Decentralization in Turkish higher education?
Important changes are taking place in Turkish universities. These changes are significant for their own sake, as well as for presenting insight into the centralized institutional culture that dominates many universities in Turkey.
On March 6, parliament passed Law No: 7,100, transforming the internal structure of universities and focusing on procedures of faculty promotion.
There are a number of problems with the law. Some of its goals are quite unclear (such as scrapping the title of assistant professor) and it was pushed through top-down without much deliberation at lower levels. But the law actually also presented a long awaited opportunity to universities: Decentralization in academic stuff recruitment and promotion, a highly sensitive issue since the 1980s.
Before Law No. 7,100, faculty promotion in both public and private universities in Turkey was highly centralized. The Council of Higher Education (YÖK), a product of the 1980 coup, maintained state control over Turkish universities through various regulations. One of them regarded the process of obtaining the title of associate professor, a critical stage in the career path of university faculty members.
Prior to the legislative change, academics applying for this title had to be reviewed by the Inter-University Council (ÜAK), which was supervised by YÖK. The most controversial aspect of this review included an oral-examination of academics by an external jury assigned by the ÜAK. Aside from the technical concerns about such an examination method, this regulation also included political problems. As repeatedly raised by academics in recent decades, it allowed the political authorities to influence the internal affairs of universities thanks to their control over promotion mechanisms.
Law No. 7,100 loosened – without completely lifting - this regulation, leaving it to individual universities to decide whether or not they would like the ÜAK to examine their faculty for them. The law could therefore become a step towards liberalization of the higher education system. One might expect its decentralizing aspect to please liberal-minded university administrators, as it presents an opportunity for them to pursue their own institutional goals and standards. However, many universities have reacted skeptically. While the few elite universities have opted to rely on their own standards, others have hesitated and some have decided that they still need the ÜAK to continue reviewing their faculty instead of conducting such reviews themselves.
What explains this surprising hesitation? Why, after so many years of discontent with centralization, have university administrators not shown more willingness to seize the opportunity to liberalize?
The first reason is the most obvious one: Many are suspicious about the motives behind the law. Because of the polarized context of domestic politics and the fact that the law was imposed top-down, some viewed it as driven by clientelistic concerns rather than by a genuine effort to decentralize. Others hesitated to embrace the change too quickly because they suspected that it could be reversed again after the upcoming elections, as the law was not a product of a broad-based legislative effort in the first place.
But there could be an additional reason. Institutional politics suggests that institutions shape us more than the other way around. Once founded, institutions take a life of their own and continue to influence our lives, even when their founders are no longer in the picture. Decades of socialization in centralized politics must have affected institutional culture in Turkish universities.
So while many academics are theoretically not happy with centralized governing mechanisms, they appear to have internalized them to some extent and have a hard time acting differently in practice, even when the opportunity arises.
Can we hope for positive change at this point? Yes. But it will require strong and nonpartisan leadership, committed to achieving superior quality as much as diversity and freedom in academia. Law No: 7,100 was a start but there is much room for improvement.