Bittersweet birthday cheer

John Ashworth wonders whether Cara's 75th anniversary is really a cause for celebration or a reason for reflection

December 11, 2008

Birthdays are times for celebration and congratulation. This year it is the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics' 75th and we have been celebrating with some major events at which nice things have been said about us. But I find it difficult to celebrate the fact that there remains as much need for us as ever.

When Cara started in May 1933 (as the Academic Assistance Council), president Lord Rutherford and honorary secretary Sir William Beveridge thought it would need to be in existence for only six months or so to cope with the plight of Jewish academics expelled from German universities by the Nazis.

But it soon became apparent that the crisis was not to be over quickly and, further, that the Jews were not the only academics seeking refuge. As fascist regimes and war spread across Europe, a permanent organisation was needed and the Academic Assistance Council became the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning in 1937.

After 1945, there was a second wave of persecuted academics from those European countries caught behind the Iron Curtain; then a third, from South Africa and from the authoritarian regimes in Latin America; and a fourth, from oppressive postcolonial regimes in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

This would be a sad record of unrelieved distress were it not for the extraordinary success of some of those helped - 18 Nobel prizewinners, more than 100 fellows of the Royal Society and the British Academy, knighthoods by the score - and the invigorating effect that the refugees (and their children) have had on Britain's academic, cultural and artistic life.

Currently, the biggest single call on Cara's resources is those fleeing Iraq, where the university system has been all but destroyed and nearly 300 academics have been assassinated since 2003.

The first wave of refugee academics were mostly senior professors who quickly established themselves in British or American universities. The succeeding waves included an increasing number of junior academics who needed more help to resume their career, and hence the final name change to Cara in 1997.

It is a story that reflects credit on our universities. But society at large has often been indifferent or hostile to refugees, as Jeremy Seabrook carefully explores in his new book The Refuge and the Fortress: Britain and the Flight from Tyranny. The reality over the past 75 years has been a complex mix of bureaucratic insensitivity and governmental myopia offset by institutional and individual kindness, generosity and sympathy.

At the moment, Cara is helping some 180 refugee academics. If they are in employment, it rarely reflects their academic status or posts held in home countries. However, many more are being supported through higher degrees or requalification. This helps with any language difficulties while refreshing their knowledge of their discipline, or it allows a change of discipline with the ultimate goal of suitable employment.

In many cases, the receiving university forgoes part or all of the normal fees. Cara has established a University Network (supported by the Sigrid Rausing Trust) to promote and defend academic freedom and to provide practical support to refugee academics and academics who remain at risk.

Like Cara, universities have changed in the past 75 years, but what has not changed is the way in which most welcome and help their refugee colleagues in times of crisis. Our history shows, however, that refugees are a continuing feature of academic life and that we ought to be more organised in our response and not await crises.

Universities now encourage foreign students to be a permanent part of their student body and have dedicated mechanisms to recruit, teach and keep in touch with them post graduation. Cara's history demonstrates that a number of these foreign alumni will become refugees.

We need to make the UK Universities Network a more coherent and better-funded system of support for whenever they or others need our help. Given the benefit derived from foreign students (and their fees), it seems to me that dedicating part of it towards this aim is the least that might be expected - and what a birthday present that would be for Cara.

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