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Universities operating in Conflict Zones

In Iraq, where the security situation is once again extremely dangerous, Law observes that “some brave souls are still going [there], but what we’re trying to understand is how do you, when things get really bad and you can’t hop on a plane, best cooperate and help.”

There’s Skype of course, or academics can meet in neighboring countries. Law concedes that while this is not ideal, continuing to find ways to encourage human and intellectual interaction “is essential so that those relationships don’t disappear, so that the people in those countries don’t feel that they’ve been completely abandoned”.

At the university of Wolverhampton, international business development manager Nigel Birch believes universities that wish to make a difference need to be in it for the long term.

Working since 2012 to develop entrepreneurship among students and graduates at the University of Maiduguri in conflict-riven north-eastern Nigeria, Birch says it was too dangerous for the Wolverhampton team to visit the area last year – “planes weren’t landing for fear of rocket attacks”. Yet his core team of five continue to be long-distance mentors via email and phone to the 40-odd businesses that they helped to start up.


From a very low psychological base – students and staff throughout the university were traumatised for years living in a region wracked by deadly violence and had suffered what Birch describes as “a loss of self belief” – there is, he says, “a more positive attitude towards the future and a genuine warmth in the relationship. We are friends now.”

That deepening of relationships through a time of dangerous conflict has taught Birch and team a different approach to business, he explains. “It’s something that we don’t do very well in Britain, make friends and then do business – we’ve learned from them about that.”

In order to respond effectively, it’s vital that overseas universities who wish to help fully grasp that every emergency situation is different, explains Prof Mohammed Babury, who has held the post of deputy minister of higher education in Afghanistan in the tumultuous years since 2007.

A dapper, softly spoken man in a dove grey suit, he is adamant that there is often an urgent need for outside help, and a rapid response to protect not just research facilities, but vitally the human capital – academics and students – in times of crisis.

However, ethical difficulties can sometimes assail academics seeking to protect the higher education capacity of their country, explains professor Karim Tahboub of the Palestine Polytechnic University in Hebron, Palestine.

When, during the second intifada, his university was closed for a year by the Israeli government, he and his colleagues wondered whether they should make every effort, risking their safety, to teach students in alternative venues. Or should they instead resist the actions of an occupying state?

It’s not always simply collaboration with international colleagues that’s needed, Tahboub continues. “Help from abroad should be in addressing the cause of the crisis, such as intellectual boycotts. Otherwise it can be accepting the conflict, and adapting to it.”

Emergencies don’t always end cleanly. In many countries, one crisis overlaps with the next, and Babury repeatedly refers to the deep trauma suffered by faculty staff and students in Aghanistan, which has suffered multiple disasters compounded over three decades.

“Political interference, intimidation, arrests, a breakdown in the continuity of higher education, the end of almost all research,” he lists, speaking of his country’s plight.

There is however no other option but to rebuild higher education, else a country will inevitably spiral into a disaster from which it cannot emerge.

“In developed countries, it is critical to understand the vital role of higher education in fragile states,” says Babury. “No country enters the realm of sustained economic growth without a high-quality higher education system.”

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Brilliantly written I must say! To add on, it is important for curricula to go under change. Alongside mainstream academic disciplines such as economics, engineering and science, universities must also promote conflict management and peace studies. As these disciplines can develop individuals and institutions that are capable of changing divisive discourses and contributing to conflict prevention and stabilization.

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