Future of French-speaking University of Galatasaray under threat

The University of Galatasaray (GSÜ) is an island of French-speaking knowledge on the edge of the Bosporus. Introduced by presidents François Mitterrand and Turgut Özal in 1992 to cement relations between their two countries, it is affiliated with the historic French-speaking Lycée de Galatasaray, which was the linchpin of the modernisation of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. It welcomes 5,000 students destined to take a notable place among the country's elites.

France's involvement in the university primarily takes the form of around thirty French teachers, with diverse tasks - language teachers or scientific preparatory classes, teacher-researchers, international technical experts, readers - mostly clustered within the Educational and Linguistic Cooperation Mission, the Micel. An ad hoc structure headed by the embassy, the Micel spends nearly 2.5 million euros each year on the teachers, a similar number of which also work at the high school.

This cooperation had been operating for almost three decades, despite recurring budget problems leading to occasional job cuts. But this autumn, the situation changed dramatically.

First, procedures for acquiring or renewing work permits for the teachers fell behind schedule. Then, at the beginning of October, the teachers were invited by the Turkish management of the university to take a Turkish language test, without specifying what was at stake. Then a handful of work permits arrived, but only for one semester, non-renewable.

Finally, in December, the university management revealed the truth: The Council of Higher Education (YÖK), an institution under the authority of the president, now required all French teachers at GSÜ proficiency to have Turkish language proficiency equal to or above level B2. In addition, two lecturers (agrégés) who gave scientific courses would no longer be able to teach because they do not hold a doctorate.

In an email dated Dec. 23, GSÜ’s French Vice-rector Francis Rousseau called on academics to "hold [their] nerve", and especially "avoid exposing themselves to police checks, so as not to give rise to a complex situation”. Because the work permit is equivalent to a residence permit, most teachers are now illegally staying in Turkey, even though some have lived there for nearly twenty years.

"The very political nature of this affair is obvious", the vice-rector said without elaborating on his point. Ten teachers contacted for this article, who all speak on condition of anonymity because their mission order obliges them to discretion worthy of diplomats, confirm the situation.

First, there is the context of the Turkish government seeking control over universities that still maintain a little independence, such as the English-speaking University of Bogaziçi. Bogaziçi students and teachers have suffered police violence and prosecutions for protesting the way President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan flouted rules for electing rectors by appointing a loyalist to head the institution.

In Galatasaray, the bilateral agreement with France seemed a sufficient bulwark to evade the requirements of YÖK, which is absent from the list of institutions exercising supervision over the university.

“The establishment is a small Kemalist bubble in the middle of a (ruling Justice and Development Party) ocean, which does not realise that times have changed", said one professor. Top members of YÖK have "a lot of resentment, they do not like Galatasaray'', said another source familiar with the matter. “They want to show who the boss is.”

But above all, the new conditions imposed on French teachers at GSÜ respond to recent reforms in France of the teaching system for native languages ​​and culture known as the Elco. Changes implemented since the start of the school year as part of French President Emmanuel Macron’s fight against "Islamist separatism".

Created in the 1970s, Elco allows immigrant children in France to keep in touch with their parents' culture, and are conducted by teachers from nine partner countries, including Turkey. According to the French education ministry, between 12,000 and 15,000 students of Turkish origin benefit from these courses. But some teachers assigned by these countries are accused of promoting communitarianism and fostering a distance from French republican values.

The Elco agreements were therefore dropped by Paris, which renegotiated new admission criteria for the teachers involved, including a minimum B2 level French language proficiency. For one teacher from Galatasaray, there is no doubt: “By dismissing the Elco, Macron unburied the hatchet with Ankara."

But while French authorities gave their partners the necessary time to allow for the arrival of trained personnel, their Turkish counterparts presented Paris with a fait accompli, resulting in a stormy meeting, on Jan. 14 between the French Ambassador Hervé Magro and YÖK President Yekta Saraç.

"I (...) pointed out to my interlocutor that this measure, decided unilaterally and without any anticipation, seemed to us unacceptable and constituted a certain prejudice for the personnel concerned", Magro said in a report sent to GSÜ staff. The president of YÖK nonetheless maintained "that it was up to the Turkish authorities to set the conditions for the accreditation of staff serving in its universities", the letter said.

