Protecting Higher Education from Attack

Looted university library, Basra, Iraq
© 2011 CARA
The negative consequences of attacks on higher education affect not just universities, but also primary and secondary schools that depend on quality teachers trained at the tertiary level and on research that informs pedagogy and curriculum at all levels. Attacks on higher education institutions and personnel also cause a ‘brain drain’ as threatened scholars flee or are killed, diminishing the quality of education overall.

Attacks on higher education occur when states, opposition groups and other non-state actors view higher education institutions, professors and students as threats to their authority or as a means of gaining influence.  When they are unable to control the sector, they often resort to intimidation, coercion and overt violence to block education, silence dissent and eliminate perceived opponents.  Whether directed at whole institutions or individuals, such attacks can have chilling effects on the research, teaching and social functions of higher education, and may serve to warn of spreading repression and risks of open conflict. 

Common attacks on higher education include: 

  • political and military violence or use of force against students, academics, university personnel, and higher education officials

  • arbitrary, illegal or unjust arrest, detention or imprisonment

  • torture killing and injury

  • forced disappearance or kidnapping

  • forced recruitment into armed groups or forces

  • damage and destruction of higher education buildings and facilities

  • military use of higher education facilities

  • use of buildings as barracks or bases for operations

  • use of buildings for detaining or interrogating prisoners

  • threats of any of the above

Attacks on higher education affect all levels of education. Students and professors who are silenced, forced to flee, or killed leave behind a weakened education system, reducing the quality of education overall.  Primary and secondary schools depend on teachers trained in higher education institutions, and on research that informs pedagogy and teaching methods.  Students aspiring to the next stage in their education find their opportunities abruptly curtailed. These attacks crack the basic foundation of a functioning society; a society’s loss of academic capital causes disruptions that can take generations to heal. Iraq is a tragic example: over 460 professors, scientists and administrators assassinated since 2003. Many more have been kidnapped and their families targeted or threatened. Those who have braved return to Iraq have found a higher education system that is struggling to rebuild in the midst of civil conflict, sectarian violence and political instability. More recently,Syrian universities have been bombed, occupied and closed by armed forces claiming control of academic buildings and facilities.  Lives have been lost and students and professors have joined the masses of refugees seeking safety and education abroad.  Many of those who remain have been threatened for their perceived political leanings, lectures in the classroom or religious or ethnic identities. 

Attacks on higher education are not isolated to any territory or discipline. Organizations assisting higher education personnel report that students, professors and administrators have been targeted in every region of the world. Junior, advanced and senior scholars in the sciences, social sciences, arts, and humanities have suffered, while entire institutions have fallen prey to political agendas and violence.

Responses to attacks on education need to extend beyond situations of armed conflict, into parts of the world in which education is repressed, balkanized or highly politicized.  Current responses include physical protection, alternative delivery of education, advocacy, and research and development of higher education.

GCPEA’s role in protecting higher education

GCPEA aims to understand the causes of attacks on higher education, to help develop better protection measures, and to illustrate how the protection of higher education links to greater protection of education at all levels. One way it seeks to do this is to examine the intersection between institutional autonomy and security at higher education institutions.

In November 2013, GCPEA released its report Institutional Autonomy and the Protection of Higher Education from Attack. The report suggests that institutional autonomy plays a direct and indirect protective function. It directly helps protect systems of higher education from government interference, making it more difficult for states to act as perpetrators. It also indirectly helps preserve higher education against actual and perceived politicization and ideological manipulation, which in turn might help insulate it from attacks by non-state parties.

The report identifies four areas of State responsibility in relation to security of higher education: (1) responsibility to refrain from perpetrating attacks, directly or indirectly; (2) responsibility to refrain from complicity in attacks; (3) responsibility to investigate incidents in an open and transparent way; and (4) responsibility to deter future attacks, including by holding perpetrators accountable in ways consistent with internationally recognized standards.

As a follow-up to the report, GCPEA is developing and seeking wide recognition of a statement of ‘Principles of State Responsibility for Protecting Higher Education.’ The primary purpose of a statement of principles is to secure public acknowledgement of state responsibilities. The dissemination of such a statement could provide an important touchstone to help legitimize present claims for protection and demands for investigations and accountability for past attacks. Moreover, the exercise of drafting, circulating and seeking endorsement of a statement will engage key stakeholders—especially states and influential members of the international higher education sector—in an open conversation about the importance of protecting higher education and freeing the sector to fulfill its vital educational, scientific, economic and cultural roles.

Education Under Attack 2014: Thematic Essay on military use of schools and universities