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At-risk Academics: UK Support

Volume 737: debated on Tuesday 12 September 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered UK support for at-risk academics.

Yesterday evening, I was privileged to attend a remarkable 90th anniversary event hosted by the Royal Society and the British Academy. In 1933, the skies over Europe were darkening. The Nazis had come to power in Germany and were already making racial discrimination against non-Aryans, principally Jews, part of their state policy—the early steps on the road to the holocaust. One of the first such steps came on 7 April that year, with the passing of the so-called “law for the restoration of the professional civil service”. An innocuous title covered a grim reality. The law forced out of their posts civil servants of non-Aryan origin, primarily those of Jewish descent, together with members of political organisations that were deemed to be hostile. Jews, other non-Aryans and political opponents were also barred from holding positions as teachers, professors or judges.

Up until then, the German educational system, and especially its universities, had been among the best in the world. Leading German academics were outstanding in their fields and had many contacts and connections with their counterparts in the UK, yet the new law meant that many faced immediate dismissal with no prospect of further work in Germany. Happily, the reaction of their colleagues here in the UK was immediate and decisive. The prime mover was Sir William Beveridge, then the director of the London School of Economics, who happened to be in Vienna that April and was horrified to hear about the purge. Returning home, he immediately began to create an organisation to raise funds to help its victims.

The result, on 22 May 1933, from the rooms of the Royal Society at Burlington House the founding statement was launched of what was initially called the Academic Assistance Council, or AAC—a major initiative of which the UK can rightly be proud. In just a few weeks, 41 university chancellors and vice-chancellors, distinguished professors and other public figures had come together to pledge support for the planned rescue of their colleagues and counterparts in Germany. They included no fewer than nine members of the Order of Merit and, I am pleased to say, a serving Member of this House, the then Conservative MP for Hastings, Eustace Percy. They defined their mission as

“the relief of suffering and the defence of learning and science”.

It was a mission to save not just the individuals and their families, but also the hard-won knowledge and skills held within their heads.

The founders’ appeal for funds immediately bore fruit. Between May and August 1933, the AAC raised nearly £10,000 to get its work off the ground—about £900,000 in today’s values—and much of that came from UK academics. In the following six years until the outbreak of war, the AAC—later called the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning or SPSL—and its individual council members helped between 1,500 and 2,000 academics to escape from Germany and other countries under fascist influence or control. Their contribution to the arts and sciences here in the UK and elsewhere proved to be immense: 16 of those helped by the AAC/SPSL later won Nobel prizes, 18 were knighted and over 100 became fellows of the Royal Society or the British Academy.

Ninety years on, sadly, many academics around the world are again at risk. Some are caught up in conflict. Their universities may have been destroyed or left without power or water, making productive work impossible. Just getting to and from work may now mean running a gauntlet of rival militia gangs. Others face violence or persecution at the hands of repressive regimes or extremist groups, which see a free-thinking and free-speaking academic as an intolerable challenge to their authority.

As we know, women in Afghanistan can no longer go to university at all. In certain countries, academics are in serious danger because of their sexual orientation. Elsewhere, those who defend democracy and denounce state corruption are subjected to arbitrary arrest and physical violence, as happened as recently as July to Dr Gubad Ibadoghlu, a renowned senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, who was seized in Azerbaijan while visiting his mother and, disgracefully, is still incarcerated. It is therefore just as well that the organisation originally founded to rescue academics from the Nazis is still at work today. Now known as the Council for At-Risk Academics, or Cara, it is busier now than at any time since the 1930s, fielding hundreds of applications for support, especially from Afghanistan, Ukraine and the middle east, but also from many other countries around the world.

The right hon. Gentleman and I are well aware of the situation of Dr Gubad Ibadoghlu in Azerbaijan. He is a distinguished academic, proud of academic independence and the objectivity of his work and studies. He will not be intimidated by anybody regarding what he writes or how he writes it. He is in a difficult situation at the moment, and I would be grateful if the Minister could assure us that the British Government will do all they can to ensure that he gets the medical support and attention he needs, as well as to ensure his right to pursue his profession and live in peace.

