Pirates battle over degrees

January 5, 1996

Some British universities operating in Turkey are involved in illegal education programmes, the country's higher education board, YOK, has alleged.

YOK, which administers and supervises Turkish universities, is waging a campaign against what it calls "illegal or pirate universities". The role of British universities has come under close scrutiny as a result of its investigation.

Mehmet Ali Kircaslan, YOK chairman, claims that in the past few years some private colleges have offered foreign university degrees without having any legal basis to operate as universities. Most of the foreign universities involved are British. They include Liverpool John Moores and Oxford Brookes universities.

YOK has issued warnings to the prime minister's office, the interior ministry and the education ministry and called for their closure. It has also sent letters to all British universities involved with private Turkish education institutions to remind them of the legal situation in Turkey, which has strict laws on the formation of universities. Only two categories of higher education institutions can award degrees - state-run universities and non-profit-making private foundations, both of which require YOK general assembly approval, followed by a vote in the Turkish parliament. At present there are only two such foundations.

To get around this legislation, private profit-making Turkish institutions approached foreign universities to set up joint ventures, by which they could offer coveted foreign university degrees to students prepared to pay. The Turkish institutions gained permission from the ministry of education to run courses such as teaching English or computer studies. The institutions then offered prospective students the opportunity of studying for a foreign university degree in Turkey, advertising in the country's national press.

The YOK chairman says that most foreign universities, when approached by these institutions, contacted YOK to seek clarification. When told of the legal situation, they refused to join the venture.

But Oxford Brookes and John Moores accepted. Oxford Brookes is working with Dogus Educational Institution, which is owned by the business conglomerate, Dogus, a Turkish media empire with many other business interests. Jim Bradshaw, deputy vice chancellor of Oxford Brookes, says that they have behaved correctly, seeking British Council advice and were granted permission by the education minister. With this clearance he saw no reason to contact Turkey's controlling body on university affairs.

He described the decision as a "sound educational venture" through which the university franchised its degrees to a Turkish institution. He claimed the utmost care was taken to ensure comparable standards were maintained between Oxford and Istanbul-based degrees. Great care was taken in selecting staff, including one member of his faculty supervising the programme. He believed it was a way of extending British university education, but acknowledged it provided a useful source of income to the university. He declined to reveal how much money the venture brought to the university.

The claim that franchised degrees are comparable has been treated with scepticism within Turkey's higher education establishment. Suha Sevuk, rector of the Middle East Technical Institute, one of Turkey's foremost universities, has been one of the franchise system's most outspoken critics. He argues that just because the same methods and books are used it cannot be considered similar.

"If I used the same books and course structure as the London School of Economics and had a couple of professors over to supervise, would it be comparable to the LSE? Of course not!" He believes that education is not the main motive for the scheme but money, with students the victims.

These concerns are shared by many in Turkey's academic circles. Umit Tazebey, former chairman of YOK who left his post last year, fears the controversy could seriously damage the reputations of British universities in Turkey and threaten the long and fruitful academic relationship between the two countries, with Turkey sending thousands of students to Britain.

Professor Tazebey says that this reputation resulted in Turkey adopting the British model for universities in 1980. But the reputation is now being abused at the expense of Turkish students and their families.

YOK says the degrees will not be recognised in Turkey. "They will not be worth the paper they are written on", according to Mehmet Ali Kircan, chairman of YOK. But he does have sympathy for the students and their families, who have paid up to $6,000 a year to study for a British degree. He said: "Families have made great sacrifices and I fear that they are victim of a con."

Students attending institutions offering franchise degrees, such as the scheme in which John Moores and Oxford Brookes is involved, are outside the Turkish entrance examination system. Professor Suha suggests that these institutions offer a way out for students who fail their entrance exams if they can pay. They pray on desperate families and their children's desire to enter university. In Turkey a high premium is put on university education, with families selling possessions and borrowing money to meet the costs.

But Mr Bradshaw says the entrance requirements are as rigorous as they are in Britain.

The Turkish ministry of education said it was looking into YOK's concerns. It has the power to close institutions, but, with the country in political turmoil after last month's general election, it is unlikely any decisions are imminent.

With YOK planning to intensify its campaign to close the institutions, Mr Bradshaw was unperturbed. He said that Oxford Brookes had acted in good faith: "It would be a pity after putting two years work into a successful project, which is now bearing fruit."

John Moores University refused to comment.

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