Steep rise in military attacks on higher education globally

University World News, June 24, 2024

Brendan O’Malley | 21 June 2024

The latest Education under Attack report published by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA) notes a steep rise in military and political violence against education in general and higher education in particular during 2022 and 2023 as conflict around the world increased.

“What we see that’s most troubling is just the incredible increase in attacks on higher education. Indeed, attacks on higher education institutions increased 12.5% in this reporting period compared to the last period. Attacks on professors, students, staff increased by 23%,” Lisa Chung Bender, executive director of GCPEA*, told University World News.

“It’s really concerning to see that the trend is increasing so significantly in a relatively short period of time,” she said.

Overall, 6,000 attacks on education took place in 2022 and 2023, a nearly 20% increase compared with the previous two years, the Education under Attack 2024 report says.

More than 10,000 students, teachers and academics were harmed, injured or killed in these attacks, which occurred in armed conflicts across the globe.

“The escalation of war in Ukraine in February 2022, alongside the outbreak of conflict in Sudan in April 2023 and escalation of hostilities in Palestine in October 2023, drove much of the uptick in conflict-related violence and deaths during the reporting period,” the report states.

“Other factors, such as the expansion of the Islamic State, famine and climate change also contributed to the increase in conflict,” it adds.

Higher education ‘intentionally targeted’

Targeted attacks on universities are a particular worry. “We’re concerned about what seems to be almost a systematic attack on institutions of higher learning in many countries,” Chung Bender told University World News.

“It does seem to be quite targeted. If we look at what’s happening in Gaza. We look at what’s happening in Sudan and Ukraine. It’s not like incidental damage. It seems very intentional,” she said.

In 2022 and 2023, GCPEA collected more than 360 reported incidents of attacks on higher education in profiled countries. Of these, around 100 were attacks on university facilities, while around 260 were attacks on university students and staff, according to the new Education under Attack 2024 report, published on Thursday.

More than 2,460 higher education students or staff were killed or harmed in these attacks; around 760 of them were reportedly killed, injured, or abducted, while over 1,700 were detained or arrested.

The country most affected by attacks on higher education facilities was Ukraine, with more than 35 reported attacks; Palestine, Sudan, and Yemen were also affected by attacks on higher education infrastructure, with ten or more reported incidents in 2022 and 2023.

Many of these attacks involved the use of explosive weapons, including airstrikes or shelling.

The countries with the most attacks on higher education students and staff were India, Turkiye, and Afghanistan.

In India, more than 1,220 students and academics were reportedly arrested or detained during education-related protests or in relation to their academic work. GCPEA collected reports of the arrest or detention of more than 200 higher education students and staff in Turkiye.

In Afghanistan, more than 70 students and academics were reportedly killed, injured, or abducted while over 65 were also arrested or detained.

“In places like Gaza, in addition to the horrific loss of life, education itself is under attack,” Chung Bender said.

“School and university systems have been shut down, and in some cases completely destroyed. This will have long term consequences on social and economic recovery, as the very infrastructure needed for peace and stability have been targeted,” she said.

Extensive attacks on higher education in the three conflicts in Gaza, Ukraine and Sudan have been documented during recent years by University World News, which is committed to highlighting the impact of targeted attacks and collateral damage on education – and University World News reports on these and numerous other countries are cited in Education under Attack.

University World News has documented the damage and destruction to all universities in Gaza since during Israel launched its military response to Hamas’s attack on Israel on 7 October.

University Wolrd News also reported on 1 March 2024 that one in five higher education institutions in Ukraine have been destroyed or damaged during the Russian invasion since 24 February 2022.

In Sudan the war between paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), which began in April 2023, the impact of attacks on universities has been very significant.

“With more than 100 universities, including the prestigious University of Khartoum, suffering extensive damage, looting, or complete destruction, the effects on Sudan’s academic community and the future of its higher education are profound,” Professor Mohamed Hassan, the president of the Sudanese National Academy of Sciences and the World Academy of Sciences in Italy, told University World News in March 2024.

Explosive weapons widely used

According to Education under Attack 2024, explosive weapons, which were involved in about one-third of all reported attacks on education globally in 2022 and 2023, have had particularly devastating effects on education targets, killing or injuring countless students and educators and damaging hundreds of schools and universities.

