Scholars face global ‘crisis’ of attacks, report warns

International network counts 158 assaults and persecutions on higher education communities over 16 months

October 31, 2016
Pakistani students condemn Bacha Khan University attack
Source: Alamy
Determined: Pakistani students condemn the Taliban attack on Bacha Khan University in January

Academics and students around the world face a “crisis” of assaults and persecution that appears to be getting worse, an international network has warned.

The latest Free to Think report from New York-based Scholars at Risk counts 158 reported attacks on higher education communities in 35 countries between May 2015 and September 2016, including 40 cases involving killings, violence or disappearances.

This compares with the 333 incidents that were chronicled in the organisation’s previous report, which covered a much longer period, from January 2011 to May 2015.

Even allowing for the patchiness of data on this issue, Robert Quinn, the executive director of Scholars at Risk, said it was a worrying picture.

“We are living at a time of crisis of attacks on higher education and things have sadly been getting worse over the last 18 months,” he said.

The report lists 19 violent attacks by militant groups that led to at least 48 deaths, including the January 2016 raid on Bacha Khan University in Pakistan that resulted in 22 fatalities, the August 2016 assault on the American University of Afghanistan that killed at least 13, and the October 2015 bombing of Yemen’s University of Aden.

It also details a series of attacks on individuals, including the public beheading of Syrian archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad by Islamic State militants and the murders of scholars in India and Bangladesh, apparently on account of the victims’ religious views.

The report counts 39 cases of imprisonment, 33 prosecutions and 17 cases of loss of position, with the situation in Turkey after an attempted coup in July 2016 a particular concern.

The mass suspension of 1,577 deans, the dismissal of 2,346 academics for alleged ties to the rebellion and the closure of 15 private universities risk “isolating Turkish scholars, students and institutions from the international flow of ideas and talent” and could undermine Turkey’s “stature in the world more generally”, the report warns.

Meanwhile, continuing oppression in Egypt, including the murder of University of Cambridge PhD student Giulio Regeni, remains a major concern. While the situation in the country appears calmer than it was, this may partly reflect the fact that thousands of students and hundreds of scholars remain imprisoned, the report says.

Mr Quinn said the Turkish case was particularly worrying because it represented the criminalisation of free thought and the equating of critical inquiry with disloyalty in a country that had previously put significant weight on internationalisation and academic freedom.

“Global higher education needs to respond to that because that is an extremely dangerous, viral concept if it gets accepted at state level,” Mr Quinn said. 

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