14.05.2024 | Blog

Guest blog: Students at Risk Helps Students Escaping Persecution – The EU Must Take a Leading Role

Over the past decade, the level of academic freedom has improved in only five small countries, which are home to less than one percent of the world’s population. At the same time, about half of the world’s population – more than four billion people – live in countries where the freedom of inquiry and study is impaired or restricted.

Academic freedom goes hand in hand with the overall level of freedom in a country, and the first targets in the suppression of civil society are tertiary students, especially in chaotic crises.

The oppression of students is often difficult to identify or determine clearly. Oppression does not always mean direct threats of violence or serious human rights violations. Restricting the right to action and academic freedoms can take the form of more subtle, often legal, activity.

The most obvious ways of limiting academic freedom include denying the right to study and classifying student activities as criminal or extremist. As a consequence of such restrictions, students are under threat of arrest and imprisonment. A threatening situation can lead to the need to leave the country, making the student’s position even more difficult and increasing the need for support.

The purpose of the Students at Risk programme is to meet some of this increased need for support by establishing a grant system that provides the possibility for foreign tertiary students who have been the victims of human rights abuses or political persecution to continue their studies in Finland.

Finland must set an example in the promotion of human rights, and one way of doing this is starting a national Students at Risk programme. Similar workable systems currently exist for example in Norway and Germany. In addition, national student organisations work hard in several European countries to establish their own systems.

Such national systems however also require support at the European level. A jointly coordinated system would facilitate the student selection process and reduce the overlapping work done within the separate national systems. For example, a programme funded by Erasmus+ could also ensure the continuity of operations at the European level, as the programmes would not then be fully dependent on national funding.

Most importantly, a joint European system would make it possible for students seeking access to the programme to have available to them a broader range of studies in a wider range of fields and in a more diverse range of languages. Learning opportunities would thus be accessible to more students in need of support.

The upcoming European elections are an excellent opportunity to discuss European-wide measures to support students. In this vein, SYL and Samok have suggested in their EU election programme that a Students at Risk grant system should be established in Europe to support students fleeing war, political violence, and persecution.

By establishing a common system, Europe can demonstrate its commitment to supporting academic freedom and the efforts of higher education students for free democracy, human rights, academic freedom, and student rights.

Author: Ville Jäppinen, Executive Director Students at Risk Finland – StaR ry