I entirely agree with everything the right hon. Member says, and I told a special adviser before the debate that I would be mentioning this case. I understand that there has been a statement of concern from four countries—the US, the UK, France and Germany—about this case, and I hope that those in power in Azerbaijan will take the representations seriously.

My first contact with Cara came during the fall of Kabul in 2021, when a constituent sought my help to bring her sister-in-law, an academic opposed to the Taliban, to safety in the UK and to a Cara fellowship at the University of Southampton. The task was neither quick nor easy, but it ended successfully with Cara’s help. It is a pleasure to see the executive director of Cara, Stephen Wordsworth, present at the debate today. I am grateful to him and his organisation for all they did for my constituent’s sister-in-law.

Since then, I have drawn attention to Cara’s work several times and was pleased to table early-day motion 1188 in May, with the backing of 20 more MPs on both sides of the House, to mark the anniversary of its 1933 founding statement. That success for my constituent was just one of hundreds of cases with which Cara is dealing. The charity has steadily built up its support network of UK universities and research institutes, now numbering 135. Most of them host a Cara fellow, often several, and act as their visa sponsors.

The House should note that Cara fellows come on regular visas, not as asylum seekers, and, to their great credit, the supporting universities usually cover much or all of the cost of each placement. Thanks to that support, some 170 academics from all around the world are safe with their families on Cara fellowship placements in the UK. At any given time the Cara team are working to help place dozens more, while other new applications are being carefully sifted and assessed. Many of them will soon lead to successful placements. For each one who comes, however, another will apply and will deserve help.

We talk often about attracting the best and the brightest to this country. With the generous support of the UK’s universities and research institutes, Cara plays a crucial part in this endeavour—but with the important difference that were it not for Cara, these highly talented people would in many cases be destitute, locked up, badly injured or even dead. The work is painstaking and unrelenting, and it is carried out by just 14 people. The hope is always that Cara fellows will one day be able to go home safely, and some do, with individuals recently returning to Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, Turkey, Iraq, Palestine and Azerbaijan, which we just mentioned in another context. Others, however, must continue to wait. I could provide dozens of examples but shall limit myself to just a few. For their safety and that of their relatives and friends still in their home countries, some of the names are pseudonyms.

Naila was an accomplished academic in Yemen in the field of public health. When she first contacted Cara, she was living with her husband and a young child. They were under siege and fearing for their lives. With Cara’s support, she secured a placement at Cambridge University, where she now works on a global talent visa.

Nadiya, a Ukrainian academic with vast international experience in civic education and citizenship linguistics, was forced to flee Ukraine with her 12-year-old daughter after Russia’s invasion. Cara helped her to secure a visiting research fellowship at the department of education at Oxford, where she is now continuing her research.

Wynne was a renowned environmental researcher and activist in Myanmar with over 30 years’ experience, who sought Cara’s help after the 2021 military coup. He is now a visiting fellow at Oxford, researching drought and water insecurity.

Oleksandra was a professor of economics in Kyiv. She left with her daughter after Russia’s invasion and is now a visiting researcher at the London School of Economics.

I commend the right hon. Gentleman for bringing this issue forward. He always bring good things to Westminster Hall, but also to the main Chamber. Since 2022, over 100 Ukrainian academics have been supported to settle in the UK with British Academy and Cara at-risk fellowships. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that we, as a compassionate and generous country, should continue to ensure that those academics from Ukraine are supported in their careers, and that this approach must also extend to the likes of women in Afghanistan, who deserve the very same treatment?

I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman, who is another long-time friend from across the divide in the House of Commons Chamber. He is absolutely right, and I will refer in a little more detail to the Researchers at Risk programme very shortly.

I return to my list of examples of people who have been saved and are now doing well. Nooria, from Afghanistan, is a specialist in gynaecology and obstetrics, and was working as both a clinician and an associate professor at the Kabul University of Medical Sciences. After the Taliban takeover, she was trapped at home. With Cara’s support, she was offered a visiting research position at the University of Cambridge, where her work has now led to a fully funded PhD offer.

