Decrees threaten university autonomy, sack 1,267 staff

The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has taken direct control of the appointment of university rectors and a further 1,267 academics have been dismissed.

The measures were outlined in two new decrees (675 and 676) published in the Turkish Official Journal on 29 October.

From now on university rectors will no longer be elected by academics, but will be appointed by the President of the Republic who will take the decision based upon three candidates proposed by the Turkish Council of Higher Education, or YÖK.

But the president will also have the power to appoint a rector directly if he does not select one of those proposed by YÖK within a month and the body does not present a new candidate, Hurriyet Daily News reported.

The rectors will be able to work for a maximum of two terms in state universities.

Following the decrees, the European University Association or EUA has issued a statement of solidarity with universities and scholars in Turkey.

The statement said: “The European University Association would like to express its support for the higher education community in Turkey following the further infringements on university autonomy and academic freedom.

“EUA has many Turkish members and is deeply concerned by these developments as well as by the immediate dismissal of a further 1,267 academics, and stands firmly behind the internationally recognised principles of freedom of expression and of association, and of university autonomy, without which quality higher education and high level research cannot flourish.”

The measures affecting universities were part of a wider move to further clamp down on political opposition and dissent.

The academics were among 10,131 civil servants dismissed under the decrees. According to the authorities they are all suspected of having links with the Gülen movement, which the government blames for the attempted coup on 15 July, in which 265 people were killed.

Up to 15 media outlets, all of which focused on the southeast or socialist causes – not related to the coup attempt – were also shut down, media outlets reported.

According to Human Rights Watch, in total more than 130 media organisations have been closed since the 15 July coup attempt. These include 16 television broadcasters and 45 newspapers, Bloomberg reported.

Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey director at Human Rights Watch, said: “There are few critical voices that have not been ruthlessly silenced.”

Mayors and local councils have been removed and trustees put in their place in 27 municipalities in the southeast since an earlier decree was issued on 1 September. Thirty elected mayors are in pre-trial detention and many more under criminal investigation on suspicion of terrorism offences, according to Human Rights Watch.

In addition, under new restrictions, those charged with terrorism, coup plotting or any crime against the state face new curbs on their ability to prepare a legal defence.

They face having their meetings with their lawyers recorded and listened to. The authorities will also be able to seize documents used in the meetings and limit the hours of such meetings. And the Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office will be able to ban such meetings for six months, Hurriyet Daily News reported.

On Friday 28 October, a day before the latest decrees were issued, EUA’s autumn council meeting discussed developments in Turkey, in the presence of YÖK as one of the EUA’s 33 national rectors’ conferences.

EUA said there had actually been several positive developments since the initial dismissal of 1,577 university deans, suspension of 4,225 academics, dismissal of 27,000 education ministry staff members, and closure of 15 universities immediately after the coup attempt:
  • • The 65,000 students affected by the closure of 15 private higher education institutions have, for the most part, been transferred to other institutions in the same city, with the state continuing to pay their scholarships.

  • • Of the 1,577 deans who had been asked to step down in July, so far 1,480 of their positions have been refilled, 917 of them by the former deans.

  • • Of the more than 5,000 academics who lost their jobs in July, it was confirmed that more than 3,000 staff employed in the closed private universities would be free to seek employment elsewhere, while for 2,346 academic staff dismissed from posts in public universities an appeals process has been initiated to look at the evidence in each case, and that the process would be concluded in the next few months.
'Dire' consequences

However, at the conclusion of the EUA council meeting, EUA President Rolf Tarrach said: “It is not our role to get involved in political issues, but it is our role to understand and discuss their consequences for the universities and we are afraid that they are very dire.”

Human Rights Watch said while the Turkish government had declared a state of emergency since the 15 July coup and invoked its right to temporarily place extraordinary restrictions on some of the standards in the treaties it is party to – including the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – its actions “do not reflect any good faith effort to respect its human rights obligations”.