Turkish president Ahmet Necdet Sezer has called for sweeping democratic reforms of higher education in what is seen as a direct attack on the controlling higher education authority.
At ceremony to mark the 550th anniversary of the founding of Istanbul University, the president said: "It is known that higher education requires restructuring. While planning restructuring, the priority goal should be the lifting of all obstacles to the development of universities as democratic and free institutions."
President Sezer has criticised the centralised power of the authority and in particular its chairman, Kemal Guruz. Dr Guruz and one of his strongest allies, Istanbul University rector Kemal Alemdagoglu, were present to hear the president's remarks.
Earlier this year Erkan Mumcu, the previous minister of education, proposed sweeping reforms of higher education. The reforms included the transfer of power to individual universities, in effect turning the higher education authority into a talking shop.
The proposals are also seen as a way of ending the ban on headscarves by allowing individual universities to decide how the ban is implemented. The army has spoken out against the reforms, as have many university rectors.
President Sezer, a strong supporter of the secular state, has voiced concerns over the lifting of the headscarf ban. Last month he said:
"Allowing the headscarf in public-sector areas is impossible because it is unconstitutional."
The ban has come to represent the campaign to protect secular education.
The president stressed that reforms must find a consensus. He said: "Nobody should doubt that those attempts that do not start with consensus cannot succeed, but bring new problems rather than producing solutions."
The controversy has led the government to delay the reforms, but political scientist Nuray Mert of Galatasaray University said pressure is rising on the ruling Islamic-based AK Party. "There is no doubt that AK's supporters are becoming impatient. The headscarf ban is of huge symbolic and practical importance to them as many have daughters barred from university."
A newspaper poll on the issue found that 64 per cent of women in the general population covered their heads and that only 25 per cent supported the ban in universities. But among the university-educated, support for the ban rose to 46 per cent.