Hayat is a researcher from Afghanistan with a PhD and a master’s degree from the UK and the US respectively, but this previous international experience attracted reprisals from the Taliban. As a Cara fellow at the University of Nottingham, he is carrying out work in three research projects on the impact of conflict and natural disasters on households’ welfare and food security.

Huda was a radiology researcher in Syria when she contacted Cara. She experienced bombings throughout the conflict and was once shot at in her car. Cara helped her to secure a postdoctoral placement at the University of Cambridge, after which she was awarded a global talent visa.

Ayşe completed a visiting fellowship at Wolfson College, University of Oxford, and returned home to Turkey, where she continues to do research on gender violence.

Wiesam completed a visiting fellowship in the department of geography at the University of Manchester, and returned home to Gaza, where he is now working as a professor in thermal remote sensing at Al-Aqsa University.

Ahmed completed a visiting fellowship at University College London before returning to Iraq, where he is now a dean of college at a university.

In the past two years, Cara has also worked with the British Academy—the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) referred to this—and other national academies, to deliver the largely Government-funded Researchers at Risk programme. Thanks to that, another 180 academics from Ukraine have received awards paid to them by Cara to allow them to continue their work here. Cara has also worked with the funding scheme in Germany for at-risk scholars, the Philipp Schwartz Initiative, since its launch in 2016.

Cara’s strong track record of supporting threatened scholars around the world is an important contribution to the fulfilment of the UK’s aim to promote a more effective international response to humanitarian crises. As an organisation, it remains unique in Europe, and we should celebrate its 90th anniversary and the difference it has made and continues to make to so many lives for

“the relief of suffering and the defence of learning and science”.

It requires little direct help from Government. but I have a couple of requests for the Minister. First, as already noted, Cara fellows come to the UK on regular visas. Thanks to the care that Cara and the host university visa sponsors take, Cara fellows have in recent years enjoyed a 100% visa application success rate. I hope that the Home Office and UK Visas and Immigration will keep looking positively on Cara-associated visa applications, and that the Department will continue to recognise the contribution that Cara fellows make during their stays in the UK and subsequently through active partnerships, if and when they can safely return home. I also hope that the Home Office and UKVI will, therefore, be ready to discuss with Cara ways in which the visa regime might be adapted to make their fellows’ time in this country even more productive.

Finally, the Researchers at Risk programme has shown how effective a Government-funded scheme can be when it works with and complements existing efforts by proven practitioners. The original funding for Researchers at Risk is now fully committed, but I hope that the Government will learn from the undoubted success and be prepared to consider a longer-term follow-on scheme, open to academics at risk around the world. That would, indeed, ensure that the United Kingdom remains a global leader in this admirable field, and worthy of the efforts—

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on a superb speech. We do have at-risk academics in this country, not from torture or persecution in the sense that he is talking about, but from the modern thought police. People’s livelihoods and mental health can be put on the line by unfair dismissals. Would it not be a huge irony if some of the Cara fellows had the same fate? Does he agree that to be that true beacon in our country, we need that freedom of expression in all our institutions of higher learning, especially our universities?

My hon. Friend tempts me to move into a wider area of controversy, but one thing that I would note, without crossing that line, is that very often the people in our university community in the United Kingdom who speak out most strongly in favour of freedom of speech and who insist that people should listen to views with which they might not necessarily agree, rather than shout them down, have often experienced repression in their own countries and come to the United Kingdom to escape that type of restriction.

I will leave that point there and resume what will be my final sentence by repeating the fact that building on the undoubted success of the Researchers at Risk scheme would ensure that we remain both a global leader in this admirable field and worthy of the efforts made by the eminent founders of Cara 90 years ago.

It is a pleasure to appear before you, Sir Robert, in this most important debate.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Sir Julian Lewis) for securing this debate. As was abundantly clear from his remarks, this topic is of long-standing interest to him and I am pleased to respond on behalf of the Government and my right hon. Friend the Immigration Minister, who unfortunately is not here today.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East for his commitment to highlighting these issues and for championing such a commendable cause. As he pointed out, there are many examples of academics who have been able to continue their important work and studies here in the United Kingdom, whether that be through the global talent visa, the skilled worker visa or any other route for which they are eligible.

