In “Free to Think 2023”, Scholars at Risk documents another year of bombings, political restraints, and other attacks on students, scholars and universities, and calls for global action to protect academic freedom and the higher-education community.
The report, released today by the group’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project, analyses 409 attacks on the higher-education community in more than 60 countries that occurred between July 1, 2022, and June 30, 2023. The report is the ninth in Scholars at Risk’s Free to Think series.
The 2023 report highlights how attacks on academic freedom threaten democratic society and social progress, and calls on stakeholders to create robust protections for scholars, students, and higher-education institutions.
Attempts to Silence Higher Education
“The past year has seen targeted efforts to quell dissent and restrict free discourse,” said Robert Quinn, executive director of Scholars at Risk (SAR).
He characterised these attacks as attempts to silence the global higher-education sector.
“The past year has seen targeted efforts to quell dissent and restrict free discourse. These attacks illustrate the erosion of academic freedom and university autonomy and the shrinking space for discourse and sharing ideas.”Robert Quinn, executive director of Scholars at Risk
The attacks include both violent and coercisive measures, ranging from the Iranian authorities’ use of force to suppress student participation in the “Women, Life, Freedom” protest movement to legislative actions in several U.S. states aimed at restricting the teaching of certain controversial topics, including critical race theory and gender studies, and undermining university autonomy.
“These attacks illustrate the erosion of academic freedom and university autonomy and the shrinking space for discourse and sharing ideas,” Quinn said. “These attacks harm all of society.”
The report details global and regional trends and presents profiles of 16 countries. It also highlights the impacts of war and armed conflict on higher education over the past year. In Myanmar, Sudan, and Ukraine, military forces have destroyed and occupied facilities at several universities.
The report also stresses that liberal democracies are not immune to attacks on higher education, and that efforts to undermine academic freedom are hallmarks of democratic backsliding.
Civil War in Sudan
Since the Academic Freedom Monitoring Project’s inception in 2011, Scholars at Risk has registered 956 violent attacks (roughly one-third of all attacks documented) on higher-education systems, institutions or personnel. These include 161 violent attacks that occurred during the latest reporting period, accounting for nearly 40 percent of all attacks in the 2023 report.
For example, the civil war that broke out in Sudan in April 2023 has taken a severe toll on higher education. Even before the new fighting broke out, Sudan was considered to be in the bottom 30 percent of all countries on the Academic Freedom Index’s measure of de facto levels of academic freedom.
In the early days of the current fighting between the Sudanese army and a rival paramilitary group, many university students and faculty members fled. Those unable to flee were trapped with no food, water, or electricity. There were also reports of fighters killing, injuring, and sexually violating students and professors.
Observers have warned that Sudan could face a severe shortage of faculty for the next school year because of the numbers that have fled the country.
According to one estimate, armed fighting and looting damaged 104 public and private higher-educational facilities and research centers during the first five months of the fighting.
“Attacks against higher education are diverse, occurring in both authoritarian and democratic societies. Frequently, those responsible are not held accountable.”Clare Robinson, Scholars at Risk’s advocacy director
A particularly devastating case of looting occurred in May 2023, when it was reported that the library archives at the Muhammad Omar Bashir Centre for Sudanese Studies at Omdurman Ahlia University had been looted and set on fire. The archives, containing a large collection of original volumes and documents on Sudanese politics, history, and culture, were destroyed.
Bombings and Abductions
In other attacks in Arab countries, Israeli airstrikes in Gaza in August 2022 damaged a branch of Al-Quds Open University, killing at least six students and injuring hundreds. Following the airstrike, eight other universities in Gaza announced their temporary closure. (Israel’s current war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip broke out in October, and its devastations are not included in the latest report.)
In Somalia, the Islamist insurgent group Al-Shabab carried out two deadly car bombings that took place within minutes of each other in October 2022. The attacks, which targeted the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Higher Education, killed at least 121 people and wounded hundreds of others.
In Iraq, the Russian-Israeli doctoral student Elizabeth Tsurkov was abducted in March 2023 while conducting research in Baghdad. Tsurkov is a Ph.D. student in the political science department at Princeton University. Her research focuses on the experiences of local people and abuses by powerful actors. Tsurkov is also an outspoken advocate for human rights in the Middle East. It is believed that she is being held by Kataib Hezbollah, a militia linked to Iran.
In Yemen, two students were forcibly abducted in December 2022 from Shabwah University’s College of Oils and Minerals, in Ataq city. University property was also damaged in the attack.
In Afghanistan, a suicide bomber attacked the Kaaj Educational Center in Kabul in September 2022, first shooting at the guards outside of the center before entering the building and detonating explosives. The attacker targeted the women’s side of the center, killing 53 young female students and injuring 110.
Curbs on Movement and Expression
Since the project started, Scholars at Risk has reported 304 incidents involving scholars’ permanent or temporary loss of position, or threats of such actions, including 46 incidents during the latest reporting period.
In addition, the group has reported 95 incidents involving travel restrictions that have directly affected thousands of scholars and students.
Scholars at Risk calls on higher-education leaders and state authorities to refrain from taking or compelling disciplinary actions intended to punish or restrict the exercise of academic freedom and other protected rights.
In one example from the latest report, the Algerian Ministry of Higher Education banned Algerian scholars from attending academic conferences in Morocco and from publishing research in Moroccan journals. The ministry imposed the ban in July 2022 in response to what it called “anti-Algerian articles” in Al-Bahit, a Moroccan journal of legal and judicial studies.
A substantial proportion of the incidents reported relate to student expression. In Yemen,for example, Dhamar University dismissed six students in the mechatronics department of the Faculty of Engineering in February 2023, apparently because they participated in campus protests. Students had demonstrated to protest interference by Houthi forces in the university and to call for improved laboratory infrastructure.
Legislative and Political Actions
In Syria, women were barred from attending Idlib University’s newly established Department of Political Science and Media after the Syrian Salvation Government—a de facto governing coalition established by an Islamist group that controls territory in Idlib Governorate—ordered that all educational institutions be segregated by gender. According to the dean, the department does not have the infrastructure necessary to enforce segregation.
“Understanding why attacks occur and how they can be prevented is essential. This requires states, higher-education institutions, civil society, and the public to build awareness and implement concrete protections for the academic community.”Clare Robinson
In Israel, right-wing members of the Knesset pushed for bills banning expressions of support for Palestinians as terrorism. In June 2022, a bill banning public universities from flying the Palestinian flag passed its initial reading in the Knesset by a vote of 63 to 16.
Another bill in the Knesset calls for Israel to quit recognising academic degrees from Palestinian universities. While the bill has not yet passed, it has been viewed as an effort to prevent Arab citizens of Israel from studying in Palestinian universities. A large number of Arab citizens of Israel attend medical school at Palestinian institutions.
A Call for Global Action
Clare Robinson, Scholars at Risk’s advocacy director, said that the report highlights the devastating impact of attacks on higher education, but it also outlines the actions that higher-education communities and states can take to protect scholars and students.
“Attacks against higher education are diverse, occurring in both authoritarian and democratic societies,” Robinson said. “Frequently, those responsible are not held accountable.”
She added: “Understanding why attacks occur and how they can be prevented is essential. This requires states, higher-education institutions, civil society, and the public to build awareness and implement concrete protections for the academic community.”
Scholars at Risk urged partners and stakeholders to refer to the report’s “Call to Action” for practical guidance and resources.
- Israeli Restrictions That Hurt Palestinian Universities Draw International Rebukes
- Sudan’s War Disrupts Universities, Leaving More Students in Limbo