16 Jun 2016

Can we scale up the support for at-risk scholars and students?

SAR-CongressLast week, special attention was paid to students and scholars having to leave their home country due to risk and persecution – both at the EAIE Spotlight Seminar in Amsterdam and at the Scholars at Risk (SAR) Global Congress 8–10 June in Montréal. At the SAR Global Congress – where I chaired a session on refugees and our Forum on Internationalisation in a conflicted world was distributed – a major focus point was the fact that the need for support is growing fast. It is up to our institutions to respond accordingly.


 
Academic freedom is the principle that scholars should have a freedom of inquiry and freedom of speech, so that they may work without fear or intimidation. SAR is doing important work in monitoring academic freedom violations and by early June, they had already reported 23 incidents in 2016. Incidents vary from killings to different ways of silencing scholars. One incident may concern more than one person, eg the 1128 Turkish scholars who lost their jobs and were put under investigation after they signed a petition calling on the government to end its targeting of Kurdish rebels in the south-eastern part of the country. In this specific case SAR, the EAIE and other organisations have been trying to influence the government to drop the charges.

Strengthening the network

Both SAR and the Council for at Risk Academics (CARA) in the UK are experiencing a steep increase in calls for help. At the Congress, Stephen Wordsworth from CARA informed us that the number of requests has grown from four to five per week last year to 18–20 per week this year. SAR has seen a similar increase. Luckily, the number of SAR member institutions is also growing fast – and more institutions are finding the means to support one or more threatened scholars by hosting them on campus. The network has now 414 member institutions in 39 countries.
 
The Netherlands and Flanders, Norway, Switzerland and Ireland have all had national SAR sections for many years to strengthen the work of SAR locally. Other SAR members have recently established national sections in Sweden and Canada, and hopefully Germany will soon follow. The German involvement in SAR received a great boost with the generous funding of scholarships through the Philipp Schwartz initiative of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. Even with the increase in member institutions and sections, Rose Anderson, Protection Coordinator at SAR, told congress participants that due to relative lack of resources compared to the needs, SAR now has to be even stricter in prioritising the most urgent cases of threat to scholars.

Educational activities in the region around Syria

The situation in Syria, with millions of displaced people in neighbouring countries and other regions is well known. A high number of highly educated Syrians have left the country, and there is strong concern for the lack of ability in the country – both now and for post-conflict reconstruction. Initiatives towards capacity building in Syria and neighbouring countries – SPARK and the Jamiya project – were presented at the Congress, but other projects – such as the HOPES project – are also starting up. The similarities between these projects are that they are combining resources for the Syrian diaspora, from around the world and local resource persons in order to provide young Syrians with opportunities to develop the knowledge and skills necessary to cope with the challenges before them. Developing these initiatives is not easy and it requires innovative approaches as well as coordination between the various initiatives, other local resources and demands in the neighbouring countries themselves.

Student initiatives

In addition to the aforementioned organisations, there is growing engagement among student organisations. The European Student Union (ESU) and the Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund (SAIH) have been crucial in raising awareness among students of the importance of academic freedom and freedom of speech. Last month, student leaders from around the world met and signed the Bergen Declaration on uniting for a global student voice. At the SAR Global Congress, there was a special workshop for student organisations and a session on how SAR could work with students. The SAR ‘Courage to Think Defender’ Award was given in absentia to the 2000 students wrongfully detained in Egypt over the last years.

What can I do?

We need to do many things at the same time. More universities should join the SAR network and seek resources to be able to support scholars in getting a safe haven and also participate in the advocacy for scholars in prison. In addition to European and North American institutions, there is a need for more members in Asia, Africa and Latin America. New member institutions could influence other institutions and support scholars in their own regions. It could be more convenient and cost-effective to host eg an African scholar at a university in a safe African country rather than sending the scholar to another continent for safety. Maybe some European associations and institutions would be willing to help fund this kind of South–South mobility of threatened scholars.
 
The initiatives in Syria and its neighbouring countries need partner institutions that can help in various ways. University of Gothenburg was the first to engage with the Jamiya project, but perhaps they could use more institutions willing to cooperate on delivering courses as blended learning to Syrian students. While I have no immediate solutions as to how all these efforts could be coordinated, I hope the initiatives will cooperate rather than compete.
 
Spreading the word on the importance of academic freedom and the scope of academic freedom violations is an effort that we can all take part in. Suggest academic freedom as a topic in the conferences you are contributing to and seek opportunities to discuss the higher education values stated in the 1997 UNESCO Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel – academic freedom, institutional autonomy, equitable access to education, accountability and social responsibility – with your international partners. SAR has a working group on promoting values in higher education, and hopefully, they will develop a form of toolkit that we can use in dealing with values in our international partnerships. Alva Bruun is participating in this working group for the EAIE.
 
Hearing the many personal stories of threatened scholars and the sheer numbers of young displaced people who require an education might leave us in apathy at the size of the task. Yet some threatened scholars report that even the knowledge of the efforts we are doing can help scholars and student activists to keep their own spirits and courage up.

Continue the discussion

At the EAIE conference in Liverpool, where SAR will be present, both Scholars at Risk and Students at Risk will be discussed in sessions. Use this opportunity to learn more about how you and your university can contribute. Academic freedom is crucial to a well-functioning democracy, and if one scholar is threatened, our whole higher education community is under threat.
 
Marit is Senior Adviser at the Office for International Relations and Research Support at University of Oslo, as well as an EAIE Board member.