Private decisions and public debates

September 7, 2007

Turkey's state universities face challenges from business-funded rivals and Islamic activism, writes Dorian Jones.

Turkish higher education is set to go through one of its most significant periods of change. The Islamic-rooted Justice and Development (AK) Party, which was re-elected with a landslide victory last month, has made reform of the higher education sector one of its key objectives.

At present universities are administered by the Higher Education Authority (YOK) under a centralised system created by the country's generals after they seized power in 1980. Calls for reform have been rising steadily, with increasing demands from a rapidly growing population (half the population is under 25) and the rapid globalisation of higher education.

To meet those demands, the private sector has entered higher education. In the past decade, 23 private universities have been established, joining 54 existing state institutions. All private universities are funded through foundations and must be non-profit-making. Many are funded by philanthropic businesspeople, and several already rank among the country's top higher education institutions.

One of them is Bilgi University, which was founded in 1996 by a businessman, Oguz Özerden. This summer it moved to a prime historical location, Istanbul's first power station. The Santral campus was funded jointly through the support of the European Union, private investment and the US. Such co-operation, said Murat Guvenc, the deputy rector, is the way forward for higher education in Turkey.

"The rise of private universities not only offers a chance for the hundreds of thousands of students for whom the state cannot provide, but allows many of these universities to create their own unique academic identities and bring new competition and dynamism to higher education," Professor Guvenc said.

But state universities are fighting back against the rise of their well-funded private competitors. Istanbul Technical University (ITU) has aggressively engaged in a major expansion, much of which is funded by a wealthy alumnus. Private investment also plays a part in the construction of the country's largest science parks.

That expansion is partly aimed at competing on an international level. According to the university's chair of humanities, Istar Goz-aydin: "Five years ago there was a change in mentality, and a decision was made to fully integrate into international higher education. There was the realisation that globalisation also included education, and that we should be a part of that."

Professor Gozaydin's department was created to meet US and European demands for accreditation. Since then, the university has had the highest uptake in Turkey among both students and academics in the EU-funded Erasmus exchange programme.

Professor Gozaydin said that the initiative has successfully challenged prejudices. "There is the perception of Turkey as the "other" by Western academics and students. There is the misconception that there are no successful, high-quality universities here."

Organising international conferences is also seen as a key part of building up ITU's reputation overseas. But that can pose problems. Recently, a leading international academic had her invitation to speak at a conference withdrawn because it was discovered that she wears a religious headscarf.

Both private and state universities still enforce a strict ban on the wearing of religious headscarves by female students and staff.

Tens of thousands of students continue to be affected by the ban. Some students wear wigs or hats to circumvent the rules, while others seek education overseas.

Zehra Takesenlioglu, 32, who wears a headscarf, said she was unable to complete her PhD at Istanbul University. To avoid the ban, she applied and won a scholarship to New Orleans University. But the experience has left a bitter taste.

"I don't want to be angry with the university. This is a law, but I hope it will change, as I am so sad that my right to complete my studies in my country was taken away from me. In the US, I had freedom and nobody asked why I was wearing a headscarf. People are free to wear what they wish there. This is a question of human rights. I hope that one day it will be like that here."

Nur Serter, the deputy rector of Istanbul University, acknowledges the complaints of individual students but said the ban was essential to maintaining order. She pointed to the difficulties faced by her university when the ban was not enforced.

"The headscarf has always been used as the main symbol of the political Islamic movement. In our school, it became a visible point of division: either you were a good Muslim or a bad one. The Islamic and secular students were against each other. They were even trying kill one another in those days. One student was stabbed in the heart on this campus. Since the ban there is peace."

But equally strong feelings are felt by supporters of students who wear headscarves. One of the strongest advocates is Nuray Mert, a part-time lecturer at Galatasaray University.

"It's a refusal of our past. It's a refusal of our Oriental past, if you like. It's a refusal of our culture and everything. And there must be a solution," Dr Mert said.

In the beautiful gardens of Istanbul University's main campus, the call to prayer echoes across the grounds. The campus is located next to Beyazit Square, one of the holiest sites in the city and the traditional place for Muslim activists to protest. Barred women students still hold sporadic protests outside the gates. Students say there are mixed feelings over the headscarf ban.

