Free to Think 2019: Distressing phenomenon of attacks on higher education demands global action

Posted November 19, 2019

New York, NY — Scholars at Risk announces the release of Free to Think 2019, a report analyzing 324 attacks on higher education communities in 56 countries between September 1, 2018 and August 31, 2019.

“Attacks on higher education communities — regardless of their location, scale, or scope — hold consequences for societies everywhere,” says SAR’s Executive Director, Robert Quinn. “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.”

 Free to Think 2019 draws on data from SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project to identify trends related to violent attacks on higher education communities, including a series of deadly bombings targeting scholars and students in Afghanistan; wrongful imprisonments and prosecutions of scholars, particularly in Turkey and Sudan; pressures on student expression involving more than one hundred documented incidents around the world; and restrictions on academic travel, deployed most prominently by authorities in the U.S., Israel, and China. The report provides detailed analysis of national pressures on higher education communities, including: 

  • Political tensions in India that have led to violent altercations between students, security forces, and off-campus groups, and have driven legal actions and disciplinary measures against scholars critical of those in power; 
  • Ongoing attacks on scholars in Turkey, who continued to face arrest, prosecution, and bans on public employment and foreign travel for signing a peace petition or for being associated with groups or individuals disfavored by the government;
  • Violent crackdowns on dissent in Sudan, where state authorities shuttered universities and security services used arrests and even lethal violence to quell dissent among students and scholars amid nationwide protests;
  • Heightened assaults on academic freedom in China, where scholars and students are punished for being out of step with CCP ideology and where so-called “re-education camps” are being used to imprison minority scholars and students; and 
  •  A surge in politically-motivated pressures on Brazil’s universities, including raids on campuses, threats against and attacks on minority students, and legislation that threatens universities’ activities and core values. 

“Since 2011, SAR has reported over fourteen hundred attacks on higher education in over one hundred countries. These attacks challenge everybody’s freedom to raise difficult questions and share ideas,” says Clare Robinson, SAR’s Advocacy Director. “Free to Think demands urgent action from governments, higher education leaders, and civil society to actively protect higher education communities and defend academic freedom.”

 The report 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 offering temporary positions of academic refuge for endangered scholars; and faculty and students participating in SAR Academic Freedom Legal Clinics and Student Advocacy Seminars.  

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Download the report