Turkey’s higher education makeover drives students’ academic future into uncertainty
BY Lorena Rios
On July 23, Mira, a 21-year-old international student at Gediz University, was on her way to the pristine beaches of Cesme on Turkey’s Aegean coast. Instead of enjoying her stroll with friends, Mira found her university campus and dormitory had been cordoned off for its alleged link to banned U.S.- based Muslim preacher and political figure, Fettulah Gulen.
She returned to Izmir bewildered and homeless. More than two months since the closure of Gediz University, her belongings remain inside the university dorms.
In the aftermath of Turkey’s military coup attempt on July 15, allegedly orchestrated by Gulen, the government has carried out a purge of the country’s judiciary, military, civil service, schools and universities.
In its effort to cleanse the education sector of all Gulen influence, Turkey has closed 15 universities linked to his organization (FETO), suspended around 6,500 employees of Turkey’s education ministry, suspended another 4,225 academics, and forced 1,577 deans to resign until investigations concluded. Approximately 66,000 university students have been affected by the purges in higher education; 4,000 of themare international students.
In Izmir, the Council of Higher Education, known as YÖK in Turkish, closed three out of nine universities. YÖK is the government institution spearheading the sweeping transformation of Turkey’s higher education sector and dictating the future of students and academics affected by the attempted putsch.
With the closure of Gediz on July 23, communication between the administration and the students have also been severed as the ban was imposed on every university website. University staffs found their emails disabled and some of the professors were even compelled to change their phone number.
Mira only gets a chance to communicate with her former professors when she runs into them on the streets of Izmir or in some secret rendezvous.
“It is still very unclear what will happen to the students,” a foreign professor from an Izmir’s private university, tells Newsweek Middle East, on condition of anonymity.
YÖK has not decided whether the thousands of professors who were fired, will be reinstated. “Not only have they lost their jobs, but they have a black mark added to their names that will stay there for a very long time,” adds the professor.
Inside his spacious office, the professor sits in front of a desk full of examination papers. Books of Derida, Plato, Homer, Rousseau, and other philosophers adorn his imposing bookshelf.
The aftershock produced by the closure of alleged Gulen-related universities has warned academics in Izmir private universities to exercise caution. So much as a book in an office shelf can also be found “dissident” and “incriminatory,” explains the professor looking at his collection.
“There is a general sense of paranoia and uncertainty,” he adds.
On January 11, 2016 more than 1,000 academics across Turkey signed a peace petition denouncing the state-carried violence against Kurds in the country’s southeast. As a response, an Istanbul court jailed three academics, dismissed 30 and suspended 27 on accusations of exceeding the limits of academic freedom, propagating terrorism and sedition.
“In Ankara 100 academics are still under investigation for signing the petition,” he says. “It’s been more than seven months since then and we still don’t know what’s going to happen to them.”
Having been established in 2008, Gediz University is quite unrecognizable today, following the Turkish authorities’ intervention.
A security guard mans the entrance and no one is allowed in. The sprawling housing developments around the campus, whose raison d’etre was to serve the student population, are now abandoned. Since Gediz was located in a district of Izmir away from the city center, students began to flood into the new housing developments in the area.
Much like the professor, most students are afraid of the government’s retribution if they spoke openly about the situation.
“A friend of mine from Cyprus was going to buy a house near the university,” says Ziad, 22, a Syrian student from Latakia. Other students furnished empty apartments they thought would house them for an academic year.
“Every private university in Turkey has a ‘guarantor’ state university obliged to take responsibility,” says the professor. “The official line is that these will absorb the students.”
In the case of Gediz University, its guarantor school is Katip Celebi. International students from the universities allegedly linked with Gulen, are required by law to attend the allocated state universities, with the exception of students who were studying in English and whose degrees are not offered in English at the allocated schools.
YÖK gave these students the option to select three universities that offer their degrees in English, from which YÖK will select one. Turkish students, on the other hand, are not required to attend a guarantor school.
“Even if we change university, the program will not be the same. I am used to Izmir, I don’t want to go to a new place where I don’t know anyone,” Mira tells Newsweek Middle East while expressing her reluctance to change her university.
“I don’t want to change my life,” she adds.
“But everything will change; my house, friends, the market where I bought my school supplies. I’m scared.”
The months after the failed coup have been plagued with rumors and a painstaking wait.
“We have no idea about what’s happening,” says Mira. “Every new information is worse than the last.” For international students like Mira, who have been in Turkey for a number of years, the university closures and reshuffling of students is a grievance, many cannot afford. “I haven’t told my parents. They wouldn’t understand because I don’t have any information to tell them.” Other students are afraid that their parents would ask them to return to their home countries. “They should have changed rectors and the people inside, adds Mira.