Ekim Bas, a first-year economics student, supports the ban.

"It's not related to their beliefs, it's just a symbol. And I don't think it should be allowed in schools."

But Zeynep Ozel, a biology undergraduate, disagrees.

"You shouldn't ban headscarves because it is about people's rights. I wear a hat and no one says anything to me. You can't point the finger at someone. It's not a political symbol, it's just a religious symbol."

Her colleague Ozlem Ozturk is more cautious.

"In the universities, I think it should be free. If one wants to wear a turban, it's her problem. But if she wants me to wear a turban too, if she tries to force me to wear it, then it can be dangerous."

And it's precisely that fear among the secular establishment, including the powerful army, that makes lifting the ban extremely difficult for the new Government.

Although the leadership of the AK Party has continually condemned the restriction, it has balked at revoking the relevant legislation, much to the chagrin of many of its supporters. They point out that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Prime Minister, has failed to lift the ban, while his two daughters have avoided it by studying in the US.

The Government may seek to ease its enforcement, with new legislation expected to weaken YOK's authority. The body presently has sweeping centralised powers in the administration of universities and has been at the forefront of enforcing the ban. The Government has committed itself to decentralising the administration of the sector.

One expected reform is the direct election of rectors by university staff. Rectors today are appointed by Turkey's President. Observers believe that the decentralisation of universities will shift the interpretation and the enforcement of the ban back to individual institutions, opening the door to an easing of the ban.

Academic freedom of expression is also expected to be addressed by the new Government. Turkey is under increasing pressure from the European Union to improve freedom of expression. Last month Attila Yayla, a professor of political thought at Gazi University, went on trial. He is facing up to six years in prison for a speech he gave at a conference in Izmir in which he criticised the founder of the Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Professor Yayla's prosecution has drawn international condemnation and is now seen as an important test of intellectual freedom of thought.

Professor Yayla is being prosecuted under the country's Article 301, which criminalises any statement that "insults Turkishness". Orhan Pamuk, the author and Nobel laureate, was recently prosecuted under the same article, although he was subsequently acquitted.


  • Turkey has 77 universities, of which 54 are state-run and 23 are private
  • Total enrolment in higher education is 2.4 million, of which approximately 57 per cent are male and 43 per cent female
  • Total number of graduates: 373,375, of which 45 per cent are women and 55 per cent men
  • Total teaching staff in the sector is approximately 90,000 (60 per cent male and 40 per cent female)
  • Monthly salaries for academic staff within the state sector average TL2,600 (£1,000). Professors earn on average TL2,500 to TL2,800.

Uproar over maths school ban

Scholars around the world have condemned the closure of a mathematics summer school in Sirice, Turkey.

The RADIKAL summer camp, set up by Ali Nesin. was shut by local authorities who said it was an "illegal" school lacking the requisite permits.

Although the school reopened on August 10, Professor Nesin, who is chairman of the department of mathematics at Istanbul Bilgi University, has been charged with "education without permission" and faces up to a year in jail.

Professor Nesin said: "It is a sad day when you can face prison for teaching mathematics."

Alexandre Borovik, who taught at the summer school, said he was shocked. "It resembles the darkest days of the Soviet Union."

Professor Borovik turned to fellow scholars for support in the fight to have the school reopened. Twelve leading international academics, including five Fields medallists, put their name to a letter sent to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Prime Minister, expressing alarm over the school's closure.

A petition calling for the reopening of the school was signed by more than 300 academics. Professor Borovik said he was overwhelmed by the response. "As soon as mathematicians heard that people were being prosecuted for their love of mathematics, there was an electrifying reaction."

Turkey has numerous regulations and laws controlling education, which are often arbitrarily enforced by local authorities. Professor Nesin said the school had run for ten years without any problems.

The closure was particularly surprising, as the school is sponsored by the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBITAK), the Turkish Mathematics Association and many respected Turkish universities.

Professor Nesin said: "I am truly honoured by the support I have received, but it is wrong that all this should be necessary simply to teach mathematics."

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