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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Post-coup crackdown sees Turkish universities slide in global ratings

With research under scrutiny after coup attempt academics are fleeing abroad

Turkey's President and leader of ruling Justice and Development Party Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses party members in Afyonkarahisar, Turkey, Saturday, Feb. 17, 2018. Kayhan Ozer/Pool Photo via AP
Turkey's President and leader of ruling Justice and Development Party Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses party members in Afyonkarahisar, Turkey, Saturday, Feb. 17, 2018. Kayhan Ozer/Pool Photo via AP

Turkish universities were once seen as a benchmark of the country’s progress, steadily climbing international rankings to compete with the world’s elite.

But since the introduction of emergency powers following a failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in July 2016, the government’s grip on academic freedom has tightened.

A slide in the nation's academic reputation is now indisputable. Three years ago, six Turkish institutions were in the Times Higher Education’s global top 300. Ankara's Middle East Technical University was ranked 85th. Now, with Oxford and Cambridge leading the standings, no Turkish university sits in the top 300.

Experts say at least part of the reason is that since the coup attempt more than 5,800 academics have been dismissed from their jobs. Mr Erdogan has also increased his leeway in selecting university rectors.

Gulcin Ozkan, formerly of Middle East Technical University but now teaching economics at York University in Britain, said the wave of dismissals and arrests has "forced some of the best brains out of the country".

Even before the military effort to topple Mr Erdogan academic staff were being targeted.

The signing by 1,128 staff of an Academics for Peace petition, criticising security operations in Turkey's Kurdish-majority southeast, saw nearly 500 sacked or forced to leave their jobs. More than one in 10 of the signatories (148) were charged with promoting terrorist propaganda, which carries a seven-and-a-half year jail sentence. One academic who signed the petition has reportedly committed suicide.

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The drift against academic freedom has seen staff flee abroad. Scholars at Risk, a US group that finds foreign posts for those facing persecution, has reported 698 Turkish applications since the petition in January 2016.

Noemi Levy-Aksu, who has dual French-Turkish citizenship, lost her post teaching history at Bosphorus University after she signed the peace petition.

Having found a position in London she says many colleagues are applying abroad because they don’t see any future at home given the situation in universities is "unseen in the history of Turkey".

"There's the fear for many of the signatories who don't know if they will be dismissed or not," she said. "There’s also the fear of denunciation by students or others via a website set up by the government to report people."

Another petition signatory, who remains in her faculty post at a leading public university, said: "For the last couple of years we've seen a drop in the number of international faculty members and that is because people are either leaving or they don't necessarily want to come to Turkey."

She said it had become more difficult get permission for research – a key measurement in determining university rankings.

According to London-based Freedom for Academia, the number of Turkish research articles fell by 28 percent last year.

"A lot of people are really tired, exhausted in terms of the whole political environment and the interference in what we do as academic work," the faculty member said. "People are looking for fellowships and short-term placements outside of Turkey to keep themselves sane."

Another UK-based professor, Stephen Reicher of St Andrews University, has been following the cases against Turkish academics and recently attended a court hearing in Istanbul.

"Three years ago these were colleagues who were working in much the same circumstances as me and we could have open, broad, critical debate," he said. "They could do creative, critical and original work and now it's much more difficult."

Reicher described the targeting of university members for signing a petition as a warning to wider society.

"If you send a message more broadly that no dissent will be allowed... If you go for the most moderate of critics then it’s a much more powerful message of 'Shut up or you’ll be next'," he added.

As lecturers seek posts abroad – four of the nine academics currently seeking new placements through the Scholar Rescue Fund are from Turkey – students are also feeling the pressure of the politicised atmosphere.

"There’s a feeling of sympathy with the lecturers but also there are a lot of students who support the government and are happy to criticise and even report staff they say are supporting terrorists," a political science student at Ankara's Hacettepe University said, on condition of anonymity.

"We've seen left-wing students attacked by nationalist students at some campuses – it doesn’t make for a good environment for studying."

Turkey's Higher Education Board did not respond to a request for comment.