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Pınar Üre, Department of International History, London School of Economics

The centralized control mechanism that the Yükseköğretim Kurulu, or YÖK, exercises over Turkish universities, has received considerable notoriety at home and abroad. Founded in 1982, shortly after the infamous military coup, the very existence of YÖK reflects the zeitgeist of the period when it was established. Yet, 30 years after the coup, it still stands as the major policymaking institution in the academic sphere in Turkey. Universities depend on YÖK’s approval for teaching and research staff appointments, the number of personnel to be employed, and to an extent, the content of courses. The existence of such a centralized institution means that in fact, any politically powerful group may intervene in university affairs by lobbying within YÖK. Other contributors to this blog have explained YÖK’s legal status in detail, so I do not want to delve deep into the legal aspect of the question. What I want to explain is rather the political and social implications of this control mechanism for Turkish society.

The impeachment of academic autonomy through centralized control has many drawbacks, especially when this control leads to the suppression of free and creative thought. The bloodshed caused by the political clashes between rightist and leftist university students (or in other words, different fractions of conservatives and Marxists) throughout 60’s and 70’s are still fresh in the memories of generations who lived through these days. This partly explains why in Turkey, since the 80’s, a “good” and “well-behaved” university student is identified nearly with an apolitical attitude. With the establishment of YÖK, in the name of protecting stability and keeping universities free from political clashes which were common back in the day, a hierarchical higher education system was created in which superiors have authority over those working under them. In this hierarchical system, students are the weakest link. Here is an example of what this means: In 2010, a student in Celal Bayar University protested the visit of the deputy prime minister, which bothered the President of the university. In the presence of cameras and journalists, the President threatened the student with dismissal from the school. In the next two years, the student was first suspended, then dismissed from the school. By discouraging students from asking questions and engaging in social-political problems and encouraging the memorization of knowledge, universities are reduced to the level of technical and vocational schools rather than spaces for the production of universal knowledge.

Nor is it only students who are expected to follow the rules set by bureaucrats; university professors, and even university Presidents are bound to a superior who stands above them. The OECD determined eight criteria to analyse the institutional autonomy of universities in member states. These are, whether universities are free to

(1) own their buildings and equipment,
(2) borrow funds,
(3) spend budgets to achieve their objectives,
(4) set academic structure and course content,
(5) employ and dismiss academic staff,
(6) set salaries,
(7) decide size of student enrollment, and
(8) decide level of tuition fees.

Unfortunately, in all eight areas, Turkish universities either have no autonomy or they only have limited autonomy from other state institutions.

One distinction should be made at this point: there is a serious gap between Turkish universities in terms of quality of teaching and professorial attitudes to students. As of today, there are 146 universities in Turkey. Of these universities, the top-ranking ones provide education in foreign languages, actively participate and encourage their students and personnel to participate in international exchange programs, attract academics from all around the world, and help their students and alumni get integrated into the broader world. While these top-ranking universities are more tolerant of ideological diversity and encourage critical thinking, it is difficult to say the same thing for the majority of Turkish universities, especially those in small provinces. Eventually, this situation leads to a social and cultural gap between the graduates of top schools and the rest of the society.

There is also an economic dimension to this story. A study on the relationship between university autonomy in various OECD countries and their relative economic competitiveness shows that Turkey significantly lags behind other OECD members in terms of economic innovation and performance. The researchers pointed to a positive correlation between university autonomy and economic innovation. Obviously, the growing Turkish economy urgently needs creative and innovative minds. Nevertheless, opening the way for innovative, creative, and analytical young people requires a flexible and and tolerant university atmosphere where students, rather than being punished will be encouraged to voice their thoughts.


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