Protecting higher education from attack

University World News, December 19, 2013

Diya Nijhowne Issue No:301

“We are being killed and maimed by conflict. We are dying because we want to learn.”

These are the words of a Syrian academic, reflecting on the massive devastation of his country’s education system during the past two years of civil strife and violence.

The battle has played out, in part, in Syria’s higher education sector. Universities were one of the first sites of political protest against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with the result that student leaders and their families were targeted for searches, harassment and arrest by secret police and military personnel, while Syrian faculty were harassed, dismissed and in some cases kidnapped, arrested or assassinated.

Furthermore, since violence has broken out, universities have been directly targeted for attack.

On 15 January 2013, as students were taking exams, explosions at the University of Aleppo in Syria caused 80 deaths, mostly students, with nearly 200 severely injured. According to a witness quoted in The New York Times, the campus square was completely destroyed, strewn with body parts and school materials.

Conflict and oppression

The destruction of Syria’s academic landscape is particularly acute. But in many countries universities, and their academics and students, face intimidation and violence even in times of supposed peace.

A new study released by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, or GCPEA – a network of United Nations agencies, international education, humanitarian and human rights groups – looks at the protection of faculty, staff, students and universities in the face of conflict, insecurity and oppression.

As the case of Syria illustrates, around the globe university campuses can become sites of violence. Higher education facilities are taken over by armed forces and armed groups for military purposes. Buildings may be damaged or destroyed in the course of fighting, sometimes intentionally.

University students, faculty and staff in conflict zones risk physical violence, even murder.

According to data from the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund, or IIE-SRF, the Scholars at Risk Network and the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics – three organisations that assist targeted academics – scholars were attacked, threatened and severely persecuted in close to 40 countries between January 2009 and February 2013.

For example, GCPEA’s report highlights the case of Nazima Talib, a professor of mass communications, who in April 2010 was shot outside the gates to her university in Balochistan, Pakistan.

A spokesman for a group seeking an independent Balochistan claimed responsibility for her murder, linking it to ongoing ethnic strife. There was no investigation of the assassination and no one was ever charged or convicted.

Similarly, in Iraq alone, according to an IIE-SRF report, more than 550 professors, scientists and administrators have been killed in the past 11 years. As recently as July 2013, a professor from the University of Baghdad died when a bomb planted in his car exploded.

Arbitrary arrest

But even where there is no violent conflict, university staff and students are often subject to arbitrary arrest, forced disappearance and kidnapping.

For example, on 19 February 2011, 44 students and civil society activists, along with one senior lecturer, were arrested and charged with treason for attending an on-campus lecture and viewing of videos about the Arab Spring at the University of Zimbabwe.

Although the majority were released, six – including the professor and a student leader – spent three weeks in detention and allege they were tortured. They were subsequently convicted of ‘conspiracy to commit public violence’.

GCPEA’s study provides evidence that attacks on students, professors and universities often occur as part of a political struggle – states, opposition groups and non-state actors use violence, intimidation and threats to silence opposition voices and block education they disagree with.

Preventing attacks on higher education, therefore, requires that universities not only have security systems in place to protect the campus and people on it, but also that they are autonomous – free from pressure or control by governments or disruptive social groups.

Lack of autonomy may increase the risk of attack by creating a perception of the university as a political space. Conversely, a broadly recognised culture of autonomy can safeguard higher education, insulating it from attack.

Steps to security

There are a number of steps that states can and should take to protect students, professors and universities.

First and most obviously, governments should not attack the higher education sector themselves – either directly, by encouraging others or by ‘turning a blind eye’. Second, they should actively promote the autonomy of their higher education systems.

Third, states should ensure that universities have adequate security on campus. And finally, states should investigate, prosecute and hold accountable state and non-state actors who attack higher education.

Balancing these responsibilities can be challenging: too much state security presence on campus may limit autonomy and inadvertently make universities more vulnerable by making them appear political. But on the other hand, too little state involvement in protecting higher education may also expose the sector to attack.

Nevertheless, ensuring both autonomy and security is essential.

The targeting of professors, students and universities has far-reaching social consequences, weakening the educational system at all levels, with a chilling effect on research and teaching.

Social and economic development cannot occur without a strong, autonomous and secure higher education sector.

Universities should be free, safe and protected. No student should feel terror of being bombed while taking exams. And no professor or student should have to teach or learn in fear of being killed or arrested for his or her views.

* Diya Nijhowne is director of the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack. Nijhowne oversees management of all the coalition’s operations, including programme implementation, human resources, fundraising and the budget. She has over a decade of experience working on children’s rights and protection issues, including in emergency contexts. Nijhowne has a master of social work degree and a juris doctorate degree from the University of Toronto.