UNIVERSITIES are at the centre of an ongoing war of words between Turkey's secular and Islamic communities. Academics last week inflicted a defeat on the Islamic-led coalition when a parliamentary commission overturned proposals to put YOK, the higher education authority, under direct ministerial control.
YOK, which was set up in 1982, has wide-ranging powers over the universities and their budgets. It can also dictate how universities are run. Universities and the president appoint the majority of the board but now the government wants this right.
The proposal has kindled the anger of universities. Fifteen rectors, representing the country's 61 universities, presented Mustafa Kaman, the parliamentary speaker, with a declaration claiming this was not a conciliatory move but a threat to the independence of YOK and the secular education system.
Ayhan Alktas, rector of the Yildz Technical University in Istanbul, said: "Universities will become another state enterprise and subject to direct political intervention."
The dispute has caused divisions within the coalition government. Education minister Mehmet Saglam opposes the reform. "I am against this proposal. It attacked YOK's autonomy, this is wrong. I opposed the proposal and argued against it and won. YOK's autonomy is very important and has to be maintained," he said.
But Mr Saglam, an academic for 35 years and a former YOK president, is a member of the junior partner in the coalition. He said the senior partner, the Islamic Refah Party, could overturn the commission decision. "We have to continue to persuade them (the government), as much we can, we have to keep on arguing," he said.
Turkey, although predominantly Muslim, has been strictly secular since the formation of the republic in 1923 by Kemal Ataturk. A secular education is seen by both secularist and Islamic communities as one of the major pillars of Turkish society.
Kemal Guruz, president of YOK, described "universities as a stronghold of Ataturk's reforms".
Academics fear that if the government gains control of YOK, the universities will be vulnerable to far-reaching changes in courses and appointments.
Dr Guruz said: "If these changes are introduced, there is no limit to how far Islamic reforms can be introduced. We are already under some pressure - it is a distinct possibility."
Mr Saglam acknowledges these concerns about his coalition partner. "If YOK loses its autonomy then these fears could be right."
The Islamic Refah Party has for many years been particularly critical of YOK and has argued for changes in universities, which, it claims, discriminate against religious students and are too western-orientated. Its strongest criticism has been over religious dress.
For the past ten years strict laws on religious dress in public places have caused campus strife. The laws are over 60 years old and forbid the wearing of religious dress in parliament, courts and universities. According to its supporters, they are crucial in protecting the secular nature of society.
The restrictions mainly affect women, who cover themselves in accordance with Muslim tradition. For years universities barred religiously dressed women and it was here that laws were first challenged by the growing Islamic movement in Turkey.
A protracted battle followed with YOK the target. YOK finally capitulated, devolving the decision to individual universities. Most colleges now admit students dressed according to Islamic codes. A few, including Izmir University, one of the largest, still enforce the ban. However, YOK remains subject to criticism for its position.
YOK is a legacy of the 1980 military coup and until now had few friends. It was set up by the military to control the universities and removed much of their autonomy. The military still has one representative on the YOK board.
In the 1980s YOK enforced a purge of left-wing academics along with a general programme of de-politicisation of the universities. But in the past few years YOK has rarely used its powers, making the universities vulnerable to political manipulation, if it ever fell under direct government control.
Professor Altkas argues that "our expectations regarding YOK were to restructure the board in such a way as to secure democratic universities, but the present new draft will bind YOK to politics completely."
The government proposal can still be raised in parliament, but opponents are expected to continue lobbying. The president could also delay any proposed changes, although this would bring him into conflict with the government.
University rectors have also argued that attacks on YOK's autonomy could be challenged by Turkey's constitutional court.