Co-written by Yagmur Menzilcioglu
Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) issued a state of emergency decree on October 29 to suspend the elections of university rectors, authorizing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to appoint them instead. The Turkish president did not wait long to use his newfound powers. Erdogan last weekend appointed the brother of an AKP lawmaker as rector of Bogazici University, one of Turkey’s top public universities, refusing to reappoint an incumbent who had received 86 percent of her fellow colleagues’ votes.
The new measure is not only an attack against autonomy in higher education, but is also against Turkey’s secular public education system itself. In March 2014, the Ministry of Education announced it would place the country’s top public high schools under an experimental program called “project schools.” These tuition-free institutions admit high-achieving students and provide them with a secular education marked by rigorous training in mathematics and natural sciences. These were a hopeful indication of a meritocratic ethos taking root in the country, with graduates placed in top universities and becoming leading figures in their respective fields.
Within a year of the new “project schools” program, the government started replacing their principals with unqualified AKP loyalists. The students accuse the new principals of substituting secular extracurricular activities with religious ones, and in June, pupils from 365 schools demanded that the ministry halt the program and restore secular instruction. For his part, the minister of education has even admitted with remarkable candor that the substitutions are aimed at raising a new generation who would “not hesitate to take to the streets” in defense of the Islamist-rooted regime.
Turkey has been under a nationwide state of emergency since the abortive coup of July 15 – a situation the AKP government has taken full advantage of to defy student demands. The Ministry of Education used the opportunity to implement a controversial plan to reshuffle all teachers after eight years at a given school, and replaced over 1,000 experienced instructors at project schools. A similar purge has struck the universities over the last two months, as the government expelled more than 3,500 academics.
The AKP’s dramatic changes to secondary and post-secondary education are part of its efforts to redesign Turkey’s secular education system through aggressive interference in public schools. Given Erdogan’s previous attempts to remake Turkish society in his own religious-conservative image, this one could well succeed as well. Such a reckless policy would not only undermine the country’s human capital and economic potential, but represent yet another milestone in Ankara’s long, unfortunate drift from Western values.
Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Yagmur Menzilcioglu is an intern. Follow Aykan on Twitter @aykan_erdemir