Autonomy the best defence for universities under attack

Global coalition advocates ‘insulation’ against state and non-state actors

December 5, 2013

A major report makes the case for “autonomy” as an essential protection to “insulate higher education from politicization and ideological manipulation” and “safeguard…institutions and personnel against attack by state and non-state actors”.

Institutional Autonomy and the Protection of Higher Education from Attack, published on 4 December by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, offers sobering examples of threats to universities around the world.

In Iraq, many campuses are “able to operate without disturbances only if they adhere to the local controlling sect”. In one tragicomic episode at Al-Mustansiriya University, four people attempted to perform the role of president at the same time.

There have been similar developments in Tunisia. While the report notes that universities there have enjoyed a “greater degree of autonomy” since the revolution, this has been “undermined by the lack of security to preserve or fully exercise that autonomy. External pressure groups that were formerly not tolerated on campus now impose demands…enter the campus space…and exert influence over policies.”

Disputes about bans on women wearing the niqab at the University of Manouba are only the best-known example.

A lecture at the University of Harare discussing the parallels between the Arab Spring and Zimbabwe’s political situation was infiltrated by a government intelligence officer. Police surrounded the lecture theatre and arrested 45 people.

In Pakistan, a series of fatal attacks on academics active in the cause of an independent Balochistan have called into question “the capacity or willingness of the state to protect higher education institutions caught in the middle of conflict between competing militant groups…and the state’s own forces”.

The coalition brings together global organisations including the UK’s Council for Assisting Refugee Academics, the Scholar Rescue Fund and the Scholars at Risk Network.

“We deal with the issues of attacks on students, teachers, professors, which take place during pretty much any conflict in the world,” said its director, Diya Nijhowne.

The cases cited in the report, she continued, illustrate that, as well as supporting institutional autonomy, states need to strike a balance between “supporting the security of universities but not overstepping the mark so this becomes a threat in itself. There needs to be protection of autonomy, full stop. It is more difficult to define how you provide security, but it needs to be made concrete and put in a legal framework, even though universities may also be receiving funding from the state.”

Stephen Wordsworth, executive director at Cara (the nominated charity for the Times Higher Education Awards 2013), added that the report marked “the first time anyone has pulled all the threads together about the threats to higher education around the world”.

Autonomous institutions were less likely to be seen as parts of the state or an opposition group “and therefore a target”, he said.

A meeting of experts from the Network of Universities from the Capitals of Europe will take place in Brussels this month with a view to developing the report’s arguments into an advocacy brochure.

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