Scholar rescue organisations should place more emphasis on advocating for academic freedom in countries where it is repressed, according to a recent study. They should also take steps to improve women’s participation and do more to help alleviate post-rescue precarity, the study recommends.
The study entitled “The state of academic (un)freedom and scholar rescue programmes: A contemporary and critical overview”, published in Third World Quarterly in August, was written by Kudus Oluwatoyin Adebayo, a research fellow in the diaspora and transnational studies programme of the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan, Nigeria.
“I describe current scholar rescue practice and raise critical issues that organisations in scholar rescue and mobility work must confront to meaningfully serve threatened academics around the world,” Adebayo said.
However, he also underlined that “to the extent that they have remained committed to helping academics escape from dangerous circumstances and threats, rescue programmes are serving needs that sustain the spirit of both academic freedom and freedom of scholars”.
The criticisms raised relate to post-rescue precarity, contribution to brain drain, limited political solidarity, and lack of gender inclusiveness.
There are also contextual problems of restrictive visa regimes and immobilisation of at-risk scholars, inclusiveness and diversity, and host country dynamics, over which scholar rescue programmes may have little or no influence.
The study recommends that scholar rescue organisations introduce measures such as promoting in situ academic freedom programmes and advocacy and incorporating post-rescue needs of at-risk scholars as well as improving equality, diversity and inclusion mechanisms to increase women’s participation.
It argues that they should also be building partnerships with and integrate ‘active and vibrant regional academic associations’ to tackle drawbacks in some of the current scholar rescue and mobility programmes across the world, including post-rescue precarity, contribution to brain drain, and limited political solidarity,
However, Robert Quinn, executive director of Scholars at Risk told University World News: “The article’s assessment of scholar protection work as it is done by Scholars at Risk misses the enormously important fact that we are doing everything the author asks to be done!”
‘More in-situ advocacy needed’
In particular, Adebayo called for more academic freedom programming and advocacy in situ.
“To make traditional scholar rescue involving physical relocation less and less required, there is a need to promote initiatives advocating for freer universities and freer spaces for academics and intellectuals in countries where repression of academic freedom is most prevalent,” Adebayo said.
He said scholar rescue mandates should also be expanded to incorporate the post-rescue needs of rescued academics.
“Because post-rescue needs of at-risk scholars do not disappear after escaping a dangerous environment, rescue organisations must re-engage their notion of and insistence on ‘immediate danger’ and appreciate how ‘danger’ and ‘risk’ do not evaporate with border crossing,” Adebayo explained.
“Rescue organisations should improve their equality, diversity and inclusion mechanisms to increase women’s participation as beneficiaries, especially in terms of research fund support,” Adebayo indicated.
He called on rescue initiatives to improve coordination of rescue efforts by multiple scholar rescue programmes. In addition, he said organisations need to work with at-risk academics to strengthen political solidarity.
Impact of brain drain
Adebayo said the impact of scholar rescue on ‘brain drain’ should be addressed, given that most rescued scholars do not return to their home country.
He refers to one 2021 Institute of International Education Scholar Rescue Fund study on the long-term trajectory saying that 76% stay in the country they were rescued to, with a larger proportion, 84%, remaining in the United States, Canada or Western Europe.
“While brain drain is not easy to reverse, ongoing efforts encouraging the safe return of scholars should be intensified by incentivising return, and training scholars to enhance their skills and build capacity while also helping them to formalise networks and collaborative relationships,” Adebayo said.
“Finally, given how the COVID-19 situation will shape scholar rescue and mobility programmes into the future, supporters of the programmes should explore models of virtual alternatives,” Adebayo suggested, without specifying what that would mean.