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The University in the Making of Authoritarian Turkey

Ayça Alemdaroğlu


Increasing access to higher education is often perceived as a threat to authoritarian regimes because, as liberal theory suggests, universities would cultivate critical citizenry and oppositional politics. However, Turkey, under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, contradicts this assumption and necessitates a rethinking of the relationship between the university and democracy. Although university-educated sections of society are generally more embracive of democratic values, universities have also played an important role in nationalist indoctrination, elite reproduction, and class inequality. Moreover, emerging evidence indicates the role of universities in authoritarian regimes. This paper focuses on the double processes of the remarkable growth of access to universities associated with democratization in liberal theory and the simultaneous intensification and consolidation of authoritarian rule in Turkey. It argues that the changes in higher education have not only been a reflection of Erdoğan’s autocratic rule but also serve as one of its building blocks. Universities fulfill this function by extending political patronage to new clientele and fortifying control and coercion among students and academics, who have historically been central to democratic politics in the country.

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An early version of this paper was presented at Stanford University, CDDRL Seminar Series on March 4, 2021. I would like to express my gratitude to the seminar audience for their valuable input. I would also like to extend my thanks to Serdar Tekin, Claire Vissier, Fabio Salomoni, Sinem Adar, Victor Silverman, and two anonymous reviewers for their insightful feedback. I appreciate their time and effort in reading and providing comments on the paper.


  • 1 Only 11 % of 55-64 years old has a tertiary education in Turkey, compared to 40 % of the 25-34-year (...)

1The expansion of higher education is often associated with increasing democratic potential and is seen as a threat to authoritarianism in liberal theory. Accordingly, societies with a higher level of university-educated populations tend to be less prone to authoritarian politics (Carnevale et al. 2020; Dražanová 2017; Glaeser et. al 2007). Therefore, the liberal assumption suggests that authoritarian leaders would be wary of expanding university access to prevent the spread of democratic demands (de Mesquita, Downs 2005). Turkey presents a divergent case. The expansion and intensification of authoritarian rule under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) overlapped with the impressive growth of higher education. In 2002, Turkey had 76 universities (53 public and 23 private). By 2020, the number of universities had increased to 206 (130 public and 76 private) (see Figure 1). The student population also rose from 1.7 million to 8 million in the same period. This over 300 percent growth in the university student population against only 26 percent population growth led to a doubling of the university-educated young adult population (25-34), bringing Turkey closer to the OECD average within two decades.1

Figure 1. The change in the number of universities under the AKP.

Source: Compiled by the author based on TUBITAK numbers.

2However, this impressive expansion of university access occurred alongside authoritarian consolidation in Turkey (Esen, Gümüşcü 2016; Erensü, Alemdaroğlu 2018; Akçay 2021). Although Turkey's current constitution, promulgated under military rule in 1982, has framed both state and government systems in an authoritarian way, the concentration of power reached new heights under President Erdoğan (Akça 2014). In the last two decades, Turkey has witnessed a significant transformation of its legal and governmental structures, allowing the ruling party to pack the courts, control the media, and criminalize and eliminate opposition factions within the state and military. In 2013, the AKP government brutally suppressed nationwide protests to prevent the fate of autocratic leaders in the Middle Eastern who had been toppled by large-scale demonstrations a few years prior. The crackdown on peaceful protests marked a new level of political repression in Turkey, culminating in the establishment of a full-fledged authoritarian regime following the coup attempt on July 15th, 2016.

3President Erdoğan capitalized on the coup attempt to declare a state of emergency, suspended human rights and procedural protections, purged over a hundred thousand civil servants, shutdown or confiscated nearly 200 media outlets, jailed numerous political activists, journalists, academics, opposition politicians, including elected mayors and members of parliament. Furthermore, a near-total ban on freedom of assembly was implemented, with the exception of the rallies organized by the ruling party. The state of emergency, renewed six times between 2016 and 2018, allowed Erdoğan to replace Turkey's parliamentary government system with an executive presidency through the 2017 Constitutional Referendum, which undermined the separation of powers, removing checks and balances on the President, apart from periodic and increasingly manipulated elections.

4The autocratization of Turkey’s government system had a profound impact on the country’s universities. Although the AKP's political control of higher education manifests similarities with earlier periods in Turkey, it differs in scope and intensity. Given the conditions for expanding higher education overlap with a relapse to authoritarianism, I examine the university's entanglements with the authoritarian regime in light of the historical evolution of the university and its politics. To conduct this analysis, I rely on two types of data: 1) news reports, research reports, official statistics, court cases, and secondary literature, and 2) interviews with 15 academics and three imprisoned students. An exhaustive survey of the university expansion exceeds the scope of this paper. Likewise, delving into the history of higher education policy falls outside the purview. Instead, the goal here is to provide an analytical framework to understand the relationship between universities and authoritarianism, with a focus on the latter’s most recent and intense iteration (which the collective issue examines). Therefore, this paper aims to shed light on the role of universities in the formation and sustenance of authoritarian regimes. I argue that in addition to reflecting the overall decline of democracy, universities have also become integral building blocks of the new authoritarian regime, primarily by expanding and entrenching political patronage, control, and coercion. The following section will explain the theoretical insights that underpin this research, followed by an analysis of conditions in which higher education is utilized in the authoritarian consolidation of the AKP regime.

The university: a vehicle for democracy or authoritarianism?

  • 2 In 1924, shortly after the establishment of the Republic, John Dewey was invited to Turkey, where h (...)

5Since its early European conceptions, liberal theory presumes a strong positive correlation, if not always causation, between education and democracy. The premise rests on the role of education in fostering citizens with an awareness of rights and obligations – a sine a qua non of a functioning democracy. This idea was extensively discussed in John Dewey's Democracy and Education, where he theorized about the purpose and methods of education in cultivating what he called 'organized intelligence' to achieve participatory democracy (Dewey 1922).2 Similarly, the modernization school posits that underdevelopment is a direct consequence of psychological and cultural traits within society and can be remedied by increasing education levels. Despite studies highlighting country-specific factors that can either facilitate or impede democracy, even after a certain level of development has been attained (Acemoglu et al. 2005), scholars, policymakers, and international organizations largely adhere to the positive role of education in fostering prosperity, participation, and democracy (Lipset 1959; Barro 1999; Przeworski et al. 2000).

6Scholars have also argued that higher education has a “taming” effect on authoritarian encroachment. Individuals with a university education are less likely to exhibit authoritarian preferences and attitudes compared to their peers with lower levels of education (Glaeser et al. 2007). Carnevale et al. (2020), based on an analysis of World Values Survey Data across 51 countries between 2010-2014, have similarly argued that while authoritarian tendencies, such as intolerance of others, can exist across all levels of educational attainment and may be influenced by material and physical insecurity, university graduates are less prone to expressing authoritarian preferences and attitudes compared to those with lower educational attainment. The data from Turkey, in specific, also supports this point. For example, researchers found that university graduates demonstrated higher levels of political tolerance and embraced more cosmopolitan, more gender-egalitarian, and less nativist perspectives (Kentel 2022: 31, 123).

7Moreover, throughout history, universities have served as significant hubs of collective action in the fight for rights, freedoms, and autonomy. From the events of 1968 in France to the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the 1989 Tiananmen protests in China, and the turn of the century revolutions in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, university campuses and students have played a crucial part in mobilizations against autocratic and oligarchic rulers.

8However, although universities have historically played a crucial role in democratic development and fostered global connections, they were also instrumental in generating anti-democratic and anti-pluralist dