University of the buffer zone

The story of an unlikely branch campus in Cyprus and higher education on a divided island

April 24, 2014

Source: Getty

Pyla seems peaceful, and is often held up as an example of how the two sides can live together in the same community. But tensions are clear in the island’s higher education landscape

In Pyla, one of the last remaining villages in Cyprus to have a mixed population of Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, a mosque and a church stand almost as neighbours. The settlement sits inside the 180km-long United Nations-patrolled buffer zone that splits the divided Mediterranean island in two.

Pyla is an unglamorous place, comprised mainly of boxy concrete homes. The building marked United Nations Police Station is the first sign of anything out of the ordinary. Although the village is administered by the Republic of Cyprus (the internationally recognised, majority Greek Cypriot state), it is policed by the UN, whose representatives patrol the area in a white four-wheel-drive vehicle.

This is where the University of Central Lancashire has chosen to build its Cyprus campus, within the zone also known as the Green Line. The move has brought objections from the UN, which has described the campus as “unauthorised” and warned of security concerns. After Times Higher Education reported those comments, Uclan offered THE a tour of the campus and of the buffer zone.

The view from Pyla is a strange one. On a low, dusty hill above the village, where the Turkish army has had a base since the invasion of 1974, is a military watchtower occupied by what at first glance appears to be a soldier. On second glance, it turns out to be a larger-than-life-sized silhouette of a soldier, set up by the Turkish army to stand on permanent watch over the village.

An incident that occurs during THE’s visit further illustrates the unusual situation.

Simon Mytides, president of Pyla Community Council (and colloquially the Greek Cypriot mayor), drives me up into the hills and deeper into the buffer zone towards a checkpoint crossing between the Republic of Cyprus and the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

Not far from the checkpoint, I get out of Mytides’ car to take some pictures of the view from the buffer zone on to the Turkish Cypriot side of the island: green fields, a white mosque shining in the sun with the Turkish and TRNC flags strung between its minarets, mountains and rain clouds in the distance.

As we drive back, the car is flagged down by two men at the roadside. One leans in at the window and speaks in Greek to Mytides, who avoids eye contact as he offers what seems to be a frosty response. This man, I am told as we drive away, is a Turkish Cypriot who wants to know who we are and why someone is taking photographs. I joke that I had not meant to cause a diplomatic incident.

Within about three minutes, Mytides is taking a call on the speakerphone in his car. It is his council counterpart, Pyla’s Turkish Cypriot mayor. He says he has received a call about Mytides being with someone who has been taking photographs and that the caller wanted to know what was going on. Once Mytides has explained that he is showing a journalist around, the Turkish Cypriot mayor – sounding a little embarrassed to have made the call – says that is the end of the matter as far as he is concerned and that he will not be taking things any further.

The website of UNFICYP, the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus, says: “Approximately 1,000 incidents occur within the buffer zone each year, ranging from name-calling to unauthorised use of firearms.” It sounds as though the incident could have been worse.

Pyla itself seems peaceful, and is often held up as an example of how the two sides can live together as neighbours in the same community. But tensions between the two sides are clear in the island’s higher education landscape, which is bitterly divided.

Northern Cyprus is recognised as a separate entity only by Turkey. Its universities are barred from international recognition in some respects: they are not part of the European Higher Education Area, the Bologna Process or the European Union’s Erasmus student exchange programme. The Greek Cypriot Ministry of Foreign Affairs, deploying some politically loaded quotation marks, describes the institutions of the North as the “illegally operating ‘universities’ in the occupied areas of the Republic of Cyprus”.

However, peace talks between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot governments restarted in February. Minds have been focused by the Republic of Cyprus’ economic woes – in May last year, Cyprus received the first instalment of a €10 billion (£8.3 billion) bailout package from international creditors – and the need to fully exploit recently discovered major oil and gas reserves. The best place to route the pipeline to Europe is via Turkey, requiring a peace solution, so there are genuine hopes for reunification this time.

Reunification, most likely via a federated state, would mean that these two divided university systems must come together – or at least come closer together.

