Make education institutions contributors to peace, not war

For the past few weeks our news bulletins have been filled with distressing images of victims from both sides in Israel and Palestine, and warnings of a humanitarian catastrophe.

This comes on top of the ongoing tragedy of war in Ukraine and the conflict in Sudan.

I was invited to speak at the Magna Charta Observatory conference on ‘Universities and reconstruction of cities: the role of research and education’, held in Lodz, Poland, on 23-25 October.

The subject of this talk could not have been more timely. But current events also show that it could not be more challenging either.

But what do we mean by ‘reconstruction’ or indeed by ‘conflict’? Is reconstruction about removing rubble, rebuilding homes, schools, universities and civilian infrastructure?

Conflict can take many forms and damage to infrastructure is only one of many impacts. Students drop, teachers leave, families flee the area, education may be closed down indefinitely, education investment shelved for years.

There is fear, despondency and the psycho-social trauma affecting many individuals, sometimes for years.

Beyond that, the deep, bitter divisions in society are entrenched by war.

As Graca Michel wrote: “The destruction of educational infrastructure represents one of the greatest developmental setbacks for countries affected by conflict.” It hinders the ability of societies to recover after the war.

Mostly today, conflicts are between factions within national boundaries, not war across borders and when the fighting is over and the dead are counted, we can expect the divisions to be deeper than ever, and reconciliation a distant dream.

Even if we resurrect all the buildings levelled by bombings, rebuild all the walls smashed by rockets, fill every shell hole, smooth over every pockmark gouged by shrapnel, it may only count as putting a sticking plaster over the wounds of history instead of addressing the causes of the conflict that brought destruction and death.

Without real peace, anything you rebuild can be destroyed again, whether immediately if conflict is still simmering, or later as conflict resurfaces.

Although I am editor-in-chief of University World News, for this talk I am drawing not just on our articles by journalists and academic experts but on my many years of research leading the first three global studies on Education under Attack – as a consultant for UNESCO and later for a coalition of UN and other international NGOs, the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA).

Education under Attack is now a regular global report on targeted military and political violence against education institutions, students, teachers, academics and other personnel.

It is about bombings, assassinations, forced disappearances, illegal imprisonment and kidnappings, mostly in countries embroiled in conflict or authoritarianism – and mostly carried out by state armed forces and non-state armed groups.

Sometimes education buildings are attacked because they are perceived as being used as a camp or an operating base or a place for weapons storage for opposing troops.

An example of this is Israeli air strikes blowing up the buildings of the Islamic University of Gaza – a member of many international university networks – only a fortnight ago, alleging that it was being used for political and military purposes.

During my research (2006-14), I visited conflict zones, talked to leaders of schools and universities where institutions had been bombed, teachers or academics had been shot or blown up and education trade unionists had faced death threats or imprisonment – places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Thailand, and the West Bank and Gaza.

I have also separately reported from conflicts and conflict-affected countries including Kosovo, Northern Ireland and Cyprus.

For the Education under Attack reports, we researched facts about the extent and nature of attacks, but we also gathered information about motives and impact. And we devised recommendations for governments, and education stakeholders on how to prevent education institutions, students and teachers or academics being targeted.

These reports were used to galvanise UN agencies and INGOs (international non-governmental organisations) to put attacks on education as a distinct item on their agenda and to be addressed through their programmes. They also influenced the work of the UN Security Council in making attacks on schools a higher priority in its monitoring and reporting and listing of parties involved in grave violations against children in armed conflict.

In follow-up projects we went out to conflict-affected countries such as Pakistan and the Philippines to pilot training guidance on how to protect education from attack.

Initially there was a lot of focus on schools and later we also developed a strong focus on higher education – with the Scholars at Risk network becoming a key partner.

Universities are the key providers of higher education so are concerned about how and why they are being targeted, but attacks on schools also matter to them, since not only do the schools provide their pipeline of potential students but universities train school teachers and university education researchers help to shape education policy and practice.

For schools and universities, I believe there are two key aspects of reconstruction after conflict. One is reconstruction of their own facilities and educational communities, the other is their role in the reconstruction of society around them and the establishment of lasting peace.

For both their own safety and as key education stakeholders, and as anchor institutions in their community or city, universities have a key role to play in the prevention or avoidance of attacks specifically targeting education and also resilience in the face of attacks. But they also have an important role to play in providing research, analysis and moral leadership on conflict throughout wider society.

Note that UN Sustainable Goal 16 is about the promotion of peace, inclusive societies with justice for all and accountable, inclusive institutions.

People are often not aware of the scale of the problem of targeted attacks on education worldwide. Here are some global figures from Education under Attack 2022 (GCPEA).

Global figures on attacks on education

2022: More than 3,000 attacks on education were identified in 2022, a 17 percent increase over the previous year, according to GCPEA.

Almost one-third of all attacks took place in just three countries: Ukraine, Myanmar, and Burkina Faso, with the war in Ukraine accounting for the majority.