Since the closure of Gediz University, Jude, 21 and Bashar Barakat, 24, from Aleppo, Syria, have been staying at a hotel.
In mid-July, they had to rush to Katip Celebi to pick up their transcripts, and check their bank accounts to make sure their funds were still intact. They were travelling to Cyprus in search of a university. With a trunk full of bags, the students attempted to beat the looming registration deadlines to enroll in a Cypriot university.
“We have lost hope in Turkey,” says Jude.
“They [YÖK] can’t tell students to go find another university just like that,” says Barakat. “I like Izmir but I don’t like the other universities,” he adds.
Barakat was born in North Carolina, U.S., and moved to Aleppo in 1998, where he stayed until 2011, after which he returned to the U.S. to enroll in a community college in North Carolina. He later moved to Turkey’s Gaziantep, where he started his degree at Zirve University. After a year of studying at Zirve, he moved to Izmir and enrolled at Gediz, even though his credits did not transfer and he had to start from the beginning. “Now I will start again in Cyprus. I should cry in the interview, instead I laugh.”
Jude has lived in Turkey for three years while her family found refuge in Saudi Arabia. Cyprus is her only option which might bar her from entering Turkey in the foreseeable future. “If Jude leaves Turkey, she doesn’t know whether she will be able to come back, given that Syrians now require a visa to enter Turkey,” explains Barakat. Overwhelmed by the prospects of not finding a school, missing deadlines, or having to repeat a semester, Jude still manages to maintain a sense of humor. “I will miss the food at Gediz University,” she says.
It is very hard to find accurate information from the updates of YÖK and the guarantor universities on the future of the thousands of affected students. “No one helped us,” says Mira.
“How can YÖK tell us that everyone will have a university when there are people who can’t pay for it?” she says in disbelief.
According to YÖK, tuition fees for students hailing from the closed universities will remain the same at their new universities as a way of eliminating tuition discrepancies for students who will transfer to a private university that is more expensive than their former school. With regard to scholarships and financial aid, YÖK has not specified whether it will uphold merit-based scholarships granted by the universities that were shut down, as well as any other kind of stipend granted by those universities.
For students like Mesut, a former engineering student at Gediz University, and whose name has been changed for fear of a negative impact on his transfer application, the tuition scheme works against him. Mesut chuckles sardonically at the irony of his current situation. In 2013, he enrolled as a student in Katip Celebi, but was soon disappointed at the university’s academic level and limpid campus life. He decided to transfer to Gediz University and landed a scholarship that cut his tuition at the private university by half ($3,000 USD annually). Given that Katip Celebi, his guarantor school, offers his degree in English, he must return to Katip Celebi, which is free of charge, and pay the equivalent of a full tuition at Gediz ($6,000).
“I don’t want to pay $6000 when it should be free,” he argues. While Izmir University of Economics, a non-profit foundation university, offers his degree in English, its degree doesn’t have a class of third year students.
His last resort is to apply to transfer to Bahcesehir University in Istanbul, which may or may not accept students from alleged Gulen-related universities.
“In principle they can apply [to universities],” explains the professor. “Whether it is easy? That’s a different question.”
According to him, students from the closed universities will be judged under ideological grounds. “It is very likely students will be treated differently. They have been blacklisted for a long time to come.” For those who managed to graduate from the universities before their closure, “their diplomas will be worthless,” he adds.
With only a short time before the semester starts, scheduled for September 25, students are still waiting to hear news from YÖK. “I already missed the deadline to apply to universities in Germany,” says Mesut.
Ultimately, he believes his academic career is no longer in his hands, but in the hands of bureaucrats.
“State universities are understaffed and under resourced. They are under a lot of pressure already. Simply adding 60 or 90 students to a department can be a grunt in some cases,” added the professor, let alone distributing 66,000 students over the universities.
As YÖK announced that all credits will transfer to the new universities, the professor questions the issue of curriculum that will be applied. “It’s not only a matter of numbers, it is a huge problem.”
Meanwhile, students are worried their degree requirements will change. This academic year, Mira will be entering her third year as an architecture student. “I don’t know if I will have to repeat one year or two…I just don’t know.”
“I came here [to Turkey] to study, not to get involved in politics,” she adds. This summer, the architecture student intended to do an internship in Izmir. However, the unanticipated closure of the university left her without a required letter of recommendation from a professor. “We are still waiting,” she says.