Global coalition sets out how to keep universities safe from harm

Times Higher Education, December 6, 2016
By Matthew Reisz
Twitter: @MatthewReiszTHE

From Afghanistan to Bahrain, Colombia to Zimbabwe, universities, their staff and students have come under attack in the past few years.

In its Education under Attack 2014 report, the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack documented examples of higher education institutions attacked (or turned over to military use) in 28 countries between 2009 and 2012, including 17 where buildings were damaged or destroyed.

As a result, it consulted widely with international higher education networks to understand the causes and consequences of such attacks and develop measures to increase protection. It has now set out its suggestions in a report titled Guide to Implementing the Principles of State Responsibility to Protect Higher Education from Attack.

The prime responsibility, it asserts, lies with states to “abstain from direct or complicit involvement in attacks on higher education”, for example by “avoid[ing] ideological or partisan uses of higher education facilities which might foster a perception of the university as a politicized agent”.

They must try and protect institutions from attack by “safeguarding the civilian character of universities” and by “limit[ing] the use of higher education facilities for military purposes, so as to avoid converting universities into military objectives and exposing them to attack by other parties to conflict”.

Where attacks do occur, the report goes on, states must obviously provide “physical assistance to victims”, but also the kind of “psychosocial programs” that can play “a key role in encouraging academic staff to continue their research and teaching, and in preventing drop-out and low levels of attendance among university students”.

Furthermore, through “responsible, timely, and thorough investigation of attacks”, they can “send a positive message to the higher education sector and the public about the importance of higher education. Investigations and appropriate prosecution and sentencing of perpetrators after fair and impartial proceedings demonstrate that such acts will not be tolerated, which can help to deter future attacks”.  

Yet in a world where universities are regularly “targeted, burned, and shelled by state forces and armed rebel groups” or “used for military purposes…as bases, barracks, weapons caches, and detention centers”, it is also essential for those working within the sector to play their part in promoting the GCPEA’s core principles.

Along with lobbying and producing relevant research, it is partly up to them to “assist states in reviewing national policies and laws, with due respect for the values essential to quality higher education…to ensure that higher education communities are physically secure and free from intimidation and improper external influence”.