No going back: young Turks see little reason to come home

Despite government inducements, Turkish postgraduates who study abroad are reluctant to join a 'toxic' system resistant to reform. Hannah Fearn writes

April 14, 2011

The Turkish university system has expanded rapidly in recent years. But for some observers, this growth has caused as many problems as it has solved.

In 1970 Turkey had just eight public universities. The number of institutions had risen to 53 by 2000, and, according to the Turkish Ministry of Education, almost doubled again by 2008. A separate private higher education sector is also thriving in the country.

The expansion was encouraged by the government, which saw universities as a means to boost the country's social and economic prospects.

But it occurred so quickly, says Servet Çelik, assistant professor of foreign language education at Karadeniz Technical University, that a crisis in resources developed - universities could not find the sheer number of academics they needed.

"The swift increase in the number and size of universities has resulted in a challenge to find trained faculty," Dr Çelik writes in a recent paper on the state of the Turkish academy.

In response, the government set up a sponsorship scheme to help fund graduate students to study abroad in exchange for subsequent academic service at home. It aims to have supported 5,000 researchers by the end of this academic year.

But Dr Çelik argues that the scheme is flawed because it does not tackle deep-rooted problems in the Turkish academy.

In a paper published in the spring edition of Higher Education Review, he claims that a series of "systemic barriers and oppressive structures" will stymie the ambition of returning scholars.

Although the young academics may find posts, he predicts they will soon become frustrated when they realise that they are unable to effect any real improvements in the quality of Turkish higher education.

"There is a huge gap between the rhetoric and the reality when it comes to change in higher education," Dr Çelik writes in the paper, "Turkish Higher Education at the Crossroads: Critical Issues of Systemic and Institutional Structures".

"Turkish universities and academics suffer from over-regulation, with nationally defined strict rules and laws which tend to inhibit reform and acts deviating from uniformity. Sending students abroad without carefully reviewing and eliminating the repressive structures and the domination of power holders at both national and institutional levels is not enough to attain the higher education goals (to which) Turkey aspires."

Not ready for the big leagues

Despite holding up Western institutions as the ideal, Turkey's higher education system is not ready to operate Western standards, Dr Çelik says. He argues that it is plagued by inherent problems including nepotism, low pay, lack of resources, strict institutional hierarchies, low status and burdensome regulation.

Academics in Turkey are considered civil servants, and the sector is tightly controlled. The Council of Higher Education, which oversees universities, has just 22 members, and seven of them - including the chair - are appointed by Turkey's president. Because governments have long tended to view universities as sources of potential political unrest, the regulatory burden on the sector is always increasing.

Derya Ozkul, an alumna of Bogaziçi University and a blogger for the International Sociological Association, believes that the Council of Higher Education has become too domineering.

"The planning and supervision of universities includes not only approving the courses and the faculties, but also intervening in campuses physically," she said. For example, she noted that recent protests over rising tuition fees at public universities led to the introduction of security guards and entry and exit checkpoints on campus.

Such restrictions notwithstanding, Turkey has had some success in attracting foreign academics. The Council of Higher Education puts the number at 1,310 for the current academic year - up 60 per cent on five years ago. Most of them work in Istanbul, and the increase in recent years is attributable largely to the growth in the number of wealthy private institutions.

This concentration of talent and resources highlights another of the sector's problems. According to Ms Ozkul, the private institutions lure the best academics away from their public counterparts.

Resat Kasaba, former president of the Turkish Studies Association and director of the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington, highlighted what he saw as a more fundamental problem. He said he was disturbed by the "absence of a deeply ingrained belief in the value of liberal education" in Turkey.

"[During the expansion] concerns such as the prestige of having a university in a particular town played a more important role than the feasibility of supporting such an institution. The establishment of a truly autonomous higher education system in Turkey is the most important challenge the country faces."

His concerns are echoed by Dr Çelik, who believes that Turkey's ambitions for its academy will fail unless universities, public and private, are given more freedom from the state.

"Although the (political) rhetoric calls for change, it rejects any attempts to change the toxic roots of the system," he writes.

He claims that many Turkish academics who have been educated in the US or the UK return ambitious and keen to help build a new, competitive higher education sector.

Once back, however, "their academic fervour is tested in a system that lacks material resources, moral support and unequivocal standards".

In such an environment, "Turkey's effort and money spent on these brains will be a waste", he says.

"By sending students abroad for reform at home, (the government) has been attempting to add a second storey to an existing structure with major flaws, instead of tearing down the underlying features that cannot be salvaged and starting afresh."

Rethink of governance needed

What is needed, Dr Çelik says, is a complete overhaul of the laws governing higher education, more institutional autonomy and a revamp of universities' governance structures.

But a Turkish academic working in the UK thinks such changes would still not be enough to infuse the academy with the new blood it needs because, despite the best efforts of the government, most students who go abroad stay abroad.

"The major problem is convincing students to come back once they are done with their studies," said Cemil Selcuk, a lecturer in economics at Cardiff Business School.

"The financial reasons are obvious. Once one realises the 'outside option' in the US, it is easy to have second thoughts about going back."

But there are also other reasons for this reluctance - according to Dr Selcuk, opportunities for promotion come easier in the West.

Because of the system's bureaucracy, those returning to Turkey can find it "just as difficult as those who stayed" to win a desirable permanent position, despite holding a PhD from a respected foreign institution.

Dr Selcuk said many wait for up to three years for an appointment, while struggling on temporary or research assistant contracts with no job security and little reward.

"It is quite a shock to somebody who saw better in the US," he said. "When such stories spread, it is hard to convince others to return."

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