In Turkey, even university graduations are political

Image by Joshua Hoehne. Free to use under Unsplash License.

Ankara's qualms with the country's education system have been ongoing since the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002. Interventions into the education landscape began subtly — if not inclusively — at first, but over the years, they were replaced with efforts to reform the curriculum along more religious lines and deeper control mechanisms. These days, independent experts say Turkey's education system is in decline. But it is not just the curriculum or the structure that the state is intervening in. In recent years, even graduation ceremonies have been heavily scrutinized, at times, getting canceled altogether despite students’ and academics’ demands to reverse the decision.

Protests and creative banners

In an email sent to the students of Bogazici University on May 31 ahead of their graduation ceremonies, the students were informed that the school's management had decided there wouldn't be a collective graduation ceremony as had been a tradition at the end of each academic year. Instead, each department would hold separate ceremonies in separate locations on campus. This is the second year they implemented dispersed graduation ceremonies, according to reporting by Diken newspaper.

The change was implemented purportedly to stave off any potential student protest or organizing.

Last year, despite the ban, students organized their own collective graduation ceremonies, prompting university administrators to cancel all of their graduate IDs that grant them access to the school, effectively blocking their access to the campus. The move was not surprising, given that since 2021, the university students and its academic staff have been protesting the appointment of a new rector, who was handpicked by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

While the controversial government-appointed rector Melih Bulu has since been removed, the protests continue at the prestigious school as he was replaced by another appointee. The school has an extensive internal election process, so the two external appointments were viewed as a “breach of academic freedom as it bypassed rectorate elections and was the first time a person from outside the university had been placed in the rectorial seat since the coup of September 12, 1980,” reported Gazete Duvar at the time.

An attempt to also cancel the collective graduation ceremony at the Middle East Technical University (METU) was reversed last minute following protests from students. According to reports, the university's administration decided to move ahead with holding a collective ceremony at the campus stadium. However, the school warned attendees that all banners would be closely scrutinized. Several graduation ceremonies were also cancelled at the university in recent years on the grounds of a security threat out of concern that students might criticize the state through banners or protests. In 2019, at least five METU students were arrested ahead of the graduation ceremony out of fear of provocation. Last year, when the university administration said the collective graduation ceremony was cancelled, a statement signed by METU Alumni Association called on the rectorate to reverse the decision. When the rectorate did not budge, faculty members and students organized the ceremony themselves. There was a heavy police presence, and students were only allowed to invite immediate family members.

Bogazici, METU and other progressive, independent universities are known for their graduation ceremonies, where new graduates carry banners with political, cultural, and social messages. Banners held by students during this year's graduation at METU focused on the country's failing economy, women's rights, living conditions — mostly addressed with humor. A message from the graduates of the Mathematics Department read, “Our math skills and knowledge were insufficient to calculate the amount of money collected and then vanished for the earthquake survivors.”Or, the banner carried by the graduates of the Physics Department that read, “The way to read Einstein's E = mc2 formula within our country's context. e (inflation — in Turkish “enflasyon”) = m (current situation — in Turkish “mevcut sistem”) c (ignorance – in Turkish “cehalet”)2.” Another banner read, “Turkey's new century is going to be tremendous.” The word “tremendous” in Turkish translates as “muazzam” and the students highlighted the last three letters “zam” which means “price hike” or “raise,” in Turkish. A tongue in cheek reference to a series of price hikes that have been implemented in the country as a result of financial difficulties.

Another popular act of solidarity was sent to the country's LGBTQ+ community with students unfolding a large rainbow flag:

Students caused a revolution during the ODIT graduation ceremony with their giant rainbow flag. Your glory is marching again lubunya.

Lubunya is a Turkish slang term used to describe those who identify as queer.

In some instances, students decided to raise their concerns individually, like Melisa Caymaz, who unfurled a rainbow flag during her graduation ceremony in the province of Usak. Caymaz faced death threats and public shaming while the university said it has launched formal proceedings against the student. The anti-LGBTQ+ ire extends not only to universities. When a primary school in Istanbul set up a rainbow-decorated wall for its graduation ceremony, the school's director and one teacher were fired from their jobs after the former mayor of Ankara, İbrahim Melih Gökçek raised the issue on Twitter:

If this woman is a teacher, she must immediately be fired. Those who push our children towards homosexuality, are murderers of our children.

For the former mayor, anything that includes rainbow colors is LGBTQ+ propaganda. In another tweet, he targeted a hospital in the province of Kocaeli for having its exterior hospital panels painted in colorful colors. More generally, under the AKP rule, the emphasis on family values and the portrayal of LGBTQ+ people as a threat to these values has been part of a narrative weaponized by local politicians, including President Erdoğan. The ruling party has long viewed the community as a “virus” and “poison.”

Raising pious generations

The country's independent education experts have been raising concerns about the decay of the education system for over a decade. They argued that the existing system was being remodeled in line with the ruling government's bid to raise “pious generations” and forge a “New Turkey.” These efforts date back to 2012 when under the leadership of the then-Prime Minister Erdoğan, Turkey replaced the old system where compulsory education consisted of five years of primary and three years of secondary school (5+3) with four-year phases for primary, secondary, and high school (4+4+4) without allowing any consultation or debate. Although progressive at first look — raising compulsory education to an additional four years — the change subjected children to religious education at an earlier age. It allowed the secondary education tier to be replaced by imam-hatip (vocational schools to educate imams and preachers) schools, which offered Islamic education to students at a high-school level only. Other changes introduced by the state — such as centralized admission exams to all secondary and high schools in 2014 — “transformed the religious schools from a selective option to a central institution in the education system,” wrote columnist Orhan Kemal Cengiz. Because if a student failed to get a certain amount of points to secure entry to a public school, they would have no other choice but to enroll at an imam-hatip school, explained Cengiz. According to a 2018 Reuters investigation, spending on imam-hatip schools doubled by 2018, and the number of enrolled pupils rose fivefold. Since then, scores of new imam-hatip schools have opened.

In 2016, the state also introduced a new measure that required all candidate teachers to pass an Oral Exam Evaluation. The evaluation exam was criticized by several education syndicates at the time for its opaque structure and irrelevance. In their evaluation, syndicates raised concern that while Oral Exam Evaluation was a practice used in other countries as well, in Turkey, this exam was the primary method that determined whether a potential candidate could become a teacher.

The new measures came a month after the failed military coup of 2016. Following the coup, over 100,000 people were removed or suspended from their jobs, among them more than 30,000 teachers, 5,000 academics, deans, and others. Many viewed the purges within universities as the state's attempt to deal with dissenters, especially at the universities that the state previously had no control over.

In 2016,  Erdoğan secured the right to appoint university rectors who were previously elected by each school's academic body. In 2017, the theory of evolution was removed from the teaching curriculum at Turkish schools despite criticism. In July 2023, Turkish Education Education Minister Yusuf Tekin suggested the establishment of all-girls schools — a statement he has since backtracked due to public outcry.

What the state fails to see, however, is the long-term impact of such severe control mechanisms. Already the purges following the failed coup attempt, as well as growing polarization, many have either left or are considering leaving. Speaking to BNE Intellnews, Bekir Agirdir, director of the Konda research consultancy, notes that although brain drain is not new, the reasons for leaving have become more political.

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