| Willy Brandt School of Public Policy

Why Germany Needs a Distance-Learning University for Countries in Crisis Now

Not only the war in Ukraine, but also recent examples like Myanmar and Afghanistan, have shown that critical independent universities are seriously threatened by autocracy and dictatorship. More and more voices are calling for ways to protect vulnerable academics, by providing them institutional docking in Germany, and thus giving them the opportunity to continue their research. In a guest article of the science blog WortMelder by the University of Erfurt, Brandt School Professor Achim Kemmerling explains why, in his opinion, Germany now needs a "distance-learning university for countries in crisis".

Universities in conflict areas
Practically empty Department of International Relations, Mandalay University, 2012 (© Matteo Fumagalli)

"In the past year alone, several key events have made clear: We need independent, critical universities, especially in the social sciences and humanities. The cruel military coup in Myanmar, for one, clearly demonstrated this. As a reminder, in 2010, the country had just cautiously opened up, allowing, among other things, social science programs that had been banned for decades. All of this was undone by the coup in February 2021. The reason is clear: dictatorships fear critical science.

The collapse of the Western-backed government in Afghanistan was the next clear alarm signal. Researchers, former students of many Western Universities were under extreme threat. This included alumni of the University of Erfurt who either had to flee the country or to burn their certificates and hide their education. Otherwise, they were considered collaborators. Under a regime that would prefer to lock women up at home, independent science is unthinkable.

Now Russia's war in Ukraine. The consequences for Russian universities are dramatic, as dissidence is not tolerated. Students who participate in protest rallies are kicked out of their universities and many are imprisoned. It is becoming increasingly clear that critical independent universities are under serious threat from the autocratic wave. What can be done?

There are generally three possibilities for Germany’s international cooperation in higher education. The first is to bring students and lecturers to Germany. In general, student exchange is always helpful and valuable for international understanding. Applied to the situation in Ukraine, the reception of refugees at universities is an enormously important emergency measure. However, such measures only bring forth limited progress, because they amount to support at the individual level and therefore don’t see particularly large multiplier effects.

Secondly, funds and experts can be sent to fragile countries to help establish universities there. In development cooperation, this is sometimes viewed with suspicion, and rightly so in some cases, because after all it is primarily German expertise that is being promoted. It all has an air of paternalism and Eurocentrism, with the motto: We Germans know everything better. Nevertheless, such forms of cooperation can be good measures, even if it is not entirely easy; in Myanmar, we have had very good experience with this in the past. The multiplier effects of these measures are potentially much greater, because the funds can serve many people on the ground. This is, of course, no longer possible in countries in deep crisis or at war.

It is for this reason that the third possibility is important, namely to create opportunities for students (and lecturers) from crisis countries to begin or continue their studies in Germany from a distance. Logistically speaking this is by no means trivial. Russia, for example, is building its own digital infrastructure (Internet, social media) that is isolated from the West in order to free itself from foreign influences. Nevertheless, there are increasingly better opportunities even for Afghan, Burmese, Russian or other students from countries in crisis to take up studies undetected by the authorities there. And the demand for this is great.

This third option is, as I said, not very simple. But there are possibilities. And we can continue to learn. In my opinion, Germany should lead by example. What we need is a mixture of Radio Free Europe and a distance-learning university, especially for countries in crisis and for disciplines that are at risk, and Germany can do that. Institutions like the Fernuniversität in Hagen have decades of experience in distance-learning education. Not to mention we are very good at educating a large number of students, and we can do it with negligible tuition fees.

Of course, universities cost taxpayers' money. But this is money well spent. Quite apart from the fact that we have a moral obligation to countries such as Afghanistan, there are many good reasons to mobilize funds from the German government's development and education budget for such a project. As the current war in Ukraine shows, we must also support such initiatives for reasons relating to foreign and security policy. Most people still do not yet grasp the enormous danger that the enormous global wave of autocratization constitutes for all of us.

Hence, such a distance university would have a very different multiplier effect. It would help provide local students with greater choices, it would strengthen those organizations and people who want to create change locally, and it would also convey what values Germany stands for: Education for all, regardless of gender or origin.

What we need is the political will to promote something like this. We are living in new times. Times in which things we used to take for granted - such as the importance of democracy and human rights, the peaceful coexistence of people in Europe - no longer apply. That's why we have to do everything we can to encourage people to think critically and independently and to stand up for a more tolerant world. A distance-learning university could break new ground in this regard."

Gerhard Haniel Professor for Public Policy and International Development
(Willy Brandt School of Public Policy)
C19 - Research Building "Weltbeziehungen" / C19.02.07