What the student amnesty reveals about Turkish politics

At the beginning of July, the Turkish parliament enacted a law known to the Turkish public as the ‘student amnesty’ law. This regulation covered associate, undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students who were dismissed from public and private universities for any reason, or who left voluntarily.

The legislation came as no surprise to the Turkish public, as this kind of thing has happened on 14 previous occasions over the past 40 years, most recently in 2018. This means that, on average, every three years a student amnesty law has been enacted.

Legislation introduced in 2000 provided an opportunity for students whose registration was cancelled between 1980 and 2000 to return to higher education. A similar law enacted in 2005 was relatively narrower, covering only the period between 2000 and 2005.

The law introduced in 2008 included all students who left higher education during the period between 1995 and 2009. The legislation of 2018 and that of 2022 allow all students to apply, regardless of when they left higher education. The last three amnesty laws extended the opportunity to students who had accepted but not yet enrolled on a programme.

There are no publicly available dropout statistics in Turkish higher education, making it difficult to assess the size of the problem. However, a clue to its true dimensions is given by the regularity of the amnesty laws.

From the statement made by the Council of Higher Education in parliament, it is understood that the 2022 law covers the equivalent of 37% of the number of currently enrolled students.

A permanent feature of higher education

How can we explain this peculiar situation, which seems to have become a permanent feature of Turkish higher education?

Firstly, the student amnesty arrangement has no connection with the expansion of higher education or the enrolment rate, as the following statistics show.

In the 1980s, the Turkish higher education system could be described as elitist, with very few higher education institutions in operation and a gross enrolment rate (GER) of less than 10%. In this period, there were four different student amnesty laws enacted. The GER passed the 15% threshold in the 1990s and Turkish higher education entered a period of mass higher education.

In this period, there were five amnesty laws. The 2000s were the period when Turkish higher education became universal and the gross enrolment rate reached 114% in 2018 (including all eligible young people under 25 and older students such as Open University students). In this period, five student amnesty laws were enacted.

Second, since the demand for student amnesty does not come from the higher education system itself, one might view it as being more motivated by political reasons.

That is not to say that it is connected with the specific ideologies of different governments. In the last 40 years, different political parties have been in power in Turkey. Student amnesty law proposals have been enacted by governments from different points across the political spectrum, yet such legislation is among the laws voted through by parliament with the highest degree of consensus.

Higher education system and Turkish politics

We can therefore perhaps explain the phenomenon in terms of the characteristics of the Turkish higher education system and the government-voter relationship in Turkish politics.

The Turkish higher education system is highly centralised and key issues, such as the duration of study and requirements for graduation, are determined by the Council of Higher Education. This leaves universities with little room for manoeuvre when it comes to providing creative solutions to student issues.

The existence of student amnesty laws is an implicit recognition of the income, regional and opportunity inequalities in Turkish higher education. With such legal arrangements, governments are able to mitigate some of the severe outcomes caused by these inequalities.

Thus, over the last 40 years, there has been a student amnesty law before every election – and that has made higher education an influential issue when it comes to the government-voter relationship.

Oguz Esen is professor of economics at Izmir University of Economics, Turkey.