Also Protect Higher Education from Attacks


(New York & Oslo – March 22, 2017) The problem of targeted attacks on academics, students, and universities during times of armed conflict should feature prominently at the Second Safe Schools Conference to be held in Buenos Aires on March 28-29, said the Council for At-Risk Academics, the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund, the Scholars at Risk Network, and the Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund (SAIH) in a joint statement today.

“All educational institutions, no matter the level, should be respected as safe spaces by warring parties,“ said Stephen Wordsworth, Executive Director of the Council for At-Risk Academics. “The damage done by attacks on universities, other higher education institutions, and individual academics deserves increased recognition in the global discussion of attacks on education.”

According to the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA), the countries most affected by attacks on universities since 2013 are Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Colombia, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palestine, Philippines, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. 

Attacks on higher education occur in conflict, or when governments, as well as opposition groups and other non-state actors, view higher education students, professors, and institutions as threats to their authority or as a means of gaining influence. When they are unable to control the sector, they often resort to intimidation, coercion, and overt violence to block education, silence dissent, and eliminate perceived opponents.  

Whether directed at whole institutions or individuals, such attacks can have chilling effects on the research, teaching, and social functions of higher education, and may serve to warn of spreading repression and risks of open conflict.

“Attacks on universities also harm primary and secondary schools that rely upon quality teachers trained at the tertiary level and on research that informs education pedagogy and curriculum,” said Sarah Willcox, Director of the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund. “Attacks on higher education institutions and personnel therefore threaten the quality of the entire education system.”

The Safe Schools Conference will encourage increased support for the international political commitment known as the Safe Schools Declaration, and its increased implementation. The Safe Schools Declaration, which was drafted under the leadership of the governments of Norway and Argentina in early 2015, outlines practical measures that countries can take to better protect students, teachers, and schools during armed conflict, but also recognizes the need for increased response to attacks on universities. To date, 60 countries have endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration, and more are expected to do so at next week’s conference.

Attacks on higher education are not isolated to situations of armed conflict, however. Students and academics working in non-conflict situations of political repression, heightened politicization, and other forms of insecurity, can also be threatened, punished, and have their lives put at risk. 

“Responses to attacks on education need to extend beyond situations of armed conflict, into parts of the world in which education is repressed, fragmented, or highly politicized,” said Inga Riseth, President of SAIH. “Outside of situations of war, it’s higher education students and teachers who are more likely to find themselves threatened and targeted than those in primary and secondary schools.”

Recently, at UNESCO, GCPEA launched an Implementation Guide to help States do more to protect higher education.  Responses to attacks on higher education include physical protection, and the alternative delivery of education, advocacy, and research and development of higher education. Institutional autonomy for higher education institutions also plays a direct and indirect protective function. It directly helps protect systems of higher education from government interference, making it more difficult for states to act as perpetrators. It also indirectly helps preserve higher education against actual and perceived politicization and ideological manipulation, which in turn might help insulate it from attacks by non-state parties.

“To ensure the autonomy of higher education institutions, governments should abstain from direct or complicit involvement in attacks on higher education, protect higher education against present and future attacks, and assist victims of attacks,” said Robert Quinn, Executive Director of the Scholars at Risk Network. “As outlined by the Safe Schools Declaration, countries can also help deter future attacks, by investigating attacks and holding accountable anyone who attacks higher education institutions.”