Rector appointment to Boğaziçi University shows politicization and collapse of higher education in Turkey

President Erdoğan’s latest politically-motivated rector appointment to Turkey's highly prestigious Boğaziçi University has raised eyebrows as some see it as part of the overall decline in quality of Turkey's higher education system during Erdoğan's tenure.

K. Murat Yıldız / Duvar English

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Jan. 2 appointed new rectors to five universities. One appointment raised eyebrows especially: the appointment of a party member and parliamentary candidate from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), with a not very impressive academic record, to Boğaziçi University; one of the country’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning.

Since 2002, establishing a university in every city of Turkey has been a primary goal of President Erdoğan, which he has been vocal about for years. However, experts have argued that the quality of higher education has declined during Erdoğan's time in office: Reportedly around one hundred faculties from 20 universities don't have a single registered student.

Prestigious Turkish universities have started not being included in internationally-recognized ranking systems. In 2019 and 2020, not one Turkish state university was listed among the top 500 universities of the Times Higher Education University Ranking Index.

As the number of universities grows to around 200 in the country, the number of academics is not increasing at the same speed - a ratio that is a major contributor to the decline of the quality of higher education. According to the Council of Higher Education (YÖK), the number of students per academic has risen from 20 to 24 since 2015, while access to a professor per student is more than 150 to 1, according to reports.

Decline in academic freedom

Moreover, due to the deterioration of rights and the waning academic freedom in the country for qualified foreign academics, Turkey is no longer an ideal country to work in. The European Union has cut hundreds of millions of Euros of aid and support packages for education due to increasing democratic backsliding in the country.

Similarly, as a direct result of the sharp decline of the lira against foreign currencies, private universities can no longer afford to hire competent foreign academic personnel.

The number of patents and internationally recognized academic publications by Turkish universities and academics has also dropped over the years, putting the country further behind lesser developed nations. Additionally, plagiarism and other unethical practices have become widespread among students and academics, so much so that it even found their way even into WikiLeaks. According to international sources, Turkey ranks third in academic plagiarism globally.

Just a few hours after the appointment of the new Boğaziçi University rector, several examples of his work where entire paragraphs were lifted "word for word" from other academics’ papers surfaced on social media, painting a vivid picture of the politicization of Turkish universities and lack of meritocracy in appointments to key positions by President Erdoğan.

Other than that, experts point out that a large number of rectors, at least a quarter according to reports in Turkish universities today have not a single international academic publication.

State of Emergency used to silence academics and students

Another major blow to Turkey's higher education system came when the government and the president were granted certain powers as a result of the post-2016 coup attempt state of emergency.

Those powers have not been used only to deal with the perpetrators of the coup attempt, but to silence and punish academics and students who are critical of the ruling party and President Erdoğan. More than 6,000 academics were fired, and many were banned from traveling; a basic right guaranteed under the Turkish Constitution.

General and Presidential elections might be abolished

“A common characteristic of dictatorships is that they cannot stand the autonomy of institutions. When they realized that they couldn't take control of institutions like the Boğazici University, they installed one of their henchmen, like they did in Kurdish municipalities. Once they think they may lose, they will even go so far as to abolish general and presidential elections,” Barış Ünlü, a prominent academic and author, told Duvar English.

Income of academics decreased

According to the Turkish Statistical Institute (TÜİK) data, the income and living standards of academics have also deteriorated. A professor’s income in 2002 when the AKP came to power was 10 times higher than the minimum wage, while today it is less than five.

“In order to do my job right, I have to follow recent developments and publications in my field. Sometimes I spend more than half of my salary on books. Especially now with these crazy exchange rates. I don’t know what to do. Sometimes we come together with a few colleagues and order recent publications from abroad. We put the original book in our library and make copies for ourselves” a professor, who asked not to be named, from Ankara told Duvar English.