In just one example, fragments from an attack on a women’s dormitory at El Geneina University in West Darfur, Sudan, left a woman blind in one eye in June 2023.

Chung Bender noted that attacks that reduce infrastructure to rubble can have an impact potentially on an entire generation of learners because in post conflict situations it can take years to recover security and find the resources to rebuild.

“It’s really important to note the incredible increase in the use of explosive weapons, particularly in urban settings,” Chung Bender said.

“This is different than having, you know, a small group of armed people entering a building. These [incidents] have widespread impacts that take much longer to repair and address because of the devastating nature of these attacks on infrastructure.

“So that means rebuilding, ensuring safety and establishing core services like water and things like that take a much longer time and then given the ongoing hostilities in these areas, we know this is going to be delayed for years.

“And this is why I said you know, it’s very hard to prove motive, but it does seem intentional, and it does seem that this is almost being used as a weapon of war,” Chung Bender noted.

She said that might seem a rather extreme statement. “But you know, there are a number of individuals in Palestine and the Ministry of Education and some UN officials who have accused other parties of ‘scholasticide’.

“I think that this intentional targeting of education is something that we see increasing,” she added.

In Gaza, not only all universities but also over 80% of schools had been damaged or destroyed by April, according to the Occupied Palestinian Territory Education Cluster.

Chung Bender said: “Attacks on higher education often follow one of two motives, either targeting the provision of education through the destruction of critical community infrastructure and services, or as an attack on ideas and freedom of thought and-or the specific targeting of scholars and their research.”

Military use of schools and universities

Armed forcesand non-state armed groups also occupy schools and universities, for example to use them as barracks, detention centres, or firing positions, placing students in danger and violating their right to education. Military use of schools, places education facilities at increased risk of attack by opposing forces or groups.

The military use of schools and universities by armed forces and non-state armed groups increased significantly in 2022 and 2023. The coalition found more than 1,000 reports of occupied schools or universities across 30 countries, an increase in both the number of incidents and affected contexts.

Compared to Education under Attack 2022, which included about 570 such cases, increases were reported in Afghanistan, Colombia, Nigeria, Sudan, and elsewhere.

This represents a significant increase in reported cases of military use, as compared to 2020 and 2021 when around 570 reported cases of military use of schools and universities were identified.

Armed forces, other state security forces, or non-state armed groups used schools and universities as bases, barracks, firing positions or for other non-educational purposes in 25 profiled countries.

For instance, as University World News reported, in August 2023 shells were fired from within the grounds of the University of Tripoli’s campus during factional fighting, with fighting occurring campus itself and fighters killed in front of the university gate.

Protecting education facilities from attack

The protection of education facilities from military use and attack is an important factor in strengthening education’s resilience in conflict situations, which can also help reduce the long-term impact of conflict and speed up recovery.

Among the many recommendations in the Education under Attack 2024 report is for governments to sign up to the Safe Schools Declaration, which has been endorsed by 120 countries as of the end of May 2024.

The declaration is a political commitment to protect schools and universities in armed conflict.

By signing the Declaration, countries commit to taking concrete steps to safeguard education, including upholding international humanitarian and human rights law and using the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use During Armed Conflict.

In line with the Declaration, governments and their partners have made tangible improvements in law and practice, such as issuing military orders to restrict armed forces from using schools for military purposes, according to the Education under Attack report.

“We also have guidance on institutional autonomy and the protection of higher education from attacks, so we’ve addressed this specifically in the past and have developed strong guidance to help states in ensuring they are adhering to the existing normative and legal frameworks that are in place to protect higher education,” said Chung Bender.

She noted that the heat of conflict is not the best time to be engaging in discussions about signing up to these principles. “So we try to adopt a more preventative and proactive response,” she said.

*GCPEA is a global coalition of UN and other international agencies committed to protecting education from attack. The report is the seventh in the Education under Attack series. It analyses global trends and profiles attacks and military use of schools and universities in 28 countries. It is supported by the Education Above All Foundation, Education Cannot Wait, and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Read about how higher education can contribute to peace here and in our latest special report here.

Brendan O’Malley is editor-in-chief of University World News. Working as an international consultant he was the sole author of the first two Education under Attack reports in 2007 and 2010 (published by UNESCO) and lead researcher of the third in 2014 (published by GCPEA).