Student Activism for Academic Freedom: Insights from the Scholars at Risk Advocacy Days

Student advocacy within the framework of the Scholars at Risk (SAR) organization holds immense significance, as showcased in the impactful Student Advocacy Days organized by different universities in various countries. These events not only serve as a platform to raise awareness among students about the ongoing violations against academic freedom but also underscore the crucial role of student activism in defending this fundamental right globally. Advocacy Days facilitate invaluable networking opportunities by bringing together diverse participants, including students, activists, and experts. They foster a deeper understanding of the challenges at-risk scholars and students face worldwide.

Student advocacy seminars are run annually by faculty at several SAR member institutions in collaboration with SAR international. During an entire semester, or year, students work in advocacy initiatives to support scholars facing human rights violations or develop visions to protect the academic freedom of students and academic communities worldwide. This allow students to conduct human rights research and advocacy in partnership with SAR’s Scholars in Prison Project and Academic Freedom Monitoring Project. In 2022-23, twenty-one such seminars were held in Europe, the United States, and Australia, as reported in SAR’s Student Advocacy Seminar end-of-year Report.

At the University of Padova, the Advocacy Day is a closure of the Scholars at Risk: Student Advocacy Seminar, organized annually. In 2023, the SAR Advocacy Seminar held in Padova focused on academic freedom in Belarus, a country grappling with severe threats to intellectual freedom and the autonomy of higher education institutions. The concluding Advocacy Day consisted of five sessions, each dedicated to a specific aspect of the main topic: academic freedom. Esteemed speakers, including Prof. Cristina Basso, Vice-rector of International Relations, and Dr. Dora Longoni from the International Relations Division, provided an overview of the initiatives and measures to support at-risk scholars and students promoted at the University of Padova.

Other notable speakers included Gosse Vuijk from the office of Member of the European Parliament and chair of the Parliament's Permanent Forum on Academic Freedom, Dr. Christian Ehler; and Denise Roche, Advocacy Manager at SAR European Office. Students and participants from nations with compromised academic freedom - like Russia, Iran, and Brazil - shared their expertise, vision of the situation dynamics, and personal experiences. Given the recent developments in Belarus, one session addressed the critical issues faced by scholars and students, including repressions, censorship, violence, and direct political interference. Speakers such as Dmitrij Strocev, a Belarusian poet, Daria Maniuk from the Belarusian Students' Association(BSA), and Iris Kimizoglu, vice-president of the European Students’ Union shared their stories and advocacy work. Unfortunately the situation in Belarus is still critical, as outlined in the BSA’s 2023 report on the State of Academia in Belarus.

Students participating in the Advocacy Seminar had the opportunity to showcase their research and advocacy initiatives. Among the initiatives, one group of students provided a platform to write letters for imprisoned scholars in Belarus. The letters help the activists stay firm and remind them that the world still remembers their stories. Another group worked on developing a support guide for scholars who fled Belarus and are now in Italy. The guide is available in English and Russian (Belarus's common language) to reach a bigger audience. Moreover, students also worked on a project to inform about “responsible internationalization in higher education”. This project also highlighted the differences between the experiences of Italian and Belarusian students regarding the daily actions of students. The Advocacy Day offered a unique and dynamic platform for students, activists, and experts to unite their efforts to promote and defend academic freedom globally. The sessions provided thought-provoking insights, fostering engagement and inspiring participants to take meaningful action. This video has some of the highlights of the event.

In December 2023, the University of Trento organized the first-ever edition of  European Advocacy Days. Students and researchers from several universities in Europe participated and discussed their projects. Among the participating institutions were the University of Dundee (Scotland); the University of Ghent (Belgium); Management Centre Innsbruck (Austria); Bard College Berlin (Germany); the University of Oslo and the University of South-Eastern Norway (Norway). The event also welcomed Prof. Adam Braver, SAR coordinator for all student seminars, and Claire Robinson, SAR advocacy coordinator. Among the keynote speakers was Patrick Zaki, an Egyptian scholar based in Bologna who was arrested in Cairo in 2020 and freed in 2023 after a successful advocacy campaign that involved students from multiple places, including Padua.

The University of Padua was among the organizers of this event and presented its advocacy initiatives during the event. While some groups had advocacy ideas similar to Padua’s, such as letter-writing campaigns, others created social media campaigns with several viral videos and even produced a song. The interaction between students from several backgrounds was significant, and combining advocacy proposals aggregates to upcoming works of the Students Seminars across Europe. he University of Padua the 2024 Advocacy Seminar has already begun with students from different master programs who are working on cases from Afghanistan and Iran. On 10 June 2024, they will once again organize and host an Advocacy Day at the University of Padua.


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