“It is very important there is a university plan early in the [peace] settlement,” says Neophytos Loizides, a Greek Cypriot who is senior lecturer in international conflict analysis at the University of Kent. Loizides, author of the forthcoming monograph Designing Peace Processes: Institutional Innovations in Cyprus and Divided Societies, warns that reunification must not result in two entirely separate higher education systems without connections. Instead, he sees universities as having a pivotal part to play in reconciliation and the growth of a functioning federal state – with such a state potentially serving as a model to troubled and divided nations in the nearby Middle East.

Reunification would also bring coveted international recognition for universities in Northern Cyprus. Some also believe it could permit the island to become an international higher education hub – a goal to which both sides already aspire.

The Republic of Cyprus government has some powerful motivations for prioritising higher education, as Despina Martidou-Forcier, director of higher and tertiary education at the Ministry of Education and Culture, explains. Higher education “can really contribute to the economic growth of Cyprus and with this financial situation, we have to focus on other sources of income”, she says, highlighting the government’s desire to attract more international students. Since the Republic of Cyprus was bailed out by the EU and the International Monetary Fund following its banking crisis last year, many have reflected on the need to diversify its economy beyond banking, construction and the tourist industry that draws about 2 million visitors a year, around half of whom are British.

Martidou-Forcier continues that “the selling point of Cyprus is first the location. It’s a member of the European Union, close to other areas: Middle East, Asia.” So Cyprus can offer a position as a gateway to Europe, boasting not only a “friendly and safe environment” and balmy Mediterranean weather, but “first of all the [quality of] education”. Martidou-Forcier says a key policy goal is the creation of a single quality assurance agency (at present there are different quality bodies for universities and for colleges).

Uclan, which welcomed the first students to its Cyprus campus in October 2012, has gone through the Cypriot government’s procedures to create a fully fledged for-profit university in Pyla – one of only eight universities in the republic. If Uclan Cyprus achieves its aim of growing to 5,000 students, it could be the biggest private university in the country.

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The campus is on the edge of Pyla, surrounded by fields. The buildings are a little boxy (which seems to be the Cypriot style), but brand new and purpose-built. A huge sign on the roof advertises the name of Uclan Cyprus to drivers on a nearby motorway. In a field across the road, the university even has its own donkey and baby donkey, which attract plenty of visits from children in the village.

The campus has a School of Sciences offering undergraduate courses in computing, mathematics, psychology and sport and exercise science; a School of Business and Management offering undergraduate and postgraduate courses in business, accounting and marketing; and a School of Law.

Melinda Tan, rector of Uclan Cyprus, says part of the plan is for UK students to supplement their time at Preston at the home campus with a year in Cyprus or at a planned Uclan campus in Sri Lanka. This will provide “an international outlook in everything they do”, which “helps with their employment” prospects, she says.

At present, Uclan says, the campus has 366 students. Of those 330 are Greek Cypriot. The remainder are from overseas, including 11 from Russia and five from Tanzania. But the 2014-15 academic year will be the first that UK-based Uclan students will be able to study there as part of their degree courses. “We do intend to have a large international presence,” adds Tan. As for the 83 staff, 48 are Greek Cypriot and six British.

Speaking to a group of predominantly Greek Cypriot students at Uclan Cyprus about why they chose to study there, their answer is clear: they wanted to study at a British university because of the sector’s reputation for quality, but found studying in the UK too expensive.

Tan says that what makes Uclan stand out in Cyprus “is the British standards of QA [quality assurance] that we bring – the quality monitoring, the fact that we use external examiners”.

“The important thing is we are the only British campus here,” adds Tan. “So the chances of [the university] succeeding are actually more than back home in the UK, where you’ve got 150 universities.”

Uclan Cyprus aims to benefit from the island’s natural resources bonanza. It is already offering professional diplomas in oil and gas technology to the technicians who will be working in the fields. And it is building a new wing for its Solon Kassinis Energy Training School and Research Centre, which takes its name from the former Republic of Cyprus energy chief who is the centre’s chair.

But there is still the question of why exactly the campus – which is a joint venture between Uclan and a Greek Cypriot construction firm, Hassapis Group, with Uclan saying it holds a 51 per cent stake – was built in the UN buffer zone. When the investment into the campus is billed at €50 million, why put any sort of cloud over it by risking the UN’s disfavour?