2021-2022 More than 580 university students or personnel were injured, abducted, or killed worldwide, as a result of attacks on higher education, and another 1,450 were detained, arrested, or convicted. 80 attacks on higher education facilities (Education under Attack 2022).

2022-2023: Afghanistan denies higher education to all women.

Heavily affected countries

Among the countries most heavily affected by attacks over the years are:

2003-2008 Iraq 31,598 attacks on schools and universities, including 259 academics assassinated, 72 abducted and 174 held in detention (Education under Attack 2010).

2008-9 Gaza, in a three-week Israeli military operation 300 kindergarten, school and university buildings damaged (Education under Attack 2010).

2015: Kenya 142 students killed, 79 injured in Al-Shabaab attack on Garissa University College, others taken hostage (Education under Attack 2018).

February 2022-February 2023: 2,638 schools damaged, 437 destroyed in Ukraine; and 57 higher education institutions damaged, six destroyed, according to Ukraine’s Ministry of Science and Education.

Attacks on HE and research freedoms

In higher education the methods of attack include all the physical attacks and threats to life mentioned above.

But they also include curbs on academic freedom and university autonomy. This can mean anything from banning people from attending international conferences and withdrawal of passports, to mass dismissals, unlawful detention without trial, imprisonment, torture and death sentences. And constant pressures on individuals to self-censor or openly support arguments they do not agree with.

These are methods used by anti-democratic, authoritarian or military governments who want to stymy open debate, clamp down on critical thought, and close down the space for alternative ideas to emerge.

Authoritarian governments will frequently enforce a restricted curriculum, banning certain subjects from being taught and banning certain topics from being researched or certain findings being published.

We see these methods used in very different situations all around the world, from Afghanistan, to Hungary, and Russia but also increasingly under right-wing governments in democratic countries, including certain states in the United States – witness the latest raft of measures restricting higher education passed in Florida, including the banning of funding for university diversity, equity and inclusion programmes.

In some states the national president has seized control of appointing university presidents – as did President Bolsonaro in Brazil, and President Erdogan in Turkey – instantly raising the pressure on universities to toe the government’s line.

The impact of threats to higher education was captured in 2006 by then UNESCO director general Koichiro Matsuura’s comment on the attacks on academics in Iraq: “By targeting those who hold the keys of Iraq's reconstruction and development, the perpetrators of this violence are jeopardising the future of Iraq and of democracy.”

Measures protecting education

The Education under Attack research showed that if you want to reduce the impact of attack and enable education to contribute fully to peace and development, there are broadly two approaches you can take.

The first is to improve protection and resilience in the face of attacks.

Protection measures can include everything from reinforcing walls, changing roofing materials to less flammable substances, ensuring all rooms have two exits to provide escape routes, and providing armed guards or military escorts.

They can include increasing deterrence in law by strengthening national and international law on attacks on education.

Or ending military use, which makes institutions a target. Even having military protection can make it a more likely target.

Or negotiating between armed parties to conflict to treat education institutions as safe spaces not to be used militarily and not to be attacked.

To date 118 states have signed up to a Safe Schools Declaration which commits states and other parties to measures to protect schools and universities from attack, including preventing use of education facilities for military purposes.

Mario Novelli and Ervjola Selenica, in an essay for Education under Attack 2014, underlined that a key step to defending higher education is to strengthen university autonomy and academic freedom.

Improving resilience

Resilience measures include changing location or switching to online provision, removing the institution as a target. A similar tactic can be used to help threatened students and academics.

Two good examples concerning institutions are two initiatives supported by the Open Society University Network funded by George Soros.

As Nathan M Greenfield has reported for University World News, the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) had 1,000 students enrolled, half of them women, when the Taliban seized power in August 2021. Before government control of Afghanistan evaporated a relocation to Qatar was negotiated and a virtual university set up.

Last fall, AUAF welcomed 100 students in person to Education City, Qatar but of course most of its students have not been able to get out of Afghanistan so the university, supported by Bard College in the US, is offering an online dual programme set by the two universities. In this way, in the words of its president, Ian Bickford, AUAF is keeping open a “lifeline to the outside world” for its students.

Another example is Smolny College, which was the only liberal arts and science institution in Russia, situated within St Petersburg University, as a result of the university’s ties with Bard College. It inspired many other institutions to adopt teaching and curricular practices that it pioneered in partnership with Bard.

Two years ago Russia’s prosecutor general’s office declared Bard an ‘undesirable foreign organisation’ and a threat to the Russian constitutional order and criminalised contact with it. Smolny now survives as the Smolny Without Borders Project, an online project launched by Smolny staff, to give an opportunity for students from Smolny College and everyone else disrupted by war in Ukraine to continue their studies, albeit operating on a small scale with a limited number of programmes.

