on associations, societies and research organisations to conduct and encourage research into the root causes of attacks on higher education and efforts to protect academic freedom.

“Much more research is needed to document attacks, their sources and impacts, their causes and effective responses,” Quinn told University World News.

“At SAR, we offer an annual research fellowship for five fellows precisely to encourage such work and to grow the community of academic freedom researchers and advocates. Governments, higher education associations and societies, and individual institutions should do the same, and if they would we could dramatically increase understanding and improve conditions.”

Academic freedom in the curriculum

Faculty, staff and students should also learn more about academic freedom and faculty should include academic freedom in their curricula, the report urges.

“Not only faculty and students, but administrators, leaders and trustees, and the general public all need to be fluent in how academic freedom not only safeguards quality research and teaching – which is essential to a prosperous society – but also safeguards democratic values and processes, which are essential to every person’s freedom to think and share their views,” Quinn told University World News.

“Why should people care about press freedom? About freedom from arbitrary arrest? Or any other human right? Because respect for these rights matters to the kinds of societies we have and the lives we live. And academic freedom is a key part of that.”

Institutions or individuals interested in participating in SAR network activities are invited to visit or email

Brendan O’Malley is editor in chief of University World News and the author or lead author of the first three Education under Attack global studies (UNESCO 2007, UNESCO 2010 and GCPEA 2014) on targeted political and military violence against education staff, students, teachers, union and government officials and institutions.