Army enters into row with rectors

October 10, 2003

The army has entered the escalating row between Turkey's government and university rectors over plans to reform higher education. Eight rectors have met the head of land forces, General Aytac Yalman, in what is being interpreted as a public warning to the government over its plans.

After the meeting, General Yalman said: "We are closely monitoring developments in education."

Under proposed reforms, the government would take control of universities from the independent higher education authority, Yok. It would also assume the power to dismiss university personnel, including rectors.

Universities will be free to decide whether students may wear religious dress. For the past decade, females wearing religious headscarves have been banned from higher education. In its election campaign, the Islamic-rooted government said it would lift the ban. But Turkey, although predominantly Muslim, is a secular country whose laws bar religious dress in state buildings.

The army, which sees itself as a guardian of secularism, is wary of the government. In 1996, military pressure led to the fall of Turkey's first Islamic-led government.

Nur Serter, deputy rector of Istanbul University, defended the meeting with the army. "The army has a constitutional role to protect the constitution and secularism," he told The THES .

"These reforms have nothing to do with improving higher education. This is purely about politicising higher education and seizing control of it as part of its agenda to undermine the secular state."

Many rectors have attacked the reforms and the prime minister. In retaliation, the government has put a freeze on all appointments below the rank of professor and some universities have had their funding halted.

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