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A vision for higher education in Turkey

Istanbul February 2006


The Istanbul Policy Centre at Sabanci University, acting as a catalyst, has asked four Turkish academics to imagine the future of higher education in a country in search of an identity allying European and Moslem traditions, thus reaffirming its role as a bridge between the West and the Middle East. This paper entitled A Vision of Higher education in Turkey was prepared in parallel with a document of the World Bank required by national authorities to analyse the strengths and weaknesses of university training in Turkey. Both texts, assessment and strategies for the future, converged on many points. With the support of the European Union, the Magna Charta Observatory was asked to bring an outsider’s perspective to the reflection existing on what universities could and should become in tomorrow’s Turkey. Andrei Marga and Lucy Smith from the Collegium, and Hélène Lamicq, from the Booard of the Observatory made up with the Secretary General the Magna Charta delegation – Üstün Ergüder, another Board member, acting as the host of the meeting held in Istanbul on 25 and 26 February 2006.



On 25 February, the delegation met with the four persons who wrote the Vision as well as with some Turkish officials from the EU office in Ankara (in charge of educational programmes supported by Brussels), delegates from non-governmental educational initiatives, and the Vice-President of the Higher Education Council (YÖK) – all in all some twenty people. On 26 February, the group was enlarged to some forty persons by adding various stakeholders, the head of the Board of Education at the Ministry, bankers and industrialists (people often involved in higher education through so-called ‘foundation universities’, members of NGOs interested in academic training, representatives of innovative universities and of associations of academics – as well as columnists from the media. For all, the meeting was an opportunity to discuss strategies for the future in a private environment – and with a group of interested outsiders whose presence induced a sense of shared belonging among the Turkish delegates. The foreigners were also adding to the debate their understanding of the international trends shaping the emergence in the world of a knowledge society, such dimensions, European in particular, being used to test the capacity for modernisation of higher education in Turkey. 

The idea was to re-open the dialogue among Turkish decision-makers in a situation that had been blocked since 2003 and the refusal by academia of legislative changes proposed at the time by the government: the debate, as a consequence, addressed the conditions for the future success of Turkish higher education rather than dwelt on threatening legal changes. The law, indeed, should incorporate expected and agreed upon change rather than force on one group the unaccepted policies of another – at the risk of deepening social differences. All people agreed on the necessity for an on-going conversation to accompany, reinforce and support a growing awareness of potential change, with the potential result of creating ripple effects throughout the social groups interested in higher education in Turkey. This first meeting, if followed up, could help set up a learning environment that might foster trust relations between decision-makers still afraid off changes that could question their role and function in present Turkish society.



At the heart of the discussions was the role of Turkey that, by 2012, will be the largest country in Europe, population-wise. What does this mean for the universities’ social mandate in terms of modernisation and democracy – i.e., in terms of economic advantages and social organisation? On that basis, what is the type of knowledge universities should explore and impart, what is the service they can render to their communities and, indirectly, to Europe as a whole – for instance, as far as the careers entered by young generations in Turkey: should they also be trained to Europe’s economic welfare, also in highly skilled jobs? This European dimension should concern the know-how, competences and the general understanding of man’s place in society, thus allowing Turkish graduates to Europe’s social cohesion. In other words, can the frontier position of Turkey on the Eastern edge of the continent and, at the same time, as a part a wider Islamic ensemble turn the country into a bridge, thus turning this periphery place into an advantage rather than a debilitating problem? If so, the universities have a golden opportunity for change and revitalisation: this would mean updating and adapting their traditional mission of nation builders to the new priorities of the country. In such a context, the present problems (headscarf at the university, clerical training at Imam Hatip schools, decentralisation, etc.) can be viewed from an angle that goes beyond the stiff oppositions of the present. However, this supposes a European choice accepted by the universities and the larger part of the population supporting the universities as institutions of knowledge and social mobility. Then the questions of models of governance and academic missions can become relative to the wider functions of change in the nation, thus ushering a diversified system of higher education, adaptive, innovative and responsible. Indeed, the Magna Charta delegation insisted on higher education as a public service and a public good (along the lines of the Bologna process) and on the need for participation of the students, the best allies for real changes. The key to the problem remains trust in the other, and confidence in one’s capacity to develop and be relevant to the needs of one’s discipline, region and community as well as of the nation and of Europe. That is where institutional autonomy makes sense of academic freedom and reinforces the identity of the universities as a system. 

Following the intense discussions of the meeting, the Vision paper was to be redrafted – insisting on the anticipatory perspectives that could help re-engineer higher education in Turkey while including the many comments made over the two days. Later, the debate could develop on more precise sectors of higher education that would need to adapt to the new perspectives of the knowledge society for tomorrow’s Turkey.