Turkish academics abroad wary of government incentives to return

Turkey announced a new scholarship programme this month to lure back Turkish academics abroad, but many said they had left for political reasons and could not go back no matter how big the financial rewards.

The programme, announced by Industry and Technology Minister Mustafa Varank, offers a monthly stipend of $4,000 for senior researchers and $3,600 for junior researchers. 

Following the failed coup attempt of July 2016, the government dismissed nearly 4,500 academics from state and private universities as part of a widespread crackdown on opponents of all stripes. Those sacked from their jobs are effectively barred from other jobs in academia and many have left the country. 

“For me, it’s not about the money,” said Betül Yarar, a former lecturer at Gazi University in Ankara now living in Germany. 

“What is valuable for us and the thing that could ensure our return is giving back our rights and removing the political pressure placed on us. However, it seems as if there's no such possibility. Academics are still taken into custody for reasons that do not have a legal basis, and they may be subject to interrogation,” she said.

Yarar was sacked in a presidential decree for being one of 1,128 signatories of the Academics for Peace petition in January 2016 calling for a peaceful end to three-decade-old conflict between security forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Since September this year, eight signatories of the petition have been given prison sentences on charges of making terrorist propaganda. 

Sociologist Engin Sustam also signed the petition and lost his lecturing job at 29 May University in Istanbul. He is now teaching at Paris Technical University and the University of Geneva.

“I understood I wouldn't be able to do anything in Turkey when I saw that there was no place for thought in the country. What I did was not an escape, but a desire to continue my academic life. I had no opportunity in Turkey, and I managed to get an associate professorship here,” he said.

Sustam doubted the incentive scheme would gain any traction with Turkish academics abroad. 

“I don't believe that academics will leave the free and scientific environment found abroad for a monthly salary of 24,000 lira. People are being told, 'come, don't make much noise, and do things that will strengthen the mechanisms of violence for your state', but this is not compatible with science. Academia cannot be free unless the state withdraws from the scientific sphere. Even if you pay 50,000 liras, I don't believe that people who have an ethical stance and moral compass are going to respond to this call,” he said.

“People don't want to go back, because it was the current administration that made these people leave the country," Sustam said. 

Sociologist Buket Türkmen said a lot of Turkish academics abroad wanted to return.

“Everyone wants to go back, but it cannot happen. It’s another thing when someone can do science in his or her country. Doing science abroad may seem to be more prestigious, but it is far more valuable to do science with our own people and students,” said Türkmen, a sociology lecturer at Istanbul’s Galatasaray University who is being tried for signing the peace petition. 

Yarar said certain conditions had to be met before academics return to Turkey.

“It's necessary to restore rights back to academics and to everyone who has been unlawfully dismissed,” she said. 

Young people are also leaving Turkey in higher numbers. The Turkish Statistical Institute said 253,640 people emigrated from Turkey in 2017, a 42 percent increase over the previous year. Of those, 42 percent are between the ages of 20 and 34.

"When we look at the whole picture, we see there is a serious loss in Turkey in academic terms. Many qualified academics have either become passive or forced to live abroad. It’s impossible for academia not to be affected by all this,” Yarar said.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.