The slow death of Turkish higher education

Recent reforms in higher education are threatening the independence of Turkish universities.

The veil was banned in Turkish universities until early 2000s [AFP/Getty Images]

Academic freedom is not something Turkey is known for, and recent legislation on higher education makes sure that it will stay that way for years to come. The government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), in a push to exert greater control over higher education, has proposed legislation undermining the autonomy of private universities and academic freedom of professors, which is almost certain to pass in the parliament.

The new legislation will affect board selection in private universities, tenure and promotion reviews, and granting of equivalency to degrees obtained abroad.

Historically, Turkish higher education has always been marred by conflicts over ideology and petty material interests. More recently, universities become the locus of the secular-religious conflict in Turkey when headscarves were banned as a political symbol and a marker of backwardness. For almost a decade, women wearing headscarves were not allowed on university campuses.

This was possibly one of the worst phases of Turkish higher education because it explicitly violated individual rights and discriminated against women. Furthermore, this ban polarised professors around the enforcement of the ban, some even taking it upon themselves to enforce it on their campuses, despite the fact that no legal foundation existed for such a ban.

Producing ‘good’ citizens

In its first years in power, the AKP government was an ardent opponent of the agency that oversees higher education in Turkey, the Council of Higher Education (YOK), which had been established by the military regime with the 1982 constitution. Following the tense and polarised 1970s, YOK’s primary responsibility was to ensure that universities, both public and private, would cease to become centres of heated political and social debates and discussions; universities were, essentially, told to produce good, law-abiding citizens who act within the confines of the military-drafted 1982 constitution.

The AKP government took steps to alleviate some of the problems plaguing higher education. With the appointment of a new chair to YOK, the ban on veiling was lifted, funding for scientific research increased substantially through the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TUBITAK), and tenure and promotion requirements were standardised to minimise ideological and arbitrary decisions. There were still some infringements on academic freedoms, but there was improvement.

Changes to higher education

Just as many began to hope that things in higher education might improve, thanks to these initial reform efforts by the AKP government, Gezi Park happened, and the government got caught in the backlash. In late 2013 and early 2014, YOK published new campus regulations, which allow university administrations to sanction all faculty and students who get engaged in discussions, debates, declarations, and statements that are not “scientific” in nature.

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This regulation is problematic because it violates freedom of expression and is excessively vague. Needless to say, it is the university administration (and, by extension YOK) that can determine what constitutes scientific and nonscientific statements.

According to YOK, the new regulations are in place to prevent folks in university campuses from talking publically “out of capacity”.

The most significant setback to academic freedom in Turkey in decades might be in the making, however, with the introduction of new legislation in the parliament on YOK’s powers. This new legislation represents a major obstacle to academic freedom in the country. It is a comprehensive bill with several different components. Yet three stand out in the proposed legislation with respect to higher education and academic freedom.

First, until now, tenure and promotion reviews and decision-making had rested with an independent body, the Inter-University Council; with the new legislation, that power is given to YOK, which is directly controlled by the government.

The concern here is that those professors who do not align well with the governing party are likely to face repercussions. Hence, professors should keep to themselves at all times for fear of what might transpire with their academic careers, unless, of course, they support the governing party and its policies wholeheartedly.

Second, with the new legislation, YOK is provided with the privilege to appoint or elect board members of private universities (technically speaking, these are foundation universities, not private, but there is no real practical difference). YOK already has supervision powers over all universities, however the new bill suggests that even the founders of these universities, who committed their money, time, and effort to these institutions, can be left out of their governing boards.

This is problematic because it violates the rights of private citizens. The state, for all practical purposes, is one step away from nationalising these institutions. Turkish university boards have extensive powers, virtually extending to the daily operations of universities. Boards need to, for example, sign onto the hiring of new faculty members, including temporary ones. The move to endow YOK with such sweeping powers is likely aimed at undermining certain private universities that are affiliated with the Gulen Movement, deemed to be one of the most critical voices against the AKP government.

Politicised education

Lastly, the right to grant equivalency to degrees, i.e. MA and PhD, obtained abroad has been given to YOK; previously the Inter-University Council exercised this right. Once again, the politicised nature of YOK subjects hard-earned degrees to arbitrary decision-making. PhD and MA holders who are deemed to lack the “right” frame of mind, can be denied equivalency, despite the fact that the academic poverty of Turkish universities cannot be overstated. A state institution endowed with sweeping powers over private institutions also raises the question of whether such legislation can be upheld in a constitutional review.

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We must keep in mind that none of this is happening in a vacuum. The increasing public dissatisfaction and the societal polarisation created in the aftermath of the Gezi Park protests, and the corruption scandal that broke out in December 2013 lie at the heart of the government’s move to curb academic freedom. The government aims to minimise public opposition by limiting what happens on university campuses.

The consequences for a young graduate trying to start an academic career can be significant. For example, a scholar with a PhD from a foreign university desiring to pursue a career in Turkey may not be able to do so, if his or her degree is not granted the equivalency stamp.

Even if it is, and the scholar gains the right to work as a professor in a private Turkish university, he or she may not be hired, as YOK will be controlling appointments through university boards.

Even if the young scholar is hired by a private university, he or she may never receive tenure or promotion. The existence or absence of such barriers would depend on the scholar’s political or ideological affiliation. With the new legislation, all of this can happen completely arbitrarily without regard for merit or objectivity, and in utter disregard of the fact that Turkey is in urgent need of qualified scholars to raise the level of its higher education. In such an environment, we cannot speak of academic freedom or scientific progress.

An institution such as a university mired in petty conflicts or bickering over ideology does not stand a chance to succeed in its raison d’etre. More importantly, an institution such as YOK that actively encourages such ideological conflict, polarisation, and discrimination is on the fast track to undermining all the gains of higher education in recent years. None of this bodes well for the state of Turkish higher education or democracy. 

A Kadir Yildirim is an assistant professor at Furman University. His main research interests include economic liberalisation, democratisation, political Islam, politics of the Middle East and Turkish politics.