An election that could change the face of higher education

Türkiye will hold a critical general election in May 2023 on the 100th anniversary of the Republic. Perhaps for the first time in 20 years, a strong opposition bloc threatens the current government. The significance for higher education is that the opposition bloc is promising to abolish the Council of Higher Education (YÖK) and to give universities administrative, financial and academic autonomy.

If this occurs, the Turkish higher education system, which is one of the most centralised systems in the world, will, at long last, be able to adapt to the global paradigm shift in higher education, which is characterised by autonomy and accountability.

The process of transforming from a highly centralised, low-autonomy system to a decentralised one would have important implications for higher education, both in Türkiye and globally.

The opposition bloc argues that the role of the proposed Higher Education Supreme Council is to govern higher education and ensure coordination among higher education institutions, but without interfering with institutions’ academic, administrative and financial autonomy.

In summary, it is envisaged that the Higher Education Supreme Council and the universities will jointly govern higher education without the current vertical hierarchy.

A networking governance model can be implemented with the inclusion of other institutions related to higher education, such as the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey, technocentres, research and development centres affiliated to the Ministry of Industry and Technology and the Inter-University Council, the Turkish Academy of Sciences and the Turkish Higher Education Quality Council.

The Council of Higher Education

Immediately after the 1980 military coup, the YÖK was established under a new university law. Its role was to organise, administer and supervise the education provided by institutions of higher education and to direct the activities of teaching, education and scientific research.

Since then, the nature of Turkish higher education has changed dramatically. There were two key changes.

First, the academies, teacher training colleges and conservatories affiliated with the ministry of education were transformed into universities. Thus, the dual structure of higher education was abolished in Türkiye ahead of many other countries.

Secondly, vocational schools were brought within the structure of university education. It was recognised that two-year associate degree programmes were the first stage in a broader university education.

Thus, universities were transformed into institutions that offered education in all fields, ranging from teacher training to medical studies, and at all levels, from associate degrees to doctoral degrees. This new framework provided a more suitable basis for mass higher education.

However, this legal framework had three negative consequences.

Firstly, the YÖK acquired almost total power in issues of administration, academic affairs, the financial structure of higher education and also took over many functions that were previously the responsibility of universities, such as rector elections, dean appointments, staff arrangements and even curriculum design. As a result, universities completely lost their administrative, financial and even academic autonomy.

Secondly, while the newly adopted comprehensive university model was suitable for mass education, it had the effect of creating identical universities in an environment which lacked any university autonomy.

Today, 99% of students in higher education attend institutions operating according to an identical model. In an environment where the higher education law strictly specifies administrative, financial management and academic organisation, and where institutions are tightly controlled by the YÖK, it is almost impossible for universities to differentiate themselves by specifying their own dynamics.

Finally, as the higher education system expanded, the YÖK increasingly engaged in the daily management of the higher education system, at the expense of policy-making and planning.

Politics and the YÖK

Since its establishment, the YÖK has been heavily criticised both inside and outside the universities, and many political parties have made election promises to reform it.

For example, before it came to power, the current ruling party (the Justice and Development Party) promised universities full autonomy as well as legal measures to ensure that academic governance was decided by elections at all levels, including rectors, deans, heads of department and directors of institutes.

However, after it came to power, these promises never materialised and, in fact, things moved in the opposite direction.

The YÖK is a constitutionally defined institution which has legal links to the Presidency of the Republic and the head of the YÖK and the majority of council members are chosen by the president.

Previously, the political party in power had limited power over the YÖK so it was able to play a role as a buffer, albeit a limited one, against political influence in higher education. This mediating role has now come to an end, leaving it completely under the control of those with political power, so that even this limited autonomy has been lost.

When a member of the ruling party became president of the Republic in 2007, the government took full control of the executive power of the YÖK. As with universities, the YÖK lost its relative autonomy. Today, the government and the YÖK seem to work in close association and after 2008, the higher education law was changed to increase the scope and extent of the YÖK’s power and control over the Turkish higher education system.

Turkish higher education has now reached a crossroads. On the one hand, the country has achieved universal access to higher education. On the other, the highly rigid and inflexible system, as it currently operates, will not easily be able to adapt to the needs of the universal education higher education era.

The proposal of the opposition bloc constitutes an important basis for solving some of the major challenges facing the Turkish higher education system.

Professor Dr Oguz Esen is based at Izmir University of Economics, Türkiye.

University World News published a Special Report on ‘Elections and HE’ in January. This report can be accessed via this link.