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York Accord: The responsibility to protect and rebuild higher education during and after conflict

Posted on 9 July 2015

Former President of Portugal and laureate of the first UN Nelson Mandela Prize, Jorge Sampaio, will join academics from around the world at the University of York to declare a commitment to protect and rebuild higher education caught in the crossfire of armed conflict.

There have been a string of violent attacks on academic institutions world-wide – most recently in April when al-Shabab militants killed 147 people, mostly students, during an assault on Garissa University College in Kenya.

In Iraq, almost 500 academics have been assassinated and campuses looted, burned or destroyed in the bloody post-war violence.

And with Syria’s descent into civil war and the collapse of its educational system, the extent of the damage on the country’s academic institutions is still unknown.

The York Accord on 17 July is designed to bring together key individuals who have played a major role in drawing attention to the importance of higher education in war-torn countries.

Academics say there is a pressing need for creative thinking on how best to respond to the challenges higher education faces in conflict-affected countries and what is the best way to contribute towards recovery and transition.

The University of York has joined with the Brookings Doha Center and the Institute of International Education (IIE) to convene the meeting.

The former President of Portugal, Jorge Sampaio, who is spearheading efforts to rescue Syrian students and place them in universities, will share his thoughts on broader global efforts to protect and rebuild higher education.

He was recently awarded the first UN Nelson Mandela Prize for his humanitarian work.

Other key figures attending include Professor Joseph Isaac, President of the African Methodist Episcopal University, Liberia and the President of Kabul University, Habibullah Habib.

Dr Allan Goodman, the President of the Institute of International Education, is to receive an honorary degree from the University of York.

Professor Sultan Barakat,  Director of Research at the Brookings Doha Center, said this was the first time experts in the field of higher education and conflict had come together under the leadership of one university.

He said: “We are hoping to get a minimum understanding amongst everyone attending of what are the basic principles for protection and recovery after conflict for higher education.

“Also, what can international institutions do in those early days to support conflict-affected institutions? It’s not straight forward, the circumstances work against you.

“The moment there is a war it is very difficult to get in and out of a country. So academics and institutions go into isolation and nothing really happens. So we need to find ways that are more imaginative.

“We need to harness new technologies and new channels  to access those academic communities and help them keep in touch with the rest of the world.”

Professor Barakat said he hoped one of the things to come out of the Accord would be a quota agreement -  with universities accepting two scholarships  a year for a student and an academic displaced by conflict.

“That’s all it takes, to show a degree of solidarity. We would like to set up a structure that helps those universities organise their efforts.

“Now it is all very ad-hoc. A lot of it is driven by the good will of individual institutions but it doesn’t add up to much.”

Professor Barakat said it was particularly relevant that York was hosting the meeting as it had a long history of accepting political refugees and carrying out research in this area.

He added:  “Universities are at the centre of the Arab Spring.  It is very much driven by young, educated people who feel they could have had a better life.  This is why so many universities have become a target for a lot of security operations in Egypt, Libya and Syria. And I don’t think it is going to change anytime soon. 

“My hope is that universities can really stand by those which are affected by conflict in a way that demonstrates an awareness of their cirumstances , but  also an understanding of the potential that exists for proper and mutual  collaboration.”

The University of York’s Vice Chancellor, Professor Koen Lamberts, said the university was a fitting institution to host the meeting.

He said: “I am proud that York is hosting the Accord. We have an enduring commitment to helping academics and institutions who are innocent victims of conflict. The Accord is a way of helping them in times of great peril and it reflects one of our main research themes of justice and equality.

 “I’m very much looking forward to meeting the delegates and discussing how best to help these institutions. The situation is extremely hazardous in many countries. Without a functioning and thriving higher education system, societies cannot progress towards peace and prosperity while entire generations of leadership are lost.”

Dr Sansom Milton, a research fellow at York’s Post-war Reconstruction and Development Unit (PRDU),  said  much had already been done on rescuing scholars, but he hoped the Accord would go even further.

He added: “This meeting is focusing on rebuilding. This is long-term and has a forward looking element which has been missing in a lot of discussions around higher education and conflict.”

President Jorge Sampaio said “Young Syrian refugees are becoming a lost generation. We definitely need to come up with a rapid response mechanism for higher education in emergencies.”

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