Following the failed military coup in 2016, the Turkish government cracked down hard on academics. Many were labelled terrorists and lost their teaching jobs. They had their passports taken from them, were banned from working, while many were imprisoned.
According to Human Rights Watch, 5,800 academics had been removed from their positions by 2018, but not all gave up on teaching. In 2017, the deepening crisis of academic freedom in Turkey inspired a group of scholars to found the Off-University: an online educational space free from censorship and authoritarian surveillance.
Through their secure and anonymous online platform, the Off-University hosts courses led by exiled and at risk scholars from around the world. Exploring topics from colonialism to identity and peace studies, the courses are completely free and open to students across the globe.
While the initiative was formed by Turkish and German scholars, and is registered in Germany, its ambit is international. Many of the professors who now teach at the Off-University have already been banned from teaching in their home country.
While the range of disciplines covered by the university is broad, strong emphasis is given to subjects that are most under threat. In many oppressive regimes, topics such as critical studies and gender studies are often the first to be censored, with authoritarian governments eager to limit people’s capacity to critique power structures and the status quo.
The Off-University seeks to democratise high-quality education. The internet is already chock full of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), however, these courses usually consist of curated media content which students work their way through on their own. Online courses with small class groups actually taught by renowned academics in real time, like those at the Off-University, are a lot harder to come by. The fact that the courses are completely free makes them even more of a coveted resource.
Safe and Open Education for All
As well as being able to study without fees, students are able to use the credits (ECTs) gained at the Off-University for their degree programmes. The university partners with world-class universities, including the Humboldt University of Berlin and Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich (LMU). The university also hosts courses hosted by the New University in Exile Consortium, a group of educational institutes supporting exiled academics around the world.
The Off-University’s anonymous and secure learning platform, Coworkingsquares, is built for purpose and gives users the safest possible experience. It’s possible to use pseudonyms in order to protect the identities of those living under restrictive regimes.
The current term runs from April to July, with the current semester offerings including modules such as Gender, Religion and Power, and Racism, Coloniality, and Space. You can browse the full list of courses here.
While for now, the Off-University is an exclusively online endeavor, the long-term goal is to create “a Peace University that combines in-class and digital educational settings”.