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Scale of attacks on universities ‘mandates more protection’

 Image: Kentaroo Tryman, via Getty Images

Scholars at Risk warns that attacks on higher education are eroding academic freedom globally

Governments and universities need to work together to fight back a global wave of attacks on higher education, according to Scholars at Risk, an organisation that promotes academic freedom around the world.

Between 1 July 2022 and 30 June 2023, there were 409 attacks on scholars, students and institutions in 66 countries and territories, according to the ninth Free to Think report from the network of academic institutions. 

Robert Quinn, Scholars at Risk executive director, said: “The past year has seen targeted efforts to quell dissent and restrict free discourse. These range from violent attacks such as Iranian authorities’ use of force to suppress student participation in the Women, Life, Freedom protest movement, to coercive attacks such as a substantial influx of newly proposed legislation aimed at restricting the teaching of disfavoured topics in the United States.” 

During the period covered by the latest report, “violent and coercive attacks tore apart higher education communities, disrupting academic activity, and undermining academic freedom and institutional autonomy, making them the most concerning trends from this reporting period”. 

Beware the ‘illiberal actors’

While the attacks were usually in “closed, authoritarian societies”, “they are also becoming troublingly common in open, democratic, stable societies, where illiberal actors are using the language of rights, freedom and excellence to push forward their own agendas and erode academic freedom and the autonomy of higher education institutions”.

Countries where attacks were reported include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, Colombia, Hong Kong, India, Iran, Mexico, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Russia, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Türkiye, Ukraine and the United States.

The report team suggests that those who are able to should demand accountability for violations, while existing legal standards should be strengthened and new ones created to protect higher education institutions.

Examples of attacks included the arrest, imprisonment, suspension or expulsion of hundreds of students in Iran after protests erupted in September last year in response to the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died in hospital after she was detained at a ‘re-education centre’ by morality police for allegedly not wearing her hijab properly. 

The report lists the US as a prime example of where “institutional autonomy [and] academic freedom” are being undermined. Lawmakers at state level had “pushed forward legislation intended to limit teaching and research, particularly that related to race, diversity, equity and inclusion, and gender”, the report said.  

Quinn said, “These attacks illustrate the erosion of academic freedom and university autonomy, and the shrinking space for discourse and sharing ideas. These attacks harm all of society.”