Erdoğan’s vision for higher education in Turkey

Erdoğan’s vision for higher education in Turkey

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan believes Istanbul’s prestigious Boğaziçi (Bosporus) University has failed to become a global brand because it does not “lean on national values.” He also says the university is closed to those whose ideas it disagrees with.

Erdoğan told a gathering of Boğaziçi graduates over the weekend that the achievements of their University, as well as Istanbul’s equally prestigious Galatasaray University, have remained limited under the Turkish Republic because their education is mostly based on a foreign language.

Boğaziçi and Galatasaray were initially established in Ottoman times as institutions of secondary level education, the former teaching in English and the latter in French, before becoming universities.

In his address, Erdogan lauded Ibn Khaldun, the Arab historiographer considered a precursor to modern sociology, and Ibn Sina, the Persian polymath (known as Avicenna in the west) considered a forerunner of modern medicine, as well as the Ottoman cartographer Piri Reis, who charted the world as accurately as possible according to the standards of his epoch.

Erdoğan’s speech was basically this: If Boğaziçi aspires to produce such notables it needs to base its syllabus on national values. But apart from Piri Reis, none of the other names were either Ottomans or Turks. How these names conform to his “national vision” is not immediately obvious.

All the names mentioned, however, were Muslim scholars or scientists. One assumes, therefore, that “national values” actually mean “Islamic values,” according to Erdoğan’s dictionary.

The president might also be implying that Boğaziçi University has kept out devout Muslims because of their beliefs, regardless of their potential academic prowess.

But this implication completely disregards the fact that Boğaziçi’s alumni include devout Muslims such as former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu.

The towering Islamic names Erdoğan mentioned form part of mankind’s universal heritage. They should be, and are, taught in universities across the world.

Nevertheless, it is unclear how seriously they are taught in Turkey, even in the most Islamic of universities, whose number has proliferated under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Take, for example, the lecturer from Istanbul University – who is clearly a devout Muslim – who recently claimed on television (and he was not joking) that Noah communicated with his son by mobile phone during the great flood.

A university is not called a “university” for nothing. It needs to be an independent seat of universal learning if it is to have any value. National education is important of course. How a university is expected to become “a global brand name” by leaning on national and Islamic values is unclear.

Many studies today highlight the serious brain drain from Turkey toward the west – where Erdogan’s own children were also educated. Like journalists, academics also feel the shadow of the authorities over their heads, as they are being constantly told what they can and cannot teach. 

Whether Erdoğan’s vision for higher education can reverse this trend is far from clear.

The quality of education is a major problem facing present-day Turkey today as the country pursues development initiatives in order to become the pre-eminent country that Erdogan and his supporters dream about.

But let’s not forget that this a country where imams close to the government are openly calling on Allah “to protect us from the wickedness of the educated.” How an Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Sina or Piri Reis can be expected to emerge from such an environment is anyone’s guess.

Semih idiz, hdn, Opinion