Scholar rescue schemes, such as those of Scholars at Risk and the Scholar Rescue Fund in the US and CARA in the UK play a key role in supporting scholars both via international solidarity campaigns – to raise the political cost of continuing the threats – and by helping to facilitate temporary posts abroad to keep threatened scholars working in an academic role but in a safer place.

The challenge for scholar schemes like this is how best to provide support without creating a brain drain. Is there some commitment from scholars to returning to their country – and, or incentives – to help rebuild it once conditions allow?

How education can contribute to conflict

We must also think about whether education itself is contributing to conflict and how we turn that around so that education becomes a driver for peace.

Many education institutions are attacked because they or the education system represent a form of education provision perceived as imposing alien culture, religion, language or values and, or discriminating against a particular ethnic or other minority group.

For example, in 2014 we reported the example of the school system in the insurgency in southern Thailand that began in 2004, in which three of the four provinces were ethnic Malay Muslim in a country that was 90% Thai Buddhist. Since 2005 there had been frequent incidents of school teachers and personnel being assassinated, sometimes in class in front of their students; and a number of schools were being attacked each year.

The authorities first responded with military measures, posting guards and military patrols until they realised that enabled rebels to hit two targets with one detonation, schools and teachers along with enemy soldiers.

It took years for them to accept that the policy of using schools as a tool of assimilation was part of the problem. They were banning Islamic schools, Muslim attire, Muslim names and the Muslim dialect and the teaching of local Muslim history; and they were imposing Thai Buddhist teachers and Thai national history.

Eventually an agreement to hire local Muslim teachers, create a sixth day of school per week to allow for Islamic studies and teaching Malay and the local language helped reduce the sense of education imposing an alien culture.

Mahidol University played a positive role in this process of reaching a compromise by running an action research programme designed to help Patani-Malay speakers in school retain their identity but also achieve a Thai national identity. They did this by using Malay in the first two years of schooling followed by Thai.

The importance of understanding motives

What this example and others we found show is, first, that if you want to prevent education being attacked – which can also mean if you want it to be available to play a key role in reconstruction – you first need to understand not just the methods but the motives of the attackers.

Second, you can prevent attacks or conflict in different practical ways, including defence and deterrence, but you can only build lasting peace if you address the motives and causes of violence, which usually involves addressing deeply held grievances such as systemically unequal or unfair treatment.

Third, before you try to contribute to building peace or to prevent attacks on education you should evaluate with an open mind whether and how your own institution might be contributing to conflict yourselves. You might be surprised at what you discover when you do.

How education can contribute to peace

Across education in general there are certain key factors that must be addressed by policy-makers and education authorities and institutions to prevent education contributing to conflict. These include unequal access to provision and resources, biases in the curriculum, discrimination in access and in appointments of teachers and academics and in appointments to senior posts.

Study places and resources must be allocated fairly and transparently, using objective criteria to ensure progress towards good quality lifelong education for all.

This may require extra investment in education for groups neglected in the past, for instance if their secondary education unfairly lacks investment they may not be passing university entry exams to get to tertiary level.

But also, education content and methods of teaching and learning must be adapted to promote peace, mutual respect and understanding, human rights and responsible citizenship. As the series of handbooks Protecting Education in Countries Affected by Conflict (which I co-wrote) published in 2012 by the Global Education Cluster says policies, curricula, textbooks and methods of learning need to be adjusted to achieve these aims.

How you approach contested history, flawed versions of which are a barrier to understanding and inflame desire for conflict, is a major challenge. Part of the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, for instance, is the continuing narrative in many Russian texts of the notion that Ukraine is not a real country, and does not have a legitimate separate identity.

Which language is the medium of instruction or perhaps of admission test is another issue of contention, potentially disadvantaging whole sections of the population in a muti-ethnic country.

In some conflicts these issues may need to be worked out before or as part of peace agreements.

Universities can have an important role in providing the research into understanding conflict and understanding particular conflicts to aid the search for compromises and solutions. International research can help encourage intercultural dialogue and understanding.

To echo the words of Sara Clarke-Habibi in an article for University World News (but put them in the current context of a protracted war in Ukraine and an explosive situation in Israel and Palestine with so many civilian lives at risk): university leaders can use this moment to reflect on how their institution can contribute proactively to the reduction of inequalities, frustration, radicalisation and violence in society.

Perhaps they can begin by considering “how they can better tailor the education and training they provide to contribute to individual and societal resilience, conflict transformation, sustainable development and socially just peace”.

This may mean, for instance, not confining peacebuilding to a particular discipline or department but taking a whole-institution approach, adopting conflict sensitive policies and integrating peacebuilding values, skills and competences across disciplines.

It also requires universities to work in partnership with communities to raise awareness, set peacebuilding agendas and develop capacities for societal change.

Brendan O’Malley is editor-in-chief of University World News. This is an edited version of a keynote speech he made at the Magna Charta Observatory conference, held in Lodz, Poland, on 23-25 October.