Education RightUniversity

The situation of universities which have lost their merit in the Justice and Development Party (AKP) period and the higher education policies of opposition parties

Ömer Faruk Can

Click to read in Kurdish or Turkish.

During the 20-year-long AKP government period, almost all the deep-rooted institutions pertaining to the Republic of Turkey corroded and their institution profile got weakened.

Both the “deinstitutionalization” which is the basis of the problems occuring probably more than ever within the history of Turkey and the corruption which is materialized in the form of bossism have a great effect on not only today of Turkey but also its very future.

Turkish Armed Forces through the discharges beginning after the July 15 coup attempt, the parliament through the presidential system, universities seized through trustees as well as the Central Bank of the Republic of Turkey which lost its independence and merit due to the imposed economic policy. 

The number of private universities is increasing, universities are turning into family corporations

In the AKP period, the fact which mostly draws attention about the transformation of universities is the increase in the number of universities.

The number of universities which was 71 from 1923-the year of establishment of the Republic of Turkey, to 2003, has exceeded 200 by the year 2022. According to the 2020 report of the Council of Higher Education (YÖK), the average number of books per capita is 8. That number shows us that there are books so limited in number and the totality of which even fails to constitute a personal library. 

Although every year 3 million students take the university entrance exam, the number of students who are admitted to universities doesn’t correspond to one-third of it. In 2020, the number of vacancies in universities was more than two hundred thousand. 

The significant increase in the number of  private universities during the AKP period (the number of established private universities is more than the public ones) supports that. The minimum passing score of the university entrance exam being suspended will be helpful for the universities suffering from empty vacancies. Although the YÖK President claims that the decision will increase the posibility of competition among the university students, the relevant amendment is indeed a move for supporting  universities with empty vacancies.  

Another issue which draws attention and also frequently appears on the media is the transformation of provincial universities into family corporations. That positions in the universities are full of people who have family ties reflects the government’s way of rule. Through a way of ruling in which spouses, kids, grooms and all the relatives are bestowed privileges, it is impossible for universities to be left out. 

According to the news reported by ODA TV, 30 academicians in Çorum Hitit University are married to each other. Again, in Katip Çelebi University,  27 people including the rector, vice rectors, deans as well as  academicians have family ties. That cronyism owes its possibility to appointments made without an examination and open vacancies addressing specific individuals. That kind of cases occur in “apartment-like universities” established during the AKP period, which is not a coincidence. 

Universities being conquered in “legal” ways

Lastly, I want to talk about the political oppression on universities.  The oppression especially on long-established universities having a unique tradition has mounted more than ever. Through the authority given by the Presidential System,  universities having  their own custom and tradition began to be transformed and “conquered” in “legal” ways. Melih Bulu, an ex-candidate of AKP for parliament members,  was appointed as a trustee rector to Boğaziçi University, which was the most typical instance for undergoing interventions and occupations. 

Through disrespecting  existing customs,  extinguishing traditions generated in years and intervening from the outside, universities are getting deserted.  Even the Turkish Military Academy founded in 1984 got transformed into the University of National Defense and began to educate. As the result of those political interventions, in recent years, universities such as METU, Boğaziçi University  and Istanbul Technical University are regressing in the list of top-rated universities.

Oppression and assimilation policies are being practiced in different ways. Top down appointments are just one of  many. Almost all of the student activities are being restricted.  For instance, various attempts were made to prevent METU’s well-known spring fest but the fest took place thanks to students’ struggle. Students who made cow pray in the “Cow Feast”- yearslong activity of Ankara University, were subjected to an investigation by the rectorate on the grounds that it was contrary to the principles of the university. A student who opened a stand in 1 May activities organized by university components in METU was subjected to investigation. Research Assistants from the Political Science and Public Administration Department and Sociology Department, namely Mehmet Mutlu and Sibel Bekiroğlu were dismissed without showing any reason. The activity of the Society of Environment was canceled two days before its taking place. Pretty much threatening mails were sent by the METU rectorate, a few days to the 10th Pride Parade. 

That atmosphere of oppression having so many similar instances makes students anxious. Students are being transformed into ineffective and passive people. They expect a university student who is disconnected from and even indifferent to social and political affairs, someone harmless. 

The opposition should also bear the burden

Such a deep-rooted problem can be solved only with an approach which has a conscious, planned and programmed attitude. To that point, the opposition parties in the parliament should also take the responsibility. However, I am still not sure whether those parties have any “detailed” higher education policy plan. The most radical promise regarding universities up to now is the termination of YÖK by the DEVA Party.  DEVA clearly emphasized that in their first congress. Nevertheless, it is not the first promise given for the termination of YÖK. If  the President of the Republic Erdoğan’s making the same promise back in the days is also remembered, the promise will not seem radical enough. “The Right for Education in the 2nd Century Workshop” organized by the Republican People’s Party (CHP) gives an idea about the higher education policies of the opposition parties. In the final declaration, headings like the termination of YÖK, providing universities both the administrative and economic autonomy,  the transformation of commercialized universities, planning the establishment of new universities, competence as a criteria in appointments and job guarantee draw attention. At the end of the day, despite all practices of the government on universities, we come to face with practices being all talk when we consider the opposition parties in the parlamento.

In conclusion, universities like many other long-established institutions in Turkey have had their own share from the existing incompetence, corruption and unlawfulness. Despite such a gloomy atmosphere, there are academicians and students who work, produce and struggle. As I am writing that piece, our professors in Boğaziçi University keep struggling for more than a year. If we ask for “the better,”  we have to struggle and disturb those in power together with all university components- academicians, students and workers, without waiting for a savior or an election. I want to end my piece by the sociologist Stuart Mill’s saying: “ A university is either a criticizing institution or nothing.”

*July 2022

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