I have spent the last two years working as a Professor of Law at a university in Istanbul, Turkey. The Turkish government is very active, some would even say meddlesome, when it comes to regulating education in the country. For instance, the government mandates make-up examinations for those students who fail. They are entitled to this free second chance for almost any reason. This erodes the meritocracy that should define higher education. Still, they are not done. Recently, there was a draft bill introduced into the Turkish Parliament that, if passed, would grant the Turkish Higher Education Board (YÖK) exclusive authority over pretty much every aspect of university education.
If passed, YÖK would be given the power to appoint university boards of directors and presidents, influence and even set curriculums, and make tenure decisions for professors. This power would even extend to private universities. It is the latest attempt by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to shape Turkish society more to its liking. Even though Turkey is a democracy, Turks are actually electing politicians with little checks on the power they wield. Turkey is, in essence, an electoral dictatorship.
The AKP is an Islamist government that has been ruling Turkey for over a decade. In that time, they have slowly dropped any facade of consensus building and now rule basically by fiat. This has been a problem since the beginning of the Turkish Republic in 1923. During the decades-long rule of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Turkey was just as autocratic, so it is unfair to paint the AKP as the outlier in exercising authoritarian control.
I am not here to add to the volumes written on the weaknesses of Turkish democracy. I want to write about this specific bill. If it is passed into law and implemented in a typical Turkish heavy-handed way, it will set back the country’s development decades. In my opinion, there are three important elements that must exist in a modern, developed, and free society: an independent judiciary that enforces the rule of law, an independent media which informs and criticizes, and an unregulated academic environment where dissent and controversial opinions are welcomed into the public sphere. Turkey is failing miserably on press freedom and while the courts have so far avoided complete capitulation to government control, the Prime Minister continues to hammer at and erode their resistance. Academic freedom in Turkey is already far from where it should be with too many sacred cows that are difficult to criticize, but now the regime is moving in to finish the job.
Governments have long known the power of universities in shaping societies. In the United States, it was the college campuses that helped lead the anti-Vietnam war sentiment. More recently, students in Taiwan led the protests against increasing relations with China. China itself is being questioned for the establishment and agenda of its worldwide network of Confucius Institutes.
None of this has been lost on the AKP. The government has dealt with massive protests and corruption scandals over the past 12 months and has so far weathered the storm, thanks in no small part to short-sighted self-interest by a plurality of the Turkish electorate. The danger of losing their iron grip, however, is growing. Turkish university students are at the vanguard of challenging government authoritarianism and even though they are unorganized with no goal other than expressing dissatisfaction, the AKP is moving to nip it in the bud before it gathers cohesion.
With too many reporters already behind bars, with the government actively meddling in the judiciary and Central Bank, the Turkish electorate cannot afford to hand the keys to education over to ideological autocrats. The unfortunate problem is that awareness is almost certainly too low. Turkey is still very much a developing country relying on a cheap and unskilled labor force and foreign investment to fuel growth. As of 2011, approximately 14% of Turks had any kind of tertiary attainment (Bachelor’s degrees). This is less than half the OECD average. When 86% of the population has never graduated from a university, government control of the university system is not likely to raise many hackles. Turkey is in a precarious position. With a largely uninformed electorate, the country needs to rely on a small minority sounding the alarm or an increasingly autocratic government to abruptly shift course and scale back its authoritarianism. I don’t want to sound fatalistic, but it’s not looking good.
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