My right hon. Friend’s passion for and knowledge of this subject shone through his remarks today, particularly when he spoke about the work of the Council for At-Risk Academics. I have also heard him raise this issue in the main Chamber of the House of Commons itself, so dear does he hold this cause to his heart.

I think we all agree that academia, science and research have an enormously beneficial and enriching effect on our society and on our way of life in the United Kingdom. These activities drive progress in how we think and how we live. They foster collaboration and creativity. Whatever the discipline or the field, it is right that we do all we can to ensure that those working in it are supported and encouraged. Any threat against their freedom to carry out their work is totally unacceptable.

The impact of any attempt to impose restrictions on research in academia is profound; it is felt not only by the individuals involved but by the world as a whole, as we are denied the benefits of their knowledge and the advancements they could help forge.

For our part, the United Kingdom Government are committed to the cause of academic freedom globally and to ensuring that at-risk academics have a place of safety in which to study, teach and carry out research, including within the UK. Our work and study visa regime provides opportunities for such individuals to come to the United Kingdom and to continue their careers here, either on a permanent basis or until such time as it is safe for them to return to their own country. Such individuals can carry out their learning in peace and security, can forge a new and better life for themselves, and can contribute to the UK’s society and economy. That also demonstrates to those around the globe who seek to curtail knowledge and inquiry that the United Kingdom remains a beacon of academic freedom.

I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way and I apologise, Sir Robert, for missing the very start of the debate. I am also grateful to the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Sir Julian Lewis) for advising me of it.

The Minister is making a very good point about how the UK is seen globally. The point I want to make is the benefit that UK institutions receive from having these people here, who are right at the very top of their academic game. That is very true for the University of St Andrews, which is in my constituency and which is one of the Cara institutes. Does the Minister agree that we are getting the best of the best through this approach?

I agree with the hon. Lady that there is much we gain by way of academic research. Indeed, we enjoy the best not only of academia but of what the inquiring mind can bring to our institutions with a global feel. I agree with her wholeheartedly.

We thank Cara, similar organisations and the wider university sector, which create these opportunities and reach out to eligible individuals and groups. I also thank all those people who are here in Westminster Hall today. It is so nice to see the Public Gallery so very full. It includes Stephen Wordsworth, who is the director of Cara and who is here today with colleagues and friends. You are most welcome.

My right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East is also the Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee. As I alluded to earlier, he has said on a number of occasions that some states will continue to project threats to individuals even when those individuals are in the UK, having sought safety here. We will seek to identify and mitigate those threats wherever they exist. If threats should follow any academics to the United Kingdom, our world-leading intelligence and security agencies would take a proactive and robust approach to identify those threats and, where they exist, to provide protective security in whatever form is necessary.

There have been various interventions in the debate. It is not right for me to talk about specific cases, but I will ask the Immigration Minister to write to the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) to address the points that he raised. I am grateful, as always, for the intervention by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I think he has just left, but he always brings great experience and wisdom to these debates, and he works collaboratively across parties.

I thank the Minister for the remarks she has just made, but would it be possible for the Government to put more direct pressure on Governments such as that of Azerbaijan about the treatment of academics, as well as about the individual cases that have been raised today?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Government work very hard to promote the interests of academic and personal freedom across the globe. I cannot mention specific cases, but I will definitely get back to him through the Immigration Minister on the case that he mentioned. The Government will continue to seek academic freedom wherever they can throughout the world in cases of unjust and unfair incarceration.

My hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr Lord) was right in his intervention. Everybody who is here in this debate has the same heartfelt feelings about how we need to assist academia across the globe and provide, where appropriate, safety for academics to express their views.

It has been an interesting and informative debate. I hope I have left my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East and other Members in no doubt of the Government’s enduring commitment to protect, promote and support academia and research, which benefits so many of us. I offer my thanks again to my right hon. Friend for securing this important discussion.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.