Turkish Review - 01 September 2014, Monday
YONCA POYRAZ DOĞAN, STAFF WRITER
Sociologist Neşe Özgen, a member of the International Work Group’s (GIT), the International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies (IHRNASS), and Sociologists Without Borders (SSF), and Dr. M. Alper Dinçer, research coordinator at the Education Reform Initiative (ERG) in İstanbul, speak to Yonca Poyraz Doğan about the different problems faced in Turkey’s education system, from academic freedom to the quality of education itself
Turkish Review: In June, the ruling party submitted a draft bill to Parliament regarding reforms to the Higher Education Board (YÖK). The draft bill has been highly criticized by academics. What are the main points of contention? And when YÖK reform was on the agenda a few years ago, there was talk about dissolving the board. Now, the reforms seek to strengthen it. How would you explain this contradiction?
Neşe Özgen: Each government that promised to remove YÖK -- as one of the constitutional institutions of the Sept. 12  coup d’état -- did the opposite and strengthened that institution. This situation would be better explained if we realize that this is due to the new middle class’s fears of academia and science, rather than the government’s wish to control education and academia. This new middle class, which has had a long adventure that started with the [Islamic scholar Fethullah] Gülen community’s efforts to bring Anatolian capital and business capital together around the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), doesn’t really owe its rise to the power of science and academia. On the contrary, this new, emerging conservative middle class does not want universities, which will always be critical of it or the new face of the government. The government, meanwhile, wants to shape universities and academia in its desired direction though orders and commands. Here is the issue: YÖK has been useful for every government since the military coup d’état. It [YÖK] has ended up under the control of the government every time. Now, both the Gülen movement and the AK Party would like to seize this lever, because they think that education and academia are still important tools in shaping the next generation.
TR: Do you expect the new YÖK Law to damage academic freedom?
NÖ: The law’s biggest problem is that the administration of the universities will be based on free market principles. On the one hand, the YÖK system reinforces itself, and on the other, it legitimizes the university as a commercial institution. For example, entities like corporations, foundations, etc. will be able to establish institutions within universities, but it will be essential that they generate money and provide the universities with income. If you ask me why this is bad, my explanation is this: Universities are public institutions; they don’t belong to the state. Their institutional capacities are improved and supported by public funds. In other words: Education and science are public services; they cannot be evaluated based on their earning capacity, let alone based on their profitability.