Scholars in the UK should avoid "hijacking" the concept of academic freedom in petty employment disputes while their peers elsewhere face oppression and violence.
The warning was made as exiled academics described arrests, imprisonment and even murder in their home countries.
At the second of a series of debates on academic freedom, held at the University of East London last week, representatives of the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics said it was important to remember what academic freedom meant.
"I do worry sometimes that the phrase 'academic freedom' has been hijacked by other interests," said Patrick McGhee, UEL vice-chancellor.
"Academic freedom is the freedom to speak, the freedom to explore controversial ideas despite how unwelcome or challenging those ideas might be to the state."
A part-time lecturer from Cameroon, speaking at the event using the alias "Jimmy", was forced to flee his country after organising a political theory conference that was broken up by police.
A gay academic taking part in the conference was arrested, and Jimmy was watched by national security staff and interrogated about his teaching.
"Academic freedom in Cameroon and the UK is not the same issue," he said. "In the UK you are talking to some extent about the degree of an existing freedom whereas in Cameroon the issue is about whether or not freedom exists."
Mark Stephens, chair of the governing body of UEL and a trustee of the human rights organisation Index on Censorship, said there was known persecution of academics in 101 countries worldwide.
Another of the speakers, calling himself "Salim", worked in universities in Iraq both before and after Saddam Hussein's fall from power. He said academics were persecuted under both systems.
He estimated that since the 2003 invasion, more than 400 scholars had been kidnapped and murdered by rebels who feared they were in league with the American regime.
Under Saddam, he said, academics were kidnapped without explanation, and a 15-year embargo on research was put in place.
Although a medic, he had been unable to research the impact on unborn children of uranium left after the Iran-Iraq war because of controls on the resources available.
Later, a search for academic papers on jaundice left him under suspicion as the state thought the word could be linked to involvement with the opposition.
A third speaker, "Ion", from Rwanda, described how he was forced to leave his job at a science and technology institute after allowing students to attend a political rally.
He said laws aimed at preventing a repeat of the 1994 genocide meant academics were unable to investigate the history or politics of Rwanda without facing imprisonment. "Those kind of laws prevent anyone from doing anything related to our history. We have no right to research or comment," he said.