Academic Freedom for All

Cara project © Cole Keister

Quietly and anonymously, foreign academics endangered by war and dictatorships have been fleeing to sanctuary at Lancaster University to carry on their research and to complete qualifications free from danger to their personal safety, thanks to its membership of Cara (the Council for At-Risk Academics.

Now the university has formalised its welcome to at-risk asylum-seeking academics by setting up a Sanctuary Fellowship to support individuals for up to two years at a time. This will offer temporary safety to colleagues in need, and help develop their skills and networks so they can return to help rebuild their home countries when this is possible. One scholar is already in place, but further funding of £13,000 is needed to provide support for a second fellow to come to Lancaster and carry on their work in safety. It costs £16,500 - £40,000 to support an academic for one year - depending on whether they arrive alone or with an accompanying family. The money pays for their basic living expenses.

Dr Sarah Marsden, who lectures in Radicalisation and Protest in a Digital Age based in the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion, acts as mentor to academics on the Cara scheme at Lancaster. She said “It is fundamental that we come together to safeguard education and structures in countries where people are at risk because their views are not popular with their regime. In doing this we are not only protecting individuals in danger, we are also giving those countries a much better chance of recovery after a period of turmoil.”

Cara was set up by top UK academics and scientists in 1933 in response to the rise of the Nazis in Europe with an aim of rescuing their colleagues from persecution, to “prevent the waste of exceptional abilities exceptionally trained”. This founding intention has not changed and Lancaster University is a long-standing supporter. Cara acts as the point of contact for the at-risk academics and administers their flight until they and their families reach the campus, at which point Lancaster takes over.

It is Cara that matches individuals with supervising academics and departments in UK universities to ensure the best fit for both parties. This is not a one-way relationship; fellows also contribute to university life by teaching and sharing their experience with UK colleagues.

To date, Lancaster University has supported two scholars to complete their PhDs here, but the Syrian crisis has highlighted the need to set up a more formal system for scholars on the point of fleeing their country.

Vice-Chancellor Professor Mark Smith has given his full backing to the Sanctuary Fellowship and says, ”I regard this as an important example of Lancaster’s culture and ethos of fair play and inclusivity. For that reason, and to help launch the initiative, I have set aside £20,000 to provide matched funding for donations that support our Lancaster Sanctuary Fellowship. I am also donating my own money to the project. Please join me in making a donation today”. His aim - announced in an all-staff meeting - is to have a Sanctuary Fellow in every one of Lancaster’s four main faculties by 2022.

Dr Marsden is appealing to alumni to consider giving financial backing to the Sanctuary Fellowship scheme. It needs 40 people to commit £25 a month to make it sustainable into the future. She says, “Education is the bedrock of the future for these troubled countries.”

The Alumni and Development Office ran a telethon in the summer to make contact with as many former students as possible about the Sanctuary Fellowship.

Lancaster undergraduates have also launched the Lancaster University Refugee Scholarship campaign to provide similar support for young refugees and asylum seekers.

A Lancaster Sanctuary Fellow states: It is hard to overestimate what Lancaster Sanctuary Fellowship makes possible; it contributes to the existence of the individual and their right to life, to the creativity of the individual which otherwise would have been terminated, to the research he/she participates in, and to the future of freedom of speech and expression in the entire world.

To contribute to the Lancaster University Sanctuary Fellowship, go to



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