Scholars At Risk — Protecting Academic Capital to Benefit Academia: A Talk with a Scholar

Azher Hameed Qamar

This commentary is based on an interview with a scholar who was recruited in Sweden as part of the Scholar at Risk initiative. The discussion revealed the challenges associated with utilizing scholars as academic capital to benefit academia in both the home and host countries. Scholar at Risk (SAR) supports displaced scholars in protecting their right to free speech and academic freedom. The selection of the scholars is based on the level of vulnerability and capability of the scholars. This interview-based text reflects on the notion of academic capital and the role of institutes in utilizing scholars’ professional knowledge and skills. This brief text emphasizes the importance of academic capital development, scholar intellectual gratification, and institutions’ innovative roles.

The term academic capital reflects Bourdieu’s concept of ‘capital’ which he explained as cultural capital transmitted by school and family (Bourdieu, 1986). Later it was interpreted regarding the individual’s academic quality that includes professional qualifications and skills. In the context of academia, academic capital is defined as the ability of scholars/teachers/researchers to benefit academia with their skills, knowledge, and experience (Prejmerean and Vasilache, 2008). In war-torn societies (for example Syria), scholars and academics are at risk, and their abilities are restricted by controlling their freedom. One way to help these scholars is to relocate them to safe countries where they can contribute to academia through research and education.

The Scholars at Risk (SAR) program is an initiative to support and protect scholars in these countries. SAR started in 1999 at the University of Chicago and grew into an international network of academic institutions (by 2000) to protect, assist, and defend scholars who face threats to their lives and freedom to contribute to academia. SAR assists in relocating scholars fleeing dangerous conditions to universities in safe locations to work as researchers and/or teachers for six months to two years. In 2021 I started working on a research project related to social resilience and migration in Sweden. During my field visits in Sweden, I met many immigrants from war-torn countries (such as Syria, Iraq, and other countries in similar conditions), and got an understanding of their experience in Sweden that helped me in developing my research project. However, meeting with Professor Anas (fictitious name) opened a relatively new and rarely explored dimension of migration. Professor Anas (about 60 years old) was appointed to a university in Sweden two years ago under the SAR program. I had a long talk with him about how he felt about this initiative. This text provides a description of the experience as well as a ground-up perspective on the SAR project. For ethical concerns, I am not sharing any information that may be used to identify the participant. Hence, skipping the introductory conversation, the text presented here is focused on the significant and relevant questions and answers from this conversation.

Author: How did you get the job as a researcher/teacher at a Swedish university?

Professor: The criteria were difficult, and as far as I could tell, the level for screening candidates was high. I learned about SAR from a friend (in my home country) and applied online. I received an email inviting me to an online interview at SAR. I was asked about my qualifications, research, and the reasons I applied for positions as a teacher or researcher in other countries. They asked me several things about my vulnerable position as a scholar in the country. Overall, it appeared to me that they wanted to know if I was ‘truly’ at risk. After a couple of months, I was invited for another online interview at a Swedish university. It was mostly about my capabilities to contribute to academia in a Swedish institute. After the interview, they gave me some practical information about applying for a visa. The entire process took about a year, and I eventually joined the institute two years ago. Now that I have finished my work here, I am returning to my home country.

Author: How was your department or school that you joined, and how did you contribute in these two years?

Professor: Yes, the school was great, and I felt like I could contribute in a variety of ways while also learning a lot. I was ambitious in my early meetings with the head, and the head had plans to involve me in productive activities. However, I did not get any task or activity where I could utilize my experience. Perhaps the head was preoccupied with other matters, and we were unable to materialize anything. I did some teaching as well as a seminar. During this time, though, I continued to write and publish papers.

Author: How many courses did you teach, and how was your experience teaching international students?

Professor: It was COVID-19, and all the classes were online. I think they did not have courses for me to teach. In the first year, I had three students in a course, and in the second year, I only had one student in the same course. I cannot say that I had a wonderful teaching experience. I think the school might have utilized my skills to contribute to developing a course relevant to my study area and their academic need.

Author: What about research? Did you conduct or supervise any research?

Professor: No. I did not have any students to supervise the research. I was also not engaged in any research project. I co-presented a seminar with a colleague and published a paper based on the seminar’s content. These were the only things I did for the school. The other articles that I published were from my previous work before joining the institution.

Author: How would you sum up your overall professional experience in Sweden? Are you happy with your work as a scholar, researcher, and educator?

