How to abolish the Board of Higher Education (October 2014)

Bekir S. Gur, University World News, October 31, 2014.

Turkey has expanded higher education at a remarkable rate in the last decade. The ruling AK Party government decisively prioritised increasing access and established many new universities to meet demand for higher education in a country of 76 million people, where about half of the population is under 30 years of age.

The number of universities in Turkey has risen tremendously, from 77 to 176 in just about 10 years. Similarly, there has been a significant increase in the number of students admitted to universities. While a decade ago about 600,000 students were being placed at universities through the centralised university selection and placement system, now the figure stands at almost 900,000.

While these figures are still below OECD averages, the numbers provide clear evidence that Turkey’s investments in higher education and research have increased.

While Turkey spent 0.53% of gross domestic product, or GDP, on research and development in 2002, it steadily increased the share of R&D expenditure to 0.92% of GDP in 2012, according to the OECD’s Main Science and Technology Indicators.

Similarly, according to latest available data in the OECD’s Education at a Glance 2014, Turkey spent only 0.7% of GDP on higher education in 2000. The same figure stood at 1.3% of GDP in 2011 (public expenditure only).

Quality maintained

Although many have criticised the Turkish government for establishing so many universities in a short time, mainly on the grounds that the overall quality in higher education would not be maintained, there are signs that seem to negate this view.

A world university ranking published in October 2014 showed that Turkey’s investments have started to pay off and the country might be increasing the quality of higher education as well, at least for a number of top universities.

Whereas there were only one or two Turkish universities in the top 200 world universities in the past – except in the 2011 and 2012 rankings, when there were none – the 2014 Times Higher Education, or THE, World University Rankings lists four Turkish universities in the top 200. The Middle East Technical University, Ankara, is now at 85 in the THE World University Rankings.

Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Academic Ranking of World Universities, or ARWU, paints a different picture that is potentially related to methodological differences. According to the ARWU, Turkey has consistently had only one institution – Istanbul University – in the top 500 in the last seven years.

Now, Turkey is debating restructuring its higher education system and abolishing its supervising body in order to achieve a more qualified higher education system.

Abolishing the Board of Higher Education

Since 1981, all Turkish higher education institutions have been strictly overseen by the Board of Higher Education, the BHE or ‘YÖK’ – its famous Turkish acronym known in national and international circles.

The military junta of 1980 established the BHE in the aftermath of the 1980 coup d’état. The junta blamed universities for being the source of social unrest during the 1970s that claimed thousands of lives.

The BHE faced protests because many suspected that the generals wanted to create a centralised higher education system so that they could easily control universities. The generals later gave the BHE an autonomous status in the Constitution and this made reforming or abolishing the BHE synonymous with changing the Constitution.

Unlike the regents system in public universities or boards of higher education one finds in the United States, Turkey’s BHE greatly diminished the autonomy of universities.

Since the BHE did not shy away from using its authority over universities, criticisms against the board and its actions have continued unabated since 1981. The reason for this is that, as an independent body, the BHE often acted in ways most people, academics – and even governments – disagreed with.

The president of Turkey directly appoints one third of the members of the BHE, including the president of the board. One third of members are appointed by cabinet and the other one third are selected by the Inter-university Council, which is composed of all rectors and a faculty member from each university.

Cabinet and Inter-university Council selections have to be approved by the Turkish president. As a result, during periods of considerable political and ideological differences between the government and the president, the BHE and sitting governments often disagreed and clashed.

In late 1990s and early 2000s, the BHE acted not only as a bureaucratic institution in charge of higher education but also as an ideological extension of the state apparatus which was under considerable sway of the military.

Falling victim to the country’s political polarisation, the BHE frequently restricted academic freedom, cancelled the academic titles of dissenting academics and banned wearing headscarves in universities – women who wanted to wear headscarves as conscious adults were forced to end their education.

Furthermore, the BHE discriminated against graduates of vocational high schools in the central university entrance examination and forced the resignations of university presidents and deans on ideological grounds.

As pointed out earlier, reforming the BHE requires changing the Constitution; and changing the Constitution requires more than the votes of any single party within parliament. As there has been no agreement among the political parties on reforming the BHE, all major attempts to amend the Constitution and the Higher Education Act, or HEA, have failed up to now.

In 2003, then prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s move to change the HEA was seen as amounting to an attempt to change ‘the state’s regime’ (or secularism) by Deniz Baykal, then head of main opposition party CHP.

Then president of the BHE, Kemal Guruz, visited the headquarters of the Turkish Armed Forces to find a strong ally against the government, to resist any change to the HEA.

Calls for change from within

In the last three decades, public debates on higher education and political parties’ election platforms have included calls to reform the higher education system, and the BHE in particular. What is surprising is that in recent years the presidents of the BHE have also been advocating its abolition.

