Academics in exile: The blindspot in CUS?

by Dina Zoe Belluigi, with Tom Parkinson and Fateh Shaban


The gaze of CUS is cast towards studying the wrangles of changes within and on HE disciplines, functions, institutions, countries and wider. One of the blind spots is that which falls outside of institutional structures, particularly when national protections become problematic, such as under conditions of political violence, conflict and intractable crisis. In a bid to address that, this blog shares some recent activity connecting this platform's contributors with active scholarship and practice with Syrian academics in exile and at risk.


From late 2017, Dina Zoe Belluigi has engaged in correspondence with Tom Parkinson due to his involvement with the Council of At Risk Academics (Cara), a civil society organisation established in 1933 in response to academics fleeing the Holocaust in Europe during WWII [1]. Cara also supported some anti-apartheid activists, such as Albie Sacks [2], and continues to partner with organisations and scholars concerned with displaced academics in the present and past, such as with this project on Intellecturals displaced from Fascist Italy.


The particular project the authors of this blog have each been involved in, is a 'regional programme' which supports Syrian academics who are displaced or in exile in Turkey (following on from Cara's programmes in Iraq and Zimbabwe). The programme includes various aspects of the 'academic development' of 'being' an active academic, such as undertaking and enhancing research, teaching, and building and maintaning networks. It is a very different programme of academic development to those which serve institutional ends or national goals, but rather is aimed to be participant-driven. From ethos which much positive work and reflexive scholarship has emerged [3].


Although none of the Syrian academics had previously undertaken studies in higher education, there has been a growth in interest with such scholarship, driven by the need to document and bring to attention the plight of their peers and communities during the many years of conflict. As such, reports and publications on higher education in conflict [4] have been produced, and independent initiatives established, such as the ACDP, of which Fateh Shaban is a founder.


We would like to draw attention to aspects of our interactions, which we think may be of interest to the ACUS network.

"Garnering solidarity from the international academic community has consistently emerged as a priority... Syrian participants have asked specifically to be connected with counterparts from other countries that have experienced conflict and displacement. UK-based academics facilitating the Programme have, in turn, been struck by the extent to which the circumstances of Syrian colleagues differ from those working in resource-rich, peacetime, global North contexts, and have been concerned about their own capacity to facilitate meaningful academic development. Thus, a pressing need has emerged to seek input from academics with comparable, complex experiences, and/or whose work has involved reckoning with the legacies of conflict, oppression or displacement in other parts of the world. It was hoped, too, that international colleagues would themselves value an opportunity to share their experiences and reflect on these complex issues...." (read more on this here)



In June 2019, a week before the first Winter School of Advancing Critical University Studies was held, 11 of the Syrian academics gathered together with 7 academic counterparts from (or working in) Belarus, Bosnia Herzegovina, Kenya, Northern Ireland, Palestine, Serbia and South Africa, together with Dina, Tom and 2 UK academics participating in the Syria Programme, and 2 Cara representatives. Tom and Dina’s reflection on the event can be accessed here [5], and another from the perspectives of Syrian academics has been submitted for a publication. Above is a short video recorded during the event.


A few months later, we met with Jenny du Preez and Naomi Lumutenga (of HERS-EA) to deliberate about the value and problematics of academic development and CUS for academics in exile.




Each of us presented as part of the seminar 'At the Margins of the University: Scholarship and practice of higher education transformation and disruption in contexts of post/ conflict, inequality and oppression' on 20 September 2020 at Queen's University Belfast, Northern Ireland. At this event, as part of SSESW’s research focus on Peace in Societies, reflections on three of our intentional interventions (a roundtable; a cross-institutional academic development programme; a network) were presented by those concerned with social justice in and of the academy. Above is a recording of Tom's presentation.


HERS-EA supports women academics in East Africa, providing an extensive programme for academic development with strong engagement dimensions of horizontal leadership and service from grassroots to policy. However, they continue to be concerned about the effects of conflict and legacies of post-conflict on their participants. Cara has experience in this regard, but as a practitioner organisation it is often without intensive scholarship about its processes, and has a persistent problem with inclusion of academic woman within the Syrian regional programme. With these and other concerns in mind, we came to submit a range of applications for funding, seeking ways to catalyse and study change, and for these we await positive news.


The authors of this post have also submitted a proposal for the first ACUS book project, towards broadening this conversation with the inclusion of this networks' members and similarly placed researchers. In a year where protections for academic freedom are in question in Ghana, and in a month where solidarity for those institutions and academics in Hong Kong has been expressed, we raise this question for this network:


Whom counts as an 'academic citizen' and what rights and protections are they/ we accorded, when the authority of the nation state and/or institution are eroded?



[1] Cara Annual Report 2019. https://www.cara.ngo/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/201007-Annual-Report-2019-20-Final.pdf

[2] See a blog of Sack’s reflections - Sacks, A. 2012. The first time I arrived as a refugee in the UK I was psychologically wrecked. Cara website. https://www.cara.ngo/the-first-time-i-arrived-as-a-refugee-in-the-uk-i-was-psychologically-wrecked/

[3] Such as Parkinson, T., McDonald, K. and Quinlan, K. (2019) Reconceptualising academic development as community development: Working with Syrian academics in exile, Higher Education, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-019- 00404-5 and Parkinson, T (2018) A trialectic framework for large group processes in educational action research: The case of academic development for Syrian academics in exile, Educational Action Research, 27(5), 798-814, https://doi.org/10.1080/09650792.2018.1532803

[4] Shaban, F (2020) Rebuilding higher education in Northern Syria. Education and Conflict Review , 3 pp. 53-59. (2020), and articles in Education and Conflict Review Special Issue: Rebuilding Syrian higher education for a stable future 3, 2020. https://www.cara.ngo/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Conflict_Review_2020_final_web.pdf for examples. Another is Parkinson, T., Zoubir, T., Abdullateef, S., Abedtalas, M., Alyamani, G., Al Ibrahim, Z., Al Husni, M., Omar, F.A., Hajhamoud, H., Iboor, F., Allito, H., Jenkins, M., Rashwani, A., Sennou, A. and Shaban, F. (2018), "“We are still here”: the stories of Syrian academics in exile", International Journal of Comparative Education and Development, Vol. 20 No. 3/4, pp. 132-147. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJCED-06-2018-0013

[5] Belluigi, D. Z. & Parkinson, T. 2020. Building solidarity through comparative lived experiences of post/conflict: Reflections on two days of dialogue. Education and Conflict Review Special Issue: Rebuilding Syrian higher education for a stable future 3, pp.16-24. https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10109100/1/Belluigi_Article02_Belluigi.pdf