Turks take to streets over tuition

March 29, 1996

Turkey is in the grip of growing student unrest over the imposition of higher tuition fees by the national university administration, YOK. The disturbances are the worst the country has experienced since the 1970s.

The protest began with a spate of small occupations and a student hunger strike. But a march in Istanbul turned into a running battle when police tried to break it up.

The dispute spread to a series of university occupations in Ankara and Istanbul. The largest occupation occurred at Istanbul law faculty, where nearly 500 students spent two nights. The police cordoned off the building, using armoured cars and dogs. When a request by the students for safe exit was refused they attempted to break through the cordon. Clashes occurred and over 50 arrests were made.

In Ankara, 11 students protested in the Turkish parliament, shouting slogans and hanging a banner reading "No to fees" from the spectators' gallery. They were immediately arrested and charged under the meeting and protest marches law. The students will be tried in the Ankara court of justice. If found guilty they face up to three years in prison.

Student leaders say further protests are planned unless their demands are met. But YOK is unlikely to make any concessions. It introduced the fees rise because of funding cuts and against a background of greater demand for university places.

The economic situation of the institutions is exacerbated by inflation, which is now running at over 80 per cent.

Although the government has promised to introduce more credits for the students, leaders of the protests claim the measure amounts to privatisation of education.

Police, some in plain clothes, have a strong presence on many campuses. Their presence dates back to the military coup in 1980, which brought strict controls on student activities that have only recently been lifted.

Until last year students and faculty members were forbidden to be members of political parties, unions or associations.

A report published last year by a Turkish human rights organisation condemned the ongoing presence of security forces in universities. It claimed that many students are being placed under surveillance and suffer harassment, while others are being coerced into giving information about their colleagues.

Removal of the security forces from the universities is considered unlikely in the near future, particularly after the disturbances.

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