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Ideas are not crimes: Launch of Scholars at Risk Europe

Scolars at Risk launched their European office with a roundtable discussion © European Union 2018 – Source : EP

Scholars at Risk, a network of higher education institutions helping threatened scholars, launched a European office last week. The launch took place at the European Parliament and was followed by a roundtable discussion on academic freedom. Invited speakers highlighted that freedom of inquiry is threatened also in Europe.

Around 40 scholars and European Parliament employees gathered November 28 for the launch of the European branch of the Scholars at Risk (SAR) network. European Parliament member (MEP) Wajid Khan hosted the event that was followed by a roundtable discussion with representatives from SAR, the European Parliament, universities and NGOs from across Europe. Scholars at Risk, founded in 1999, today encompasses 500 higher education institutions where threatened scholars can spend a period of time, typically one year, to conduct research, teach or study. Maynooth University in Ireland will host the European office that will coordinate the work of the national sections.

Attacks on academic freedom
SAR counted 294 attacks on higher education communities between September 2017 and August 2018, spanning from violence to threats to institutional autonomy in 47 countries. The number of victims is much higher since some attacks target institutions. Reported numbers also exclude indirect effects that can be equally harmful to academic freedom. Just days before the event, British PhD student Matthew Hedges was pardoned from a life sentence in in the United Arab Emirates, where he was accused of espionage while conducting research. ‘The kind of chilling effect such incidents have might have scholars ask themselves: Do I dare to travel and research there? Do I dare to do research in a similar country?’ said Robert Quinn, SAR’s executive director. ‘This is also limiting academic freedom.’

There is a tendency to view violations of academic freedom as an ‘over-there problem’, but this is not the case

Violent attacks may draw more attention, but non-violent attacks pose an equally serious threat and can also be early warning signs to further infringement on academic freedom. In April last year, the Orbán government in Hungary made some seemingly innocent changes to the higher education law: foreign universities must have a campus in their home country and a formal agreement between Hungary and the country of origin must be signed. Fast forward to July 2018 and the Hungarian government has banned gender studies from state university programs. The Central European University (CEU), the university most harshly targeted by the Orbán government, could still offer courses, but has just announced it will leave Hungary after months in legal limbo.

SAR’s executive director Robert Quinn (to the right) attended the launch © European Union 2018 – Source : EP

Concerns for Europe
‘There is a tendency to view violations of academic freedom as an ‘over-there problem’, but this is not the case,’ Mr Quinn said. Nature recently voiced concerns for freedom of academic inquiry in Europe after the rise of far-right parties, currently in governing coalitions in 10 of the 28 EU member states. Attacks on academic freedom are closely linked to repression of the media and the judiciary. ‘Sometimes things happens slowly and then we look back and wonder why we didn’t do anything,’ warned Mairead McGuiness, vice-president of the European Parliament.

After the coup attempt in Turkey 2016, 6081 academics were dismissed from their universities

Half of the scholars seeking help from SAR are from Turkey, followed by the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. ‘After the coup attempt in Turkey 2016, 6081 academics were dismissed from their universities,’ said Dr. Olga Hünler, psychologist and lead educator of a MOOC on academic freedom. Hünler highlighted that social sciences were especially targeted in Turkey and more than one third of SAR scholars being from social sciences.

While there are concerns for rule of law issues in Europe today, Claude Moraes, MEP, reminded that there are mechanisms at the parliament to protect freedom of expression. The European Parliament issued Article 7 of the EU treaty in September to address threats to rule of law in Hungary. ‘There are many MEPs on the side,’ Moraes said addressing the audience.

Text: Sara Johansson

Pictures: © European Union 2018 – Source : EP