Turks regain self-rule

February 28, 2003

Turkey's universities are to regain autonomy under reforms passed by the new government that strip the central higher education authority of most of its powers in the biggest shake-up since the military seized power in 1980.

Education minister Erkan Mumcu described his reform proposals as a "new era of freedom" for the universities, which have been tightly controlled by the authority since it was established after the 1980 coup.

The authority chooses candidates to be rectors at individual universities, controls the appointment of faculty deans and has the power to discipline academics. Under the reforms, all those powers will be returned to individual universities.

The reforms will allow academics to vote for their rector: the two candidates with the most votes will go forward for selection by the country's president. Mr Mumcu said the reforms "would make the universities autonomous scientific, administrative and financial institutions".

The authority will become a "consultative and coordinating body" with a membership drawn from universities, non-governmental organisations including business representatives, the government and the army. The military has several higher education institutions. The authority's chairman, Kemal Guruz, condemned the reforms. He told The THES : "This has nothing to do with academic freedom. It is politically motivated. In fact, it is more than that - it is ideologically motivated." Professor Guruz accused the ruling Islamic democratic AK Party, which emerged as the largest party in last November's elections, of trying to undermine the secular state. He warned: "This will lead to a complete disaster for universities, but there is nothing much we can do. They have a majority in parliament and can do what they like."

But Mr Mumcu said: "The intervention of politics in universities will be totally lifted with constitutional and legal guarantees." Mr Mumcu said he had held wide-ranging consultations through a website to which suggestions could be sent.

Many individual academics have voiced their support for the reforms, echoing the welcome given by teachers' unions and associations representing academics, which have frequently condemned the authority's centralised powers.

But Professor Guruz defended the authority's record. "Turkish universities compare favourably with other western countries on the level of autonomy," he said.

One byproduct of the reforms is an expected end to a ban on headscarves at many universities. The rule has been rigidly enforced for the past five years by the authority as part of its clampdown on religious dress.

Thousands of female students have been barred from their studies.

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