A lot is hanging on the outcome of the presidential elections in Turkey this weekend, many academics in the country are saying. At stake are issues like the governmental appointment of university rectors, the reinstatement of professors expelled during the 2016 state of emergency, control of academia by the Council of Higher Education (Yök) and a growing brain drain.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has been in power since 2003 – first as prime minister, than president – took the lead in the first round of voting on 14 May. His opponent Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu leads a broad opposition coalition that has seriously challenged Erdoğan’s dominance for the first time in two decades. A coalition of right-wing parties that collected 5% of the votes in the first round may be kingmakers in this election.

President Erdogan of Turkey placing his vote in the ballot box

Source: © Umit Bektas-Pool/Getty Images

President Erdoğan is expected to win the run-off at the weekend, something that worries many researchers in the country

Under Erdoğan’s rule, academic freedom has been progressively curtailed. In 2011, a group of scholars founded an alternative science academy, Bilim Akademisi, after the president changed the rules for appointing members of the older one, Tüba.

In 2016, after an attempted coup, Erdoğan declared a state of emergency during which he fired thousands of academics, accusing them of being linked to the coup. Among them, hundreds of signatories of the Academics for Peace petition that objected to human rights violations in Turkish Kurdistan.

Erdoğan also took charge of nominating university rectors that year, making a series of controversial choices. For example, on January 2021 he picked a former member of his party as rector of the top-tier Boğaziçi University. The choice sparked significant protests among students and faculty.

In 2017, the Turkish government excised evolutionary theory from school textbooks, after deeming it ‘old and rotten’.

Politicising universities

Caghan Kizil, a Turkish neuroscientist at Columbia University, US, says that Turkey has been through a ‘deep and rooted transformation’ over the last 20 years. ‘Merit-based appointment has shifted towards political criteria, and a lot of professors have been removed.’

University autonomy is at the core of a call for a new higher education law contained in a November 2022 report drafted by a group of senior Turkish academics, who say they have sent it to all the candidates. ‘Universities should self-govern and decide their own model to appoint their leaders and recall them, if necessary,’ says Canan Atilgan, a chemical engineer at Sabanci University and president of Bilim Akademisi. ‘They should be free to use their budget, and there should be mechanisms [for] internal democracy.’

A Tüba spokesperson declined Chemistry World’s request for comment.

One specific requirement of the report is the abolition of the Council of Higher Education and its replacement with ‘a new, independent, non-executive council’. Yök was created in 1981, following a coup, with the objective of bringing all universities under the control of a single organisation. It has remained in place ever since. The council decides things like the opening of new departments and new degrees and how many staff members can be hired, says Atilgan.

Lale Akarun, a professor of computer engineering at Boğaziçi Univeristy, says that Yök’s purpose ‘is to make all universities uniform and control all ideas, all research, all hiring, all spending’. ‘If this continues, we will become equal in mediocrity,’ she says. The council took the controversial decision to move all university classes online after February’s earthquake. The government said that this was so students’ dormitories could be used for victims of the earthquake, but researchers point out in person lessons were maintained previously following earthquakes and some believe the move is to prevent students from organising politically.

Atilgan says many of the report requests are included in Kılıçdaroğlu’s manifesto, including replacing Yök and allowing universities to once more chose their own rectors. The opposition candidate also said he would reinstate the scholars removed under emergency decrees. Erdoğan, on the other hand, has proposed putting a board of trustees at the top of all public universities.

‘The opposition winning would mean taking a breath of academic liberty,’ says İsmet Akça, a political scientist who was removed from his university after signing the Academics for Peace manifesto.

Some academics have pinned all their hopes on these elections. ‘Friends who organised the resistance in Boğaziçi University rely on an election loss by Erdoğan,’ says one chemist at Boğaziçi who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. ‘There is no B plan. If that does not happen, it is likely that the younger generation [of researchers] will emigrate and the older ones will retire.’

Akarun says she will continue to write, give interviews, protest and help in court cases. Akça points out that the academic union, Eğitim-Sen, is one potential site of resistance to further changes that Erdoğan may introduce, should he win. ‘If anything happens, it will be bottom-up,’ says Atilgan.