What are at-risk academics?

At-risk academics are those facing discrimination, persecution, suffering, and violence because of threats to their life, liberty, or career. Some at-risk academics in immediate danger of arrest, injury, or even death are forced into exile, while others choose to work on in their home countries despite such threats.

At-risk academics can include researchers, scholars, and scientists at all stages of their research careers, from doctoral students through to professors.

While some academics at risk have recognised refugee status or similar protections having fled their home countries, many might hold temporary visas or work permits through visiting researcher positions at host universities in Europe or elsewhere.

Why are some academics at risk?

The Scholars at Risk Network has identified three broad categories of risk:

  • Risk due to the content of a scholar’s work, research, or teaching being perceived as threatening by authorities or other groups. Particularly in the case of the development of new ideas.
  • Risk because of the individual’s status as an academic/researcher. Academics can be prominent members of their community because of their education, frequent travel, and professional standing. Where a scholar is a member of a political, ethnic, or religious minority, female, or a member of LGBTQ+ communities, an attack on an individual scholar may be a highly visible and efficient means for intimidating and silencing others.
  • Risk as a result of their peaceful exercise of basic human rights, in particular, the right to freedom of expression or freedom of association.

Who threatens academics?

Academics and other researchers have reported threats from both state and non-state actors. These include government authorities, such as police and military forces, and armed militant and extremist groups.

After the Taliban resumed power in Afghanistan in 2021, for example, universities were closed and the legal framework was disregarded. As a result, academics who had connections with western universities were among those persecuted and even murdered. Women were also barred from university life.   

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has similarly displaced academics and destroyed university buildings. Academics in Russia who have criticised Putin and the war have also found themselves increasingly isolated. Academics in Iraq, Zimbabwe, Syria, Turkey, and Lebanon also continue to work with risk as a result of political instability and regional crises, and some have been forced into exile.

Some academics have also faced hostility from their own higher education communities. In 2006, for example, the Bruin Alumni Association, a conservative group for alumni of the University of California, created a blacklist of 30 academics with the objective of “exposing radical professors”. More recently, the Professor Watch List website has listed the names of academics whose teaching the conservative student advocacy group Turning Point USA finds objectionable. The American Association of University Professors has described the targeted campaigns of threats, harassment, and intimidation that have resulted from such websites. 

The Council for At-Risk Academics (CARA)

The Council for At-Risk Academics (CARA) is a non-governmental charitable organisation that provides help to academics in immediate danger, those forced into exile, and those who continue to work in their home countries despite serious risks. CARA also supports higher education institutions whose work is at risk or compromised.

CARA was first established as the Academic Assistance Council on 22 May 1933 by William Beveridge, then the Director of the London School of Economics, and 40 other academics and politicians. Its aim was to support academics made to leave their posts in Nazi Germany on racial and political grounds.

Between 1933 and 1939, the Council, which, from 1936, became known as the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning, raised £100,000 (the equivalent of £4 million today) from academic donors and universities. This money helped academics and their families fleeing Germany while they found new posts in universities in the UK or in other safe countries.

In 1999, the Society changed its name to the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics. It was changed again in 2014 to its current name the Council for At-Risk Academics. This was to reflect the fact CARA helps many academics who are at risk but who do not see themselves as ‘refugees’, and instead still hope to return to their home countries when conditions allow.

House of Commons Early Day Motion

In May 2023, 21 MPs signed early day motion 1188 to mark the ninetieth anniversary of the Council for At-Risk Academics.

The motion congratulated CARA for its work, applauded the role of UK universities and research institutes in working in partnership with the organisation, and commended the determination of many current CARA scholars to return home to help build better societies in their own countries when it was safe to do.

UK Initiatives to support at-risk academics

UK Universities and Research Network

CARA facilitates a UK Universities and Research Network of 135 UK universities that support its aims. The Network aims to facilitate cooperation and collaboration between UK higher education and research institutions to support at-risk academics, and to promote academic freedoms worldwide.

Many university partners also contribute a voluntary annual subscription to help to cover running costs of CARA.

CARA fellowship programme

CARA encourages universities in its network to consider hosting a persecuted or at-risk academic as part of a fellowship, with a fee waiver and/or other financial and in-kind support. CARA allocates any additional funding needed from its own resources, and helps with the visa process and other practical arrangements.

Some early-career CARA Fellows pursue postgraduate qualifications, such as a PhD, to continue their career, while other fellowships support academics who already hold doctorates looking for a postdoctoral placement to undertake out research.

These fellowships have supported academics from Syria and Afghanistan and, as of June 2023, CARA is actively engaged with around 400 Fellows and applicants.

Researchers at risk programme

In collaboration with CARA, the British Academy launched a Researchers at Risk Fellowships Programme in 2022 in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which exposed Ukrainian-based researchers to direct threat.

The programme will enable UK universities to provide two-year fellowships to at-risk researchers with funding of around £37,000 per year. The Fellowships cover the natural sciences, medical sciences, engineering, humanities, and social sciences. They are supported by UK Government funding and additional grants are also available from the Leverhulme Trust

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