Erdoğan crushes academics, wonders why Turkish universities slide in rankings

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has lamented his country’s poor recent performance on the world university rankings after no Turkish university made it to the Center for World University Rankings’ top 500 this year.

“"How the universities in Turkey are not among the best 500 universities of the world? It means we have lost something, it means there is a problem somewhere,” the Turkish president said at a ceremony marking the opening of the academic year at Dokuz Eylül University in Izmir on Friday.

The Middle East Technical University made the list at 498th place last year, but slid to 596th place in 2018, behind the highest ranked Turkish universities. These were Hacettepe University and Istanbul University and 525th and 560th places respectively.

Social media users noted the irony of the remarks coming from the man personally responsible for dismissing thousands of academics by decree.



That figure, said Turkish news site Bianet, amounted to 6,817 since September 1, 2016, dismissed by 12 decrees issued by Erdoğan under a state of emergency that lasted from July 2016 to July 2018.

The state of emergency was imposed after a failed military coup in July 16, and Erdoğan’s administration used the enhanced powers granted to security forces and the power to rule by decree to conduct a series of purges against alleged members of the Gülenist religious organisation it accused of planning the coup.

Academics and teachers were among the first targeted and the most stringently pursued. In the days immediately following the coup attempt, around 2,000 soldiers were detained. During the same period, over 15,000 Ministry of Education workers were suspended, 21,000 private school teachers had their licences revoked, and all 1,557 of Turkey’s university deans were asked to resign. Shortly afterwards Erdoğan wrote a decree granting himself the authority to handpick university rectors.

Though the Gülen movement, made up of followers of Islamist cleric Fethullah Gülen, is known for its focus on education - but also known to be being organized in Turkish state institutions, many academics targeted in the purge appeared to have no link to the group, leading to suspicions the government had taken the opportunity to remove dissenting voices.

A notable example of those targeted in the purge was the group of over 1,000 Turkish academics who signed a petition calling for peace in Turkey’s southeast during clashes between the Turkish military and Kurdish militant groups in January 2016.

Fourty-eight of these academics had their hearings on Friday as Erdoğan gave his speech.

Students and academics whose ideas differ from the government's are likely to find themselves in serious trouble, as young scholars at Boğaziçi, one of Turkey's most prestigious state universities, discovered earlier this year.

The students objected to a triumphant stall set up on university grounds to celebrate the Turkish military's success in an operation against Kurdish militias in Afrin, northwest Syria. The ensuing scuffle led to serious recriminations against 22 students, who were tried for spreading terrorist propaganda. Erdoğan personally intervened to call the students "terrorists."

The harsh repression that academics complain of – and which led Freedom House to downgrade Turkey to “not free” status in its 2018 report – has seen a spike in the number of Turks, and particularly intellectuals, seeking to leave the country.

Meanwhile, censorship in Turkey, which extends even to basic resources such as Wikipedia, makes life more difficult for those academics and students who stay in the country.

Erdoğan, however, remained upbeat about his country’s potential to land universities nearer the top of the league tables in the future.

"We still have problems in terms of the content and system (in education). God willing, in the new school year, our primary goal will be to increase the level of education, both in terms of system and content, in such a way to contribute to Turkey to reach its goals,” he said.

He went on to cite the number of students in Turkey – 8 million – as proof of the potential of the country’s education system.

For the students’ sake, we must hope there are enough qualified and talented scholars left in the country to teach them.