“A good part of our population has a different mother tongue. If we don't recognize this, we're creating political problems; we are creating an unnecessary discussion about the education system. If Kurdish is a part of this geography, it should be studied; it should be part of curriculum in schools,” said Üstün Ergüder who directs the Education Reform Initiative (ERI) and heads the Council of the Magna Charta Observatory of Fundamental Universal Values and Rights located in Bologna, Italy.
The government announced on June 12 that Kurdish will be offered as an elective language course at schools, provided there are enough students interested in taking the course.
As the decision marks the beginning of a new era in the history of Turkey, we asked Ergüder to elaborate on this issue and others, such as higher education and academic freedom.
The Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government has announced that state schools will offer elective Kurdish courses starting this educational year. ERI has done a lot of work in regards to education models in a child's first, second or third language. What is your evaluation of that decision?
First of all, there is a lot of confusion regarding terminology in regards to education in Turkey. With the ‘official language' we mean the language used officially in a country. A country might have one, two or more official languages. If there is one constitutionally recognized language, this does not mean that there are no other mother tongues spoken in a country. In Turkey, we have one official language, which is Turkish. Offering Kurdish language in the education system does not mean that you are changing that. A few years ago, ERI conducted series of meetings on the issue of mother tongue. In the report we prepared, we thought that it would be very good to take into account the language that a child speaks at home and help him use that language in school. In that regard, we've recommended schools' capacities be improved to address the demands of the child, especially in primary school because they might be coming to the school from a completely different background. I don't know what is going on in the trenches, in the schools, in the southeast of Turkey. There is a lot of political warfare on the issue of language; it is also tainted with ideology. It doesn't help the learning experience of the students.
Some observers find the government's step to be too late and not enough.
I see it as a positive move. It's a good step forward. I say that it is better late than never. A good part of our population has a different mother tongue. If we don't recognize this, we're creating political problems; we are creating an unnecessary discussion about the education system. If Kurdish is a part of this geography, it should be studied; it should be part of curriculum in schools -- that does not mean that we're giving up our official language. The government's move is an important beginning.
What else needs to be done to improve this move which you describe as the ‘beginning'?
We have to find ways of lifting pressures related to the Kurdish language. We need to become more liberalized. Let students be able to take Kurdish history, Kurdish literature, Kurdish language, etc. The debate about official language is another question. But to address that properly we have to first lift all this cloud, all this dust, all this storm over the language issue. We have to liberalize the system. When I look at world trends, I recall what a Welsh expert told us at an ERI meeting. He said that the government emphasizes Welsh as a language of education for children but Welsh families press for English language education! There is a simple reason for it. The children will go out and make a living and there is a preference for global languages. Turkey enjoys a very important advantage in that sense. But if we place bans on this and that, then those things become very valuable. This prevents people from making more pragmatic choices. Why do the Turkish parents insist that their kids learn English? Why do we have universities and high schools which use English as the language of instruction? There seems to be a rational reason for it. If you want to be safe on an airplane, the pilot should speak English. There is no place for nationalism or ideology there.
‘Higher education can't be managed with super board in Ankara'
The new head of Turkey's Higher Education Board (YÖK) has recently said that they have been working on a new document to have new strategies for higher education in Turkey. It is obvious that Turkey has problems in regards to its higher education and you've been involved in it for a long time. Have you seen this latest document?
I haven't seen it; nobody has sent it to me. I have also lost interest in such documents. The reason is that we have had all sorts of strategy documents issued before, also in the early 2000s. In those years, we came together with experts and wrote a new vision for Turkey's higher education. There have been various other documents. YÖK is working on a new strategy now but nothing is happening. The issue is political. The Higher Education Board and the whole system is such a pyramid that everybody talks about changing it when they are in opposition but when they are in power, nobody does.
So it is very powerful?
Powerful is not enough to describe it. It's like having a very valuable vase in your home. You don't want to give it up. My only hope with the higher education system is that it is expanding so fast that it will be very difficult to manage it with a super board of higher education in the capital, Ankara. I have known the system since 1982, as I was serving at the Bosporus University then, and I also served as a rector under YÖK. Over time, instead of being dismantled, as all faculties wanted a more horizontal organization, it [YÖK] has become more pyramidal, more centralized, which I did not like at all. YÖK in the late 1980s and 1990s was more liberal in some ways than it is right now.
What do you think of the problems related to appointment of university rectors?
When the system started in 1982, there was no election of rectors at universities. YÖK appointed somebody. You never knew why a person was appointed to a particular university. In 1992, the system was changed because some of the universities revolted against that system and they had their own elections. Whether YÖK wanted it or not, they went ahead and said that this was the person they wanted. The leader was Bosporus University. After the revolt, the whole system was overhauled because other universities followed. According to an amendment to the law, which is still in force, universities have been required to elect and rank in order six candidates and the names will be sent to YÖK, who will narrow it down to three candidates, and then the president will appoint one of them. This system in its early days operated generally as the president and YÖK respecting the universities' choices and their rank order. In rare cases, the rank order was changed, either by YÖK or by the president. But later the frequency of not respecting the choice of the university started to increase around late 1990s, early 2000s and today. Right now, the situation as such is that there is no one-to-one correlation between the election of the candidate and the appointment of that candidate as a rector. Even in some of the oldest, most reputed universities, that has not been respected, for example the İstanbul Technical University [İTU]. It is a common understanding that the person who comes in the second or third place can get the appointment. So if you say that there will be an election, it should be respected.