Ankara also demonstrated its determination during the language tests carried out at Galatasaray. "My Turkish colleagues explained to me that they had to be strict because the YÖK demanded that the tests be filmed", said one teacher who failed.

The measure was apparently not sufficient, as YÖK is now calling for a new test for all teachers except a handful lucky enough to have obtained a one-year work permit. "I have just learned that YÖK will not be satisfied with the language exams organized by GSÜ and will require a certificate issued by the Yunus Emre Institute," warned the university’s French vice-rector in an email dated Feb. 5. “Unfortunately, this Institute rarely organizes exam sessions in French: this is very bad news."

Discovering new measures that threaten their future in Turkey every week, teachers must adapt to their new status as illegal residents. This means not being able re-enter the country if they leave. "I haven't seen my daughter for a year and a half," said one. And fear of police checks: "I'm not at ease in the street, I've been checked three times already, I got away with showing my passport," said another.

The situation is particularly painful for new arrivals, who do not have a residence permit number to use in their administrative procedures. "My telephone subscription was suspended in early December because I was unable to provide a residence permit," said one in an email to his colleagues. “What will happen when my internet subscription is also suspended and I can no longer work?"

Measures to fight COVID-19 further complicate daily life said the teacher. Access to shops and the use of public transport is conditional on a code obtained with a residence permit. “I still can't open a bank account in Turkey, so I pay absolutely huge bank withdrawal fees to pay my rent every month,” he explains.

For all, there is uncertainty. Should they prepare for return to France or take Turkish lessons in the hope of being able to regularise the situation? For some, such a return promises to be problematic. "Returning to France is absolutely not part of my plans, I have always had an intention of staying in Turkey until I retire," explains a long-time expatriate. "In addition, I disconnected myself from the world of research a bit, in France everyone forgot about me."

Doubt remains over even the next semester, which begins in two weeks. “What will happen if the face-to-face classes resume? The general secretary of the university let us know that we are persona non grata on campus,” said a teacher. "Are we going to ensure that the exams are held? What will happen if some students dispute the marks,” one of his colleagues asks.

Faced with this crisis, the Galatasaray rectorate has endeavoured to introduce quick solutions.

The university has proposed to transfer the two dismissed lecturers to its merchant marine school, where holding a doctorate is not required to teach. It has also set up an intensive Turkish language learning program, 24 hours of lessons per week, over four months, but with no reduction in workload of participants.

Some teachers appreciate the efforts of the establishment, but doubt the effectiveness. “I asked if it would be possible to negotiate a contract extension for at least another year and a half without success,” said one. If I only have six months to spend in Turkey, I don't want to spend them behind my computer taking Turkish lessons.” Another lecturer is suspicious: "All these little arrangements will remain until the next diplomatic conflict, they will clash again later."

Some teachers also denounced an “abdication” of the French authorities. "You get the impression that the embassy has capitulated, that it has accepted the YÖK's decision, without seeking to defend the 1992 convention," said one.

The Turkish embassy, ​​rectorate and authorities did not respond to requests for information. But a telephone interview between Macron and Erdoğan is on the agenda in an attempt to resolve the situation, according to a source familiar with the matter. Beyond the individual cases, it is the very future of Franco-Turkish university cooperation that is at stake.

"If you have to replace about fifteen people with people who have the right diploma, experience and a sufficient level of Turkish, I don't see where they are going to be found," said a teacher. “If the French authorities do nothing, the Micel will be gone within two or three years.”

“I would never have come to Turkey if such a requirement had been formulated when I was hired," points out another academic. “Turkey will become less attractive for French researchers and Galatasaray will lose a good part of its prestige."

According to a source familiar with the matter, the Turkish education ministry is set to issue a notice outlining new YÖK requirements for all foreign teachers enrolled in Turkish colleges and high schools. In addition to the Galatasaray high school, Turkey has eight French-speaking private schools in Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara.

(A version of this article was originally published by MediaPart here)

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