Professor: If I pretend, I am satisfied, it will not be true. It is unique to my situation (perhaps) and should not be interpreted as a generalization. In one way, it was fortunate for me that I found a peaceful place to stay, think, and write, and that I did. I published my work, even though most of it was what I was already doing and had not been conceptualized or materialized at school. I realize that the COVID-19 issue has hampered several academic and scientific activities. However, in my case, I think that I might be a part of teaching and research activities or could have been engaged in other things. I believe that the school did not utilize my skills and professional experience. It would be far more satisfying for me to contribute and grow by drawing on my experience and my studies at a Swedish institution. It did not happen that way, as you see how little I worked for the school in these two years.

Author: Do you have any plans to find another job through the SAR program?

Professor: Yes, I have applied again for another contract in any other country if not here. What will I do in my home country? Working conditions aside, the living conditions have not been improved. If I must go back, I do not have any option. Anyhow, I am trying again, and I know my professional profile is good.

Author: What do you suggest to improve the SAR program to employ scholars?

Professor: As I said before, the scholars must participate and learn at the host universities. This means that to engage the scholars who are coming to them through the SAR initiative, the host departments must be adaptable and creative. It is good that a rigorous process is employed to select scholars, even though it may be too demanding for scholars from war-torn countries. On the other hand, I anticipate that the host departments will provide the migrant scholars with a practical road map. As scholars, we need to work on projects that will advance our academic careers and benefit academia in both the host and home countries.

The professor also suggested that schools that welcome scholars should create projects for them to utilize their expertise and learn more to improve their knowledge and capabilities. Professor Anas did his Ph.D. in a European country and is professionally equipped with the required teaching and research skills. His professional profile presents him as the academic capital that SAR required. However, his dissatisfaction reveals the need for intellectual gratification of the scholars, enhancement of the academic capital, and innovative role of the institutions. My perspective on this whole conversation is based on three key points (figure 1):

Figure 1. Scholars at Risk: Selection, Placement and Expected Outcome

First, the SAR screening standards for selecting scholars appear strict and demanding. It implies that SAR, besides the qualification of the scholar, assures that a scholar is 1) at risk, facing threats to his or her life and freedom, and 2) an academic capital, benefiting schools, students, and researchers. In this situation, a professor from a war-torn country with extensive professional experience and a foreign education was an excellent pick to benefit academia. I wonder how the concept of ‘academic capital’ would be applied in instances when scholars are at risk yet are not ‘highly skilled or qualified’ due to their circumstances. Hence, the notion of academic capital works as a device to pick and choose the professionals who may be best utilized in the host country. However, in the case of Professor Anas, the intellectual gratification and utilization of academic capital are not evident.

Second, the institutions where the scholars are assigned should be able to get the maximum benefit from the academic capital that has been relocated to their schools or departments. This implies that schools and departments must be sufficiently innovative and adaptable to create new initiatives as well as extend and modify existing ones. If they do not do it, neither academia nor scholars will be benefited.

Third, while the scholars should return to their home countries after completing their contract (six months, one year, or two years), they must be equipped with new knowledge and skills. In other words, it is important to see how the academic capital is developed and enhanced at the host institutions. It is only possible if they have an intellectually stimulating experience at the school where they have been appointed. On the other hand, if the conditions in the scholars’ home countries are not improved; there should be an option to extend the contract. However, it is again subjected to the school’s investment and interest to engage the scholars in research and teaching.

According to SAR, three hundred threatened scholars are placed (in temporary research and teaching positions) at various universities in different countries each year. The SAR agenda to protect scholars and provide them the freedom to share their valuable knowledge is appreciated in academia. While there is a ‘merit’ (both at SAR and host departments) that assists SAR in screening the eligible candidates, it is obvious that the ‘quality check’ is also in practice to refer the best academic capital (with a great deal of knowledge) to the host universities. In this regard, there is a need to investigate the academic experience of scholars (at risk) in host university departments, informing them about their contribution and learning. Transferring academic capital from vulnerable to secure domains should benefit both parties (home and host countries). I felt compelled to give the professor a voice through this text after speaking with him. Even though his case is selective and cannot be generalized, it is possible to observe it in a positive way to develop and use academic capital for both the host country and the home countries of the scholars. This conversation has inspired me to understand the significance of academic capital in the context of scholar migration and the role of the hosting institutes in enhancing their abilities and experience.


Bourdieu, P. (1986) “The forms of capital.” In J. Richardson (Ed.) Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education (New York, Greenwood), 241–258.

Prejmerean, M. C., & Vasilache, S. (2008). A Three-Way Analysis of the Academic Capital of a Romanian University. Journal of applied quantitative methods3(2), 129–138.

Scholar at Risk (SAR). Protecting scholars and the freedom to think, question, and share ideas.

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