Turkey should establish Arabic-language university

Bekir S. Gür, Al Monitor, October 23, 2014. (Translated from Turkish daily Star, October 21, 2014.)

The war in Syria has been under way for four years, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives. The enormous death toll and the scale of savagery has naturally overshadowed the crises of daily life.

The war has deeply affected the academic community as well.

Last week, the US-based Institute of International Education and the University of California, Davis released a report on the situation and needs of Syrian students and academics in Turkey, titled “We Will Stop Here and Go No Further: Syrian University Students and Scholars in Turkey.”

I have no intention and space to discuss some errors and shortcomings in the report. Yet, it highlights a point that Turkish experts have also raised, namely, that a large number of Syrian students and teachers will not go back to Syria even if the war comes to an end.

According to the report, the Syrian students and scholars are planning to stay because of the support Turkey provides Syrians and because Turkey’s capacity as a country promises them a better future.

Now, back to the situation of Syrian students and scholars in Turkey. The humanitarian assistance Turkey provides to Syrians under the coordination of the Disaster and Emergency Management Agency is worthy of the highest praise. The assistance has gone well beyond the urgent humanitarian aid provided in the beginning of the crisis. The strategy on education matters concerning Syrians has evolved, albeit slowly. As the war dragged on and it became clear the Syrians were not short-term guests, Turkey expanded educational opportunities for Syrian children and youth.

The Education Ministry has provided education for children in refugee camps and continues to expand those facilities. The Higher Education Board (YOK) has made it easier for Syrian students to continue their education in Turkish universities, while the Agency for Overseas Turks and Related Communities has increased the number of scholarships for Syrians.

Nevertheless, the existing circumstances still require new strategies. Many Syrians with higher education face hardships and are unable to perform their professions because they don’t speak Turkish, while many Syrian children, estimated in the hundreds of thousands, are still deprived of education. Some children, on the other hand, receive education but use schoolbooks written on the basis of Baathist propaganda.

For some time I’ve been discussing with friends that Turkey needs at least one university offering education in Arabic. Experts estimate that an Arabic-language university could be set up with the Syrians in [the Turkish border province of] Gaziantep alone. Such a step would ensure both the utilization of experienced academic resources and the expansion of education opportunities for Syrian youth.

An Arabic-language university in Turkey does not need to be exclusive to Syrians, for this would mean various pedagogical drawbacks. Rather, an Arabic-language university open to students and scholars from Turkey and almost all countries of the Middle East would be more unifying, ambitious and of higher quality.

In sum, we need a university that will serve the people of the whole Middle East, just as in the original mission of the [Ankara-based English-language] Middle East Technical University. The education language of the new university, however, should not be English but Arabic. We already have many universities teaching in English.

Now, let me also touch upon on the good news delivered by the Religious Affairs Directorate chairman, Mehmet Gormez, that an international Islamic university would be established in Turkey.

I make a distinction between an Arabic-language university and an Islamic university. An Arabic-language university could be easily established provided that the necessary funds are allocated and a good planning is made. Placing importance on quality, founding an ambitious Arabic-language university is quite possible, and, in my opinion, this should be done as soon as possible. But an international Islamic university of the kind Gormez mentioned requires not only funds and planning but also a sound vision and philosophy.

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