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Links with Turkey vital amid clampdown, academics say

Recent political developments in Turkey – where thousands of academics have been dismissed and some detained in jail over the past 18 months – have had a profound effect on academic cooperation with Germany.

According to the German Academic Exchange Service or DAAD, Turkey experienced a 60% drop in the number of German visiting Erasmus students in 2016-17, compared to the year before. In Germany, Humboldt University of Berlin sent just 21 students this year compared to 55 last year, with other major institutions reporting a similar decline.

But academics discussing the issue in a recent panel debate at the University of Bonn’s Center for Development Research or ZEF agreed that there is a need to maintain links with Turkey’s universities to help keep academic freedom alive.

Speaking at an event organised by the Right Livelihood College at ZEF and the Bonn International Center for Conversion or BICC on 21 June, Özgür Mumcu, a law scholar at Galatasaray University in Istanbul, warned against boycotting Turkish higher education. “International cooperation is vital,” Mumcu, who also writes for Cumhuriyet, a leading independent newspaper in Turkey, told the panel.

“We have to keep windows and minds open,” said Antje Schlamm, who is responsible for scholarship programmes for academics from eastern Europe and Turkey at DAAD.

Schlamm pointed out that the Philipp Schwartz Initiative of Germany’s Alexander von Humboldt Foundation – which helps German institutions support threatened foreign researchers – was supporting posts for at least some of the 8,000 academics dismissed from Turkish universities, although she was sceptical about proposals raised by some German academics to create ‘safe zones’ in Turkey.

“Safe zones would be regarded by the state as the work of foreign agents, and this would only result in further academics being imprisoned,” Mumcu warned. “It is better to rely on traditional academic exchange.” And he reported that the purges were leading to self-censorship building up among academics.

“International exchange could also result in people spreading the wrong gospel,” BICC’s Markus Rudolf warned. Moreover, as members of the audience noted in the discussion, there was a danger of cooperation bolstering the status quo and ideals being lost.

However, the panel were in agreement that not supporting exchange, which was already jeopardised through travel bans, would amount to collective punishment. “This shouldn’t happen in academic cooperation,” Mumcu commented.

“There should be no spiral of fear and simply adapting to authoritarian change,” Michael Krzeminski, a professor of communications science at Bonn-Rhein-Sieg University of Applied Sciences, said in the discussion. “People should keep aware of developments rather than getting comfortable with them.”

Turkish academics can only leave Turkey with a special government permit, while foreign researchers require a similar permit issued by YÖK, the country’s Council of Higher Education.

DAAD President Margret Wintermantel recently stated that she had put her faith in what she refers to as “smart diplomacy”.

“We have to distinguish between what can be said in an official context at political level and what can be achieved in terms of exchange in confidential talks,” Wintermantel explained. What could not be accepted in her view was German academics being threatened with violence or confinement.

Michael Gardner Email: michael.gardner@uw-news.com
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