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Researcher who fled Afghanistan says universities must ‘step up’

Image: seair21 [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Academic urges institutions to cut bureaucracy and offer immediate support to students and academics

A researcher who was evacuated from Afghanistan as the Taliban took control has called on universities to be “a little less bureaucratic” when it comes to helping students and academics trying to leave the country.

Liza Schuster, a reader in sociology at City, University of London, who has spent much of the past decade carrying out fieldwork in Afghanistan, told Research Professional News that while some universities had come together to offer scholarships for students, more immediate solutions were urgently needed.

“I don’t think that some people have grasped the urgency of the issue,” she said. “[Creating scholarships is] a nice idea, it’s a good idea, but that takes time. It would be wonderful if more universities could step up and, having stepped up, could offer real support for people like full fee waivers, accommodation, language support.”

Schuster said that although organisations such as Scholars at Risk and CARA (the Council for At-Risk Academics) are trying to assist those leaving Afghanistan, they “need more support from the universities”.

“We need to be a little less bureaucratic in all of this and a bit more reactive,” she said.

In the past few weeks, the Taliban has taken over Afghanistan after the country’s government collapsed following the United States’ announcement of its withdrawal of all troops by 31 August. Schuster was evacuated from Afghanistan last week and has since been working with a group of academics “through the night” to try to evacuate others from the country.

She said that “the people that we are trying to get out have been in hiding and [are] very afraid, and very dependent on us”.

“We’ve been trying to keep their spirits up, keep their hope going, as well as fighting on their behalf with bureaucracy,” she said.

‘Help all who need it’

Schuster recounted how she had been staying with a friend in west Kabul when the situation in the city “was getting increasingly tense”. After first moving to a secure camp, she was then taken into Kabul airport in an armoured vehicle and eventually managed to get a flight out.

She said that although she did not personally feel threatened, those around her and her colleagues were in more danger.

“I’m a European with a European passport and I’m a woman of a certain age, and I knew that I really wasn’t at risk. People who [are] most at risk are my Afghan colleagues and friends,” she said.

Schuster also said it was “incredibly pathetic” that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has said the UK could take 5,000 refugees per year from Afghanistan. “I think they need to lift this stupid ceiling of 5,000 for this year, and I think they just need to help all of those who need help,” she said.

The government has come under fire recently for attempting to delay its Chevening scholarship programme, which supports study in the UK for participants in Afghanistan. It told 35 Afghan students that they would not be able to take up one-year master’s courses under the government-run programme due to the chaos in Kabul as the Taliban took over.

Following a widespread outcry, the government reversed its decision and said the students could still come for the 2021-22 academic year. Research Professional News understands that all students on the programme have now either been evacuated from Afghanistan or are preparing to leave.

The FCDO referred questions to the Home Office.

A Home Office spokesperson said that the UK has a “proud history of protecting people in life-threatening situations” and the government is “determined to help as many Afghans as possible” through its resettlement scheme.

UPDATED—This story was updated after publication with comment from the Home Office.