University reform in Turkey

On Wednesday I was invited to have lunch with the head of the Higher Education Board (YÖK), the ultimate authority supervising all universities in Turkey, be it private or public, and had a chance to raise certain issues with him.

YÖK has been one of the most controversial institutions ever since it was set up following the 1980 military coup with the explicit aim of stemming violence in universities. It has been a highly centralized body with enormous power, though its grip on the university system has loosened considerably over the years, especially in the last decade. Yet it can still exert enough leverage to prod universities in the direction it wishes.

YÖK’s head Yusuf Ziya Özcan strikes me as a very liberal and open-minded person when it comes to curtailing the extensive powers of YÖK, and he strongly advocates a decentralization of the system, leaving most decisions to the universities’ own boards. Quietly but decisively he pushed for ending the ban on headscarves on university campuses and practically succeeded in getting all universities to fully comply — with a few exceptions here and there.

He accomplished this despite the fact that the laws and regulations on the issue are still ambiguous and were being contested. If you count Mehmet Sağlam, who served as the president of YÖK between 1992 and 1995 and who did not enforce the ban, Özcan is the second liberal democrat to steer the controversial institution towards reconciliation with the general public, for which the headscarf is simply not just another issue.

Özcan believes we should find a way for the younger generation to express themselves freely using different venues and even asked us, the media, to provide platforms for students to air their thoughts and feelings. He did not shy away from criticizing the government and the conduct of the police during student demonstrations in a university in Ankara. At the same time he is quite committed to preventing campuses from becoming a playground for those with ulterior motives both on the far right and far left. “The universities should focus on learning and developing scientific and social studies first and foremost,” he argues.

Just last week he pushed for major reform in the form of a law that would grant amnesty for students expelled from universities for any reason. When that happens, if students are not able to complete their education in a certain number of years, they will no longer be expelled from university. “As long as they pay extra tuition they can continue their education,” he added, giving examples from the US and European systems. To complement the legal reform, YÖK is prepared to offer amnesty to all students who were forced to discontinue their studies following the 1980 military coup, including those who were expelled under the military regime. “No strings are attached to this amnesty and everybody will benefit,” he vowed.

Özcan and his team are also working on plans to attract more foreign students to Turkish universities, especially from Turkey’s immediate neighborhood. To encourage the process, YÖK delegated its power to determine benchmarks and tuition fees for foreign students for individual universities. Soon YÖK will unveil another plan to introduce a “brother universities” concept to link older institutions with newer ones to help develop the latter by tapping into the expertise and human resources potential of older, more established universities.

Another new concept YÖK is considering is providing an opportunity for people aged 30 or older to enroll in university to earn a second degree without retaking a placement exam. “We realized that there are a huge number of unutilized slots in our universities, which amounts to 50 percent of seats being empty in private universities. With this program, not only will we fill empty seats in classrooms, but we will also raise money for the universities,” Özcan noted. What is more, for first timers, YÖK said it would increase student quotas to be able to accommodate more applicants in institutions of higher learning.

It has been very unfortunate that YÖK, a highly politicized body for many years, simply did not pay attention to core problems in education faced by the young population of Turkey. For example, during the 1986-87 academic year there were only 21 medical schools in Turkey, and they had a total of 29,759 students. As of the 2008-09 academic year, the number of students studying medicine rose to 35,454, while the number of medical schools reached 56. It is mind boggling that we were able to increase the student capacity only a little — by around 5,500 — despite the fact that the number of medical schools is almost triple what is was 12 years ago.

The faculty at medical schools in the same period increased from 2,007 to 8,695. This corresponds to 3.9 students per instructor in the 2008-09 academic year — one of the highest ratios in Europe. The ratio is 19.8 in Germany, 15 in Italy, 10.8 in France and 4.7 in Finland. This has created an acute shortage of doctors in Turkey in recent years. In fact, during deliberations on the budget in November, Health Minister Recep Akdağ said they need to start hiring medical professionals from abroad to alleviate the personnel shortage in the field in the short term, while YÖK must work on increasing Turkish medical schools’ capacity to train more doctors and other medical professionals.

Last, but not the least, YÖK is notorious when it comes to the recognition of diplomas and reciprocity issues with other countries, and I hear a lot of complaints from diplomats in Ankara on that subject. I asked Özcan how he is planning to solve these problems. Frankly, he acknowledges that YÖK has failed miserably in this area. His suggestions for a complete overhaul deserve careful consideration and I will write on that in the future.

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