Cries for help from at-risk students and academics reach record levels


The organisation recorded 391 attacks on higher education communities in 65 countries, including those linked to the Russian war in Ukraine, the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, and the aftermath of the 2021 military coup in Myanmar. 

Students and academics were forced to flee both Russia and Ukraine, while the ongoing war has caused severe damage to schools and research infrastructure in Ukraine, Scholars at Risk said in its latest report, Free to Think, published today. 

Countries free from armed conflict also faced attacks on higher education and academic freedom, with non-state armed groups and individual extremists targeting campuses. Universities in Nigeria and Pakistan, among others, were subject to violence by militant groups.

Assaults on student expression were frequent – in one example, police in Sri Lanka fired tear gas on peaceful student protestors during anti-government demonstrations. In another, Israeli soldiers carried out violent campus raids appearing to target student events in the West Bank. 

Threats of violence were pervasive in the US, where Historically Black Colleges and Universities were targeted with multiple bomb threats. In other countries, state authorities also attempted to restrict scholars’ academic activity, such as in Iran where police arrested sociologist Saeed Madani, whose research covers topics including drugs and sex work. 

It comes as students in Iran continue to face violent crackdowns and state repression amid ongoing anti-government protests sparked by the death of a 22-year-old Iranian woman in police custody.

SAR said that the incidents outlined in its latest report represent “only a fraction of all attacks on higher education” and that, with its partners, it had received “record levels of requests for assistance” over the past year. 

“These attacks have deadly and career-ending consequences for scholars and students, but they also endanger society at large”

“Higher education communities around the world have suffered varied, ruinous attacks over the past year,” said Robert Quinn, executive director at Scholars at Risk. 

“These attacks have deadly and career-ending consequences for scholars and students, but they also endanger society at large, by undermining higher education’s unique ability to drive the social, political, economic, and cultural progress from which we all benefit. These attacks must stop.”

Academic freedom and access to education are protected under international law, and SAR called on governments and higher education communities to protect scholars and publicly reaffirm their commitment to these princples. 

Daniel Munier, senior advocacy officer at SAR, said he was “heartened” to see responses to these incidents over the past year, including government funding for assistance programs.

“States and intergovernmental organisations are speaking out about attacks on the academic community and are more closely considering academic freedom in their human rights work,” Munier told The PIE.

Over the past year, SAR’s members (primarily universities) created 170 positions of academic refuge for scholars in need of support, 60 of which were for scholars from Afghanistan. 

But Munier said that demand was “far outpacing available resources”.

“Governments and higher education leaders must look at redoubling their investments in current programs and consider devising more sustainable infrastructures to allow for quicker responses to support at-risk scholars, especially in the most urgent situations,” Munier said.

“States should work to understand and prevent attacks on academic freedom within and beyond their borders, including by establishing working groups that examine attacks at the domestic level, expressing concern about attacks via international fora, such as the UN’s Universal Periodic Review Process, and publicly committing to protecting higher education from attack by endorsing the Safe Schools Declaration.” 

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