Yusuf Ziya Ozcan, president of the BHE from 2007 to 2011, famously remarked in an interview in 2009 that his greatest personal dream was to eradicate the BHE and its legacy.

Now current BHE president, Gokhan Cetinsaya, has stated that the BHE has become unworkable as a bureaucratic institution and that it should be abolished so that all the bad memories attached to it as a post-military coup institution can be wiped out.

What makes the calls of Ozcan and Cetinsaya different from the previous calls, especially those that came from political parties, is that both of them have reputable academic careers and have aimed to create a university system based on the principle of academic freedom, truly free from political polarisation.

Joining fellow academics, both Ozcan and Cetinsaya openly criticised previous BHE administrators for using repressive methods over universities and restricting academic freedom and, to their credit, they have worked hard to remove all barriers to freedom to learn and teach.

In November of 2013, Cetinsaya published the Declaration of Academic Freedom, the first of its kind in Turkey, and openly distanced himself from repressive approaches used in the past by the BHE.

In short, universities have become less polarised during the last several years under the leadership of Ozcan and Cetinsaya and Turkey is now discussing reforming its higher education system based on this background, not based on the clash between the government and the BHE or as part of a power struggle between ‘secularists’ and ‘non-secularists’.

Steps towards reforming higher education

To answer the calls from the public, the academic community and presidents of the BHE to reform higher education, in 2012 the AK Party government asked the BHE to prepare a new draft law on higher education.

Through participation of and getting feedback from universities, ministries and all other relevant parties, the BHE prepared a draft law and submitted it to the Ministry of National Education in January 2013.

The draft law proposed establishing a new body that would be called Turkey’s Board of Higher Education – TBHE instead of BHE. This was criticised by many academics for bringing only nominal changes to the current system and for failing to radically address the shortcomings of the BHE.

In the meantime, the Constitutional Reconciliation Commission within the Turkish parliament was busy drafting a new Constitution in 2013. The commission agreed on several articles on higher education and proposed to set up a Higher Education Regulation Board, or HERB.

Similar to the draft law prepared by the BHE, the roles and responsibilities of HERB as proposed by the commission showed great resemblances to the existing BHE. However, the most radical change in the proposed articles was that six out of 15 members of HERB were to be chosen by parliament.

Since political parties have not been able to reach an agreement on going forward with the articles that were unanimously endorsed, no constitutional change has been made and accordingly there has been no change in the governing structure of Turkish higher education.

Amid these attempts to amend higher education laws, Cetinsaya wrote a comprehensive report entitled Growth, Quality, and Internationalisation: A roadmap for higher education in Turkey, first published in May 2014.

In the report he calls for reform of higher education, not because of power struggles between the government and the BHE but because of real academic challenges facing Turkish higher education and in order to meet Turkey’s 2023 national targets, which include increasing the competitiveness of the economy and becoming one of the top 10 economies in the world.

Among the challenges are the following: Turkey has a chronic shortage of qualified faculty, still needs to increase access to higher education, has to improve the quality of higher education and hence needs more resources.

While neither the draft higher education law prepared by the BHE nor the draft constitutional article prepared by the Constitutional Reconciliation Commission had been picked up by parliament as of October 2014, all political parties, the BHE and academics have repeatedly expressed agreement on the need to abolish the BHE.

So the question is not whether or not Turkey will reform higher education by abolishing the BHE.

The questions that face policy-makers and academics alike are: When will Turkey reform its higher education system? How comprehensive and radical will the reform be? Will there be a new coordination body? Is it going to be less powerful than the current BHE? Will there be a new ministry in charge of higher education? How strong will university autonomy be?

Lastly, we need to remember that Turkey will have its next parliamentary elections in June 2015 and a constitutional change or a radical change in higher education structure seems unlikely for the time being.

It seems that one of the priorities of the new government to be formed after the general election will be to seriously consider reforming higher education – it will possibly be one of the top themes in election campaigns.

For that reason, the coming months will provide ample opportunity to examine and learn how competing political parties are planning to tackle the seemingly challenging task of higher education reform in Turkey.

In the midst of all these uncertainties, there is something I am certain of: we are on the eve of a major, if not radical, restructuring of higher education in Turkey.

* Bekir S Gur, PhD, is currently a visiting scholar at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley, in the United States. He is an assistant professor at Yildirim Beyazit University in Ankara, Turkey. He is also a columnist for the Star daily, one of Turkey’s biggest newspapers, and writes regularly on education policy. He worked as an adviser to the Board of Higher Education, or YÖK, from 2008 to 2013. He can be reached at bekir@berkeley.edu.

Note: Originally published at University World News, Issue 341, 31 October 2014.

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