Free to Think 2020: Attacks on higher education continue unabated in the COVID-19 era

Posted November 18, 2020

New York, NY — Scholars at Risk (SAR) calls on the international community to take action to protect academic freedom in Free to Think 2020, a report released today. The report analyzes 341 attacks on higher education communities in 58 countries between September 1, 2019 and August 31, 2020.

“Attacks on the university space impact all of us. Within the COVID-19 crisis we see persistent threats to scholars, students, and universities—even to truth itself,” says SAR’s Executive Director, Robert Quinn. “We see scientists threatened for research that contradicts messages that states want to project. We see growing pressures on scholars who comment on government response efforts. And we see authorities use the pandemic as a cover to stifle and punish free inquiry and expression generally. COVID-19 shows us the imperative to safeguard academic freedom and protect higher education. Our lives literally depend on it.”

Free to Think 2020 draws on data from SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project and identifies trends related to attacks on higher education communities, including violent attacks on campuses in Afghanistan, India, and Yemen; wrongful imprisonments and prosecutions of scholars; restrictions on academic travel, deployed most prominently by authorities in Israel, Turkey, and the United States; pressures on student expression included sustained pressures in Colombia, India, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and South Africa; and legislative and administrative threats to university autonomy, including in Brazil, Ghana, Poland, Romania, Russia, and Turkey. The report provides detailed analysis of pressures on national and regional higher education communities, including:

  • Extensive damage to Yemen’s higher education sector brought about by half a decade of war and a humanitarian crisis;
  • The ongoing struggle for freedom in Hong Kong and China as it has played out in and around the higher education space;
  • Continued challenges to Turkey’s academic community following a four-year crackdown and purge of scholars;
  • A clampdown on scholar and student dissent in India under the country’s nationalist ruling party; and
  • Impacts of Venezuela’s economic crisis on a struggling higher education system.

“Since 2011, SAR has reported over seventeen hundred attacks on higher education in over one hundred countries,” says Clare Robinson, SAR’s Advocacy Director. “In order to stem the tide and protect everyone’s ability to exchange ideas, governments, higher education institutions, and civil society must act now by demanding and ensuring accountability, improving legal protections for academic freedom, and supporting scholars, students, and other university personnel under attack.”

To learn more, join SAR on November 19-20, 2020 for “Free to Think 2020: Responding to Attacks on Higher Education,” a virtual conference launching the report, marking SAR’s 20th anniversary, and presenting the 2020 Courage to Think Award.


About Scholars at Risk: Scholars at Risk (SAR) is an international network of over 500 higher education institutions and thousands of individuals in 39 countries that is leading the charge in protecting and offering sanctuary to threatened scholars and students. SAR’s mission is to protect higher education communities and their members from violent and coercive attacks, and by doing so to expand the space in society for reason and evidence-based approaches to resolving conflicts and solving problems. SAR meets this mission through direct protection of individuals, advocacy aimed at preventing attacks and increasing accountability, and research and learning initiatives that promote academic freedom and related values. SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project identifies and reports attacks on higher education to protect vulnerable scholars and students, hold perpetrators accountable, and prevent future violations. Institutions or individuals interested in participating in network activities are invited to visit or email