‘We need to know how well our universities teach'
Do you think YÖK should be abolished?
I don't think you can abolish YÖK. If you abolish YÖK, you should institute something else. My preference is for two higher education bodies. One would be a coordinating agency which would design Turkey's higher education policy. YÖK should not dictate which departments they can open or not, and universities should be able to experiment with new designs; YÖK should set only general goals. And there could be another agency, a quality agency, to measure performance of universities. And YÖK could use that information to have, in the case of state universities, a performance-based budgeting system.
What is the world trend in that regard?
What is missing in Turkey is quality. The world trend is toward decreasing centralization, empowering universities but measuring their performance. Universities also invite international agencies to evaluate their performance, for example, the European University Association or ABET [Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, Inc.] During my rectorship, we invited the ABET of the United States to evaluate and accredit our engineering faculty, which also means that the degree will be recognized worldwide after that process of accreditation. There are some good trends in Turkey. We don't have a national agency for accreditation but what is interesting is that engineering deans have come together and formed a civil society association, MÜDEK [The Society for the Accreditation and Assessment of Engineering Education Programs], which does in Turkey what ABET does in the US. There are other deans doing similar things.
You were saying that institutional autonomy is very important.
Because a university should be able to experiment with how they will teach certain courses, form departments, interdisciplinary departments, etc. Also they should be able to decide on what kind of research they will do. They should be able to create models of research. We experiment with that at Sabancı University. We have no departments and encourage interdisciplinary teaching and learning. Other universities want to emulate that too. That's why I am against over centralization and input controls. We should have a system in which higher education policies should be set but universities should be free to operate within those policy goals. And somebody should sit around and measure their performance because the public pays for that. We should know how well they are teaching, how good they are at research, etc.
‘Universities have to be devil's advocates'
Academic freedom is a much debated issue in the world. And it certainly is in Turkey where there is also the freedom of speech issue. What is your evaluation in that regard?
I have not really felt constricted. I have always operated within the framework of a university, in the past at Bosporus University and now at Sabancı University. Both institutions have good operating principles on how you conduct research, teaching, etc. I have not found any interference within the confines of a university. The problems start especially in societies which are ideologically divided and when you go out in public. There are vey bad cases in that regard. There have been some good practices, too. There have been academics that authorities in Ankara wanted to prosecute, put pressure on university administrations not to recruit some faculty members because on a certain issue that person's ideas did not correspond with the official view. Some universities have defended their academics successfully. Some others did not. I know of a case in which a faculty made a statement about Atatürk, not a very offensive statement, in a public speech. He called Atatürk “that man.”
Yes. The university cut off his classes, etc. The case came to me, too. I was a member of the board of the Magna Charta Observatory then. The university rector did not give a satisfactory answer. There have been other cases like that. There have been also doctoral dissertation cases which have been approved by the doctoral committee but the awarding of the doctoral degree has been stopped by the university administration. A good university should be able to defend its faculty from outside interference. Those issues have been discussed all over the world.
The issue seems to be very complicated for Turkey since Atatürk's name is protected by law.
We have this problem not only about Atatürk. Whoever has power seems to enjoy immunity against criticism in Turkey. Our culture is not very conducive to institutionalize the concept of academic freedom. We always talk about being in unity. Unity does not allow diversity. If there is somebody who goes out of the way, s/he becomes an outcast, sometimes sanctioned for it. In higher education, you should leave universities free because academic freedom is important. That's what makes universities different from other higher education institutions. You should be able think the unthinkable in order to come up with new ideas. Universities are the nerve center of a society. They have to be the devil's advocates and society should tolerate that.
‘Child not at the center of education policies'
The government recently introduced changes to the education system dividing the total educational period into three consecutive stages of four years each, formulated as “4+4+4. Your thoughts?
We should be looking into the opportunities in that system. We have to overhaul our curriculum on the way we approach the child. We have to move away from rote learning to a system of learning in which a child questions things. We have to create more responsible citizens who can exist in a democratic society. You go out and observe how we walk on streets and how we drive our cars; we do not respect each other. Initially, I did not agree with the new 4+4+4 system for a very simple reason. The reason was that education is used as a political toy. In the 1980s, they came up with the eight-year [uninterrupted, compulsory] system. It had some positive effects. Turkey is a big country and the Education Ministry faces big issues. They have to train teachers, build schools, change curriculums, etc. The new system's benefits could have been driven by other systems. The problem is a political problem. That hurts the child. Let's now stop and think of the child. We are ready to come up with constructive ideas if needed. Dialogue is very important in that regard. And civil society organizations are more active than ever.
Dr. Üstün Ergüder
Emeritus professor at Sabanci University, he received his undergraduate degree from Manchester University in England. He undertook his graduate studies at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs of Syracuse University, New York, USA and later joined the academic staff of Boğaziçi (Bosporus) University. Between August 1992 and August 2000, he served as the rector of Boğaziçi University for two consecutive terms. Prior to his appointment as rector, he chaired the Department of Political Science and International Relations. Between November 2001 and June 2010 he served as the director of the İstanbul Policy Center at Sabancı University. Currently, he directs the Education Reform Initiative, an advocacy project located at Sabancı University and funded by 20 different foundations, the missions of which are education reform. He is also the president of the Council of Magna Charta Observatory located in Bologna, Italy, and chairs the executive committee and the Board of Trustees of the Third Sector Foundation of Turkey.