Increasing number of attacks on academic freedom across the world documented by Scholars at Risks report

published 2 December 2019 updated 3 December 2019

Reacting to the release of Scholars at Risk’s annual report documenting and analysing attacks on higher education communities around the world, Education International firmly denounces attacks on academic freedom and reiterates the need to counter the lack of funds, precarious employment conditions and the privatisation and commercialisation of higher education.

This year’s Free to Think report published by Scholars at Risk analyses 324 attacks on higher education communities in 56 countries, up from 294 attacks in 47 countries last year. The attacks took place between the 1st of September 2018 and the 31st of August 2019, and included violent targeted attacks on universities; imprisonment and prosecutions of scholars and students, especially in China and Turkey; and rising tensions in India, Sudan, Brazil, and beyond. Affecting thousands of people, these attacks undermine academic freedom and free discourse across entire communities, damaging social, political, cultural, and economic development.

“Attacks on higher education communities — regardless of their location, scale, or scope — hold consequences for societies everywhere,” says Robert Quinn, Scholars at Risk Executive Director. “In our increasingly interconnected world, these attacks erode an essential, global space where academics, students, and the public at large can come together to understand and solve the complex problems that are affecting us all.”

Scholars at Risk calls on states, higher education leaders and the public to respond to these attacks, to reject violence and coercion aimed at restricting inquiry and expression; to protect scholars, students, and universities; and to reaffirm publicly their commitment to academic freedom and the principles that critical discourse is not disloyalty and that ideas are not crimes.

The report also provides steps diverse stakeholders — states; higher education institutions, associations, and societies; faculty, staff, and students; media; and the public — can take to promote and protect academic freedom. These include calls for more states to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration; higher education institutions to offer temporary positions of academic refuge for endangered scholars; and faculty and students to participate in Scholars at Risk Academic Freedom Legal Clinics and Student Advocacy Seminars.

Concerns shared at the higher education caucus during the 8th EI World Congress

The highs and lows of higher education were also analysed at the 8th World Congress of Education International (EI) held in July 2019 in Bangkok, Thailand. The higher education caucus brought together employees from higher and further education on 20 July.

“While the role of universities as public institutions is to serve the common good, they struggle for public funds and face an ever-increasing pressure by market forces, which has tremendous effects on academic freedom and on employment conditions,” stressed EI General Secretary David Edwards.

He also condemned the fact that “much of our students’ potential is wasted”, reiterating that “students are not just workers, they are citizens” and “education, research and the education profession are pillars of democracy” currently under serious threat globally.

Education International also calls on governments, member organisations and concerned citizens to take strong action to protect academic freedom across the world. The UNESCO 1997 recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel must be fully implemented.