In a recent interview with THE, Malcolm McVicar, group chief executive officer of Preston-based Uclan and the university’s former vice-chancellor, argued that Cyprus was a “brilliant” location. Asked why the campus was in the buffer zone, he said: “That’s where [the developer] comes from; he’s loyal to his village.” He added: “It’s just a village…It’s true that every day a white UN Land Rover drives up and down. But…I’m not conscious of any issues relating to the buffer zone.”

One rationale appears to be that the Larnaca district in which Pyla is located has never had a university. Some have also suggested that, given its site near the border, there may at one stage have been an intention to attract Turkish Cypriot students. However, Tan says that this would not be appropriate given political sensitivities.

Tan rejects the suggestion that the UN objects to the campus. “The UN hasn’t said it’s unauthorised. They’ve not said anything at all. If they were against us, that [UN] white truck that goes up and down would be making its way to my office every few days.”

But Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, has outlined concerns about the campus in several of his regular reports on Cyprus to the UN Security Council. In January 2013, he warned that an influx of Greek Cypriot students to the campus could “threaten the delicate demographic balance in the village…UNFICYP considers the project unauthorized until all security, law-and-order and civilian concerns are addressed.”

The venture has yet to earn any money for Uclan. According to the university’s accounts, its share of the losses of the campus amounted to £1.7 million in 2012-13. In a report published in February on the network of companies created by Uclan for its overseas campuses, the University and College Union accused the university of taking “speculative gambles” on the campuses and urged it to “make the flow of funds between their enterprises transparent”.

The motorway that runs inland from coastal Larnaca to Nicosia – the divided city that serves as capital for both sides of the island – offers Greek Cypriot drivers an interesting view. On the Northern side, emblazoned on the side of a mountain, is a truly enormous TRNC flag (made of painted stones, apparently). At night, the flag is illuminated, flashing on and off, and seems to float in mid-air amid the surrounding darkness. To some Greek Cypriots, it looks like a giant V-sign being flicked in their direction.

The Republic of Cyprus’ position statement on higher education institutions in Northern Cyprus, available on its website, says that these are “unlawfully operating ‘educational institutions’, since they are not in compliance with the relevant Laws and Regulations of the Republic of Cyprus on Higher Education…In addition, these ‘universities’ operate under the purported ‘law’ of the so called ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’ (‘TRNC’) which, according to the relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions and international law, is an illegal entity not recognized by the international community with the sole exception of Turkey.” And the ministry adds that “the ‘universities’ currently operating in the occupied areas have been built illegally on property belonging mostly to Greek Cypriot displaced persons, in violation of their rights and without their consent”.

Abdullah Öztoprak is rector of Eastern Mediterranean University, Northern Cyprus’ state university. The universities of the North are known for attracting high numbers of international students. It is said that as a result of trade sanctions, higher education is one of the few sectors that has been able to flourish.

“We offer, I think, good education at a low cost in a very good environment,” says Öztoprak, noting that despite Cyprus’ problems it is “very peaceful” as well as being a cheap place to live.

He sees his institution as “more developed than universities in the South”.

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The lack of contact and cooperation between the two sides often brings unwelcome consequences. Plans to hold a conference in the North ‘created an issue with the Greek Cypriot side’

EMU is a member of the European University Association. But Northern Cyprus is not in the EHEA “because of the Greek Cypriot veto”, says Öztoprak.

He declares: “We are a university. We are accepted all over the world in the best universities in Europe and the best universities in America.” Students go on to take PhDs at some of the world’s best universities, and EMU has 30 programmes with accreditation from international professional bodies, he adds.

On what happens if talks between the Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots bring a solution and reunification, he says: “We are more than ready.” International recognition and participation in the Bologna Process and the EHEA will leave EMU in a “much better position once there is a solution”.

But he says there is as yet no connection between the two sides’ universities: “It is a shame on both our universities, but we don’t have any contact with our friends down South.”

Öztoprak says he has written to the rectors of the universities of Cyprus and Nicosia hoping to establish unofficial contacts, but has received no reply. “The easiest way we communicate and come together should be education.”

Michalis Attalides is the rector of the University of Nicosia. “Of course,”he says, when asked if he is aware of Öztoprak’s letter. But “it is impossible to have any kind of institutional contacts because there are important legal issues”.

Attalides cites a legal dispute regarding ownership of the land on which EMU is built, Saveriades v Turkey, a case put before the European Court of Human Rights by the original Greek Cypriot landowner, who was denied use of the land after the 1974 invasion. The court decided in Saveriades’ favour, but he died before receiving compensation.

“However, I’m going to reply to him [Öztoprak],” Attalides adds. “I hope to have a meeting on a one-to-one basis and have informal discussions.”

It appears that Attalides is true to his word: Öztoprak later emails to say he has now heard back from both Greek Cypriot rectors and that he is in the process of arranging to meet them.

The present lack of contact and cooperation between the two sides often brings unwelcome consequences. Loizides, of the University of Kent, says that the European Consortium for Political Research once planned to hold a summer conference in the North at EMU, but “that created an issue with the Greek Cypriot side”. There were “challenges to the legality of an international academic body having a collaboration with a university within the unrecognised northern part of Cyprus”, he adds.

Attalides, a former Republic of Cyprus ambassador to France and high commissioner in London, as well as a former permanent secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, says the general assumption is that in the event of reunification “each community would be responsible for its own education, as it was in the [pre-division] 1960 constitution” – although he points out that in 1960 the island had no universities at all.

In terms of the changes that reunification might bring, Attalides believes there could be greater cooperation and collaboration on research between the two sides’ universities, with the potential to share the costs of research infrastructure. And he says it is “reasonable” to think there may be “a common quality assurance agency” covering both sides’ higher education systems post-reunification.

Loizides agrees that in such circumstances a national quality assurance system bringing improved academic standards would be beneficial, and suggests that a central government could support higher education in the two regions with better funding than at present.

He says the reunification process needs to avoid duplication of services, such as a medical school in each region, without steps being taken to share expensive infrastructure. And there must be student mobility between the two regions, he argues.

“Reunification will provide a more diverse environment, international recognition – for Turkish Cypriot universities – and better financing for universities. The island’s small size and concentration of universities is a major plus.”

University rectors should be involved in the peace process in advising negotiators, Loizides urges. In bicommunal cities such as Nicosia, there should be a “university in the middle – that creates the feeling that the city is united”.

Crossing the border from South to North at Ledra Street in Nicosia takes you past a sign that proclaims this is the world’s last divided capital city and past several barricaded streets, where buildings stranded in the buffer zone have been left abandoned. The queue at the border checkpoint, mostly US tourists during THE’s visit, takes only a few minutes and visitors can choose whether or not to have their passports stamped.

If and when the checkpoints come down, it remains to be seen whether other barriers will continue to prevent the free flow of students, academics and ideas between the two sides.

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The great divide: Cyprus since 1960

Cyprus gained independence from Britain in 1960, when the Republic of Cyprus was created.

In 1974 “a coup d’état…by Greek Cypriot and Greek elements favouring union with Greece was followed by military intervention by Turkey, whose troops established Turkish Cypriot control over the northern part of the island”, says the website of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus, or UNFICYP.

According to UNFICYP, 165,000 Greek Cypriots fled or were expelled from the North, and 45,000 Turkish Cypriots from the South. The UN buffer zone between the two sides, known as the Green Line, was largely impassable from 1974 to 2003, when crossing points were opened.

The North declared itself the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in 1983. Only Turkey, which has upwards of 30,000 troops stationed there, recognises it.

Two solitudes: higher education sectors, north and south

The Republic of Cyprus, with a population of about 900,000, has around 23,000 students spread across eight universities, three public and five private.

All were established after 1989, the year the state University of Cyprus was created (it admitted its first students in 1992).

Profit-making is allowed in the private sector: for example, European University Cyprus is owned by US firm Laureate International Universities while University Ventures, a firm backed by German media company Bertelsmann, has a stake in the University of Nicosia.

In 2009, the Republic of Cyprus government trumpeted Eurostat data for 2007 showing that 47 per cent of Cypriot citizens aged 25 to 34 were tertiary education graduates, the highest level for that age group in the EU.

Northern Cyprus, with a population of around 300,000, has nine universities and a reported total of 63,000 students.

The number of international students at Northern Cyprus’ universities is high.

Eastern Mediterranean University, for example, has just 2,700 students from Northern Cyprus among its 16,000 total population of students, according to Abdullah Öztoprak, the rector.

Of the remainder, 7,300 are from Turkey and 6,000 are from other nations, mostly in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.

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