ABDULLAH – Academic freedom no more in Turkey

Academic freedom no more in TurkeyThe authoritarian regime of Turkeyand#39s chief political Islamist, President Recep Tayyip ErdoIan, has significantly curtailed the autonomy of institutions of higher learning such as academies and universities, dealing a deadly blow to academic freedom, independent thinking, critical research and free artistic expression, which are fundamental to ensure free, democratic and pluralistic societies.This major regression is by no means surprising given that academic freedom, independent research and critical learning are closely associated with freedom of expression, freedom of the press and freedom of thought — areas in which Turkey has been failing terribly in recent years.

The strict control of universities has been the ultimate goal for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, which bases its political survival on the creation of politically and ideologically loyal citizens through education at the expense of diversity and pluralismAs a result, the subscription to the prevailing ideological zealotry espoused by the political Islamist government has become key in measuring the success of universities in Turkey, determining the financial incentives, promotions of staff, curriculum, enrollment and administrative organization. Politicization of higher education causes a loss in the quality of education, but more importantly it hampers critical scientific study, which in turn takes a toll on the social and democratic progress of Turkey.

It has become a daily occurrence for us in the media profession to encounter an academic who declines to comment on a developing story in an area of his or her field of expertise due to pressure from political authorities. Last year, the government-controlled Higher Education Board (YK) amended the disciplinary regulations for administrators and lecturers in institutions of higher learning, stating that those who provide statements on political issues to members of the press will be reprimanded.

It almost feels like the ErdoIan regime wants to bring back terrible experiences of communist and fascist governments in Europe to rein in control of universities. Or rather, he wants to exercise the same rigid control that Iran has over its universities.

This is hardly surprising as, after all, ErdoIan calls Iran his second home and fills critical positions in the government with pro-Iranian figures. His appointments of rectors at public universities reveal that ErdoIan sees higher education institutions as merely instruments to mold society in line with his own ideology and appoints zealots to make that happen.

Independent universities were prevented from reorganizing themselves administratively because their decisions are subject to YK. The government further clamped down on academic freedom in private universities in November of last year when a bill bestowing new powers on YK such as closing down a university or choosing members of boards of trustees was adopted in Parliament.

Perhaps this was the final nail in the coffin of privately run universities, the last bastion of academic freedom in Turkey.There is a growing pattern of economic interference in universities to award partisans and punish critics and independents.

While loyalists and propagandists receive generous grants and funding from the government for research and study programs, critical thinkers in universities have been denied access to the funding. This is especially valid in cases of indirect financing to universities because the rules and procedures are less transparent.

That leads to an unfair aantage among universities. The government disburses funding to academics who promote the ideology of the political Islamists and sets unpublished partisan and political criteria for receiving loans and grants.

The government even goes after donors who finance private universities that hire critical and independent academics.What is more, universities today lack the ability to determine for themselves their academic curricula as their every move is subject to clearance from YK.

On student admissions, the government controls the centrally administered exam and limits the number of students each university can enroll. Their administrative organization including internal regulations is subject to approval by the government agency YK.

The ban on privately funded prep schools (dershanes), which tutor students from low and middle-income families or those who live in disaantaged areas, will create discrimination in enrollment in institutions of higher learning. Prep schools, which provide supplementary tutoring at affordable rates, are the only way for these vulnerable groups to compensate the poor education in public schools and close the gap.

After all, unlike affluent families, they cannot afford private tutoring or private education.As in the decision on the prep schools case, in practically every area that has an eventual impact on higher education, universities have been shut out from decision-making processes.

They have no say whatsoever in either the government or legislative processes that directly impact the way universities function in the higher education system The Islamist government simply imposes its own will instead of being inclusionary and dictates the terms on higher education institutions based on its own ideological convictions.The massive profiling of staff in universities by the government based on ethnic, sectarian, political and ideological affiliations has been going on unabated.

The witch-hunt against critics and opponents has led to dismissals, demotions and administrative punishments. Only those who parrot the government line get promoted and rewarded with positions in the universities.

Prime Minister Ahmet DavutoIlu, an academic-turned-politician, stacks government agencies with loyalist academics. Hence, many academics feel compelled to pay lip service to the government in order to land better paying jobs in the civil service.

Today students, teachers and researchers in universities feel disenfranchised and alienated because they are not involved as important stakeholders in the decision-making processes that influence policies in higher education. They do not consider themselves to be owners, which in turn fuels more resentment against the government, especially among students.

This builds up pressure in higher educational institutions that may very well burst into major protests at any time.The military rulers in the aftermath of the 1980 coup followed the same pattern, and they failed miserably.

The same bleak fate awaits the political Islamists as well. It is only a matter of time when pent-up pressure in higher education and other areas will trigger a deep governance crisis in Turkey, toppling the authoritarian regime of political Islamists.

SOURCE: Today’s Zaman