By Dr John Law

30 September 2015 - 10:58

'Four million people have fled Syria since 2011'.
'Four million people have fled Syria since 2011'. Image ©

Joshua Tabti under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.

Even senior academics would answer that food and shelter are more important than higher education. The sector should however not be neglected, even – or especially – in times of crisis, argues the British Council's Dr John Law.

Why universities are a special target in times of armed conflict

Earlier this year, 147 people, mostly students, were killed during an attack at Garissa University College in Kenya, and in the nine years from the fall of Saddam Hussein to April 2012, almost 500 Iraqi academics were assassinated, and campuses looted, burned or destroyed in bloody post-war violence. As centres of knowledge production, innovation and academic freedom, where challenging ideas are encouraged and diversity celebrated, universities make prime targets for violent extremists.

Why universities deserve protection in times of crisis

In June 2015, Dr. Helena Barroco challenged an audience of education world leaders at Going Global, the British Council's annual conference on international higher education: When donating money to refugees, what would those in the room like it to be spent on; food, shelter or higher education? Nobody voted for higher education.

This is however not to say that higher education is unimportant. A well-functioning higher education system is vital when it comes to developing the kind of free-thinking intellectual capital that's necessary to rebuild a war-torn nation's culture and knowledge once it is possible to do so. Whether this system would educate engineers to rebuild infrastructure, doctors to revitalise the care system, or humanities graduates to help repair a fragmented civil society, the university sector is indispensable.

Syria stands out as a case in point: four million people, a fifth of the population, have fled the country since 2011; the extent of the damage to its academic institutions is still unknown; what hope can Syrians have when trying to rebuild a secure and stable society when its future generations are being denied the benefits that higher education can bring?

What higher education leaders in other countries can do to help universities in war-torn areas

This month, Times Higher Education reported that a number of international universities are now providing funded places for some resettled Syrians to pursue higher education. The University of Glasgow recently enrolled two Syrian academics as PhD students and has announced a series of measures to give financial assistance to students from conflict zones. These include fee waivers and extending a talent scholarship scheme to support refugee students at undergraduate and postgraduate level. The university has established a research fellowship in partnership with the Council for at Risk Academics (CARA), with an annual fund of £10,000, which will be available to CARA-referred academics. Other UK universities such as Sussex, have a migration research centre funded by the Department for International Development, (DFID), and the University of Sheffield is also actively welcoming refugees.

Finally, the University of York, Brookings Doha Center and the Institute of International Education set up and announced the York Accord on 17 July 2015. Although basic education is a fundamental human right recognised by the UN, higher education in conflict-affected societies is often neglected. Traditional conflict relief is based on providing for basic needs of food, clothing and shelter, but this accord aims to protect and rebuild higher education caught in the crossfire of armed conflict. It seeks a much more comprehensive response from national, regional and international legally responsible bodies such as police, law courts and civil rights organisations, with a legal responsibility to act against perpetrators of violence.

The signatories have vouched not only to respond to challenging situations as they arise, but to protect and rebuild higher education during and after periods of conflict. The document therefore encourages university leaders to examine how their institutions can play a role in supporting refugee students. For example, it calls for global higher education institutions to identify what can be done to offer safe havens to scholars and academics affected by conflict.

The true human value of the York Accord will be realised when an apparently lost generation of refugees find themselves protected and provided for by higher education institutions across the globe.

On 25 September 2015, the Open University announced a partnership with the British Council to deliver academic programmes to Syrian refugees, who have temporarily settled in Jordan and Lebanon.

See the York Accord for a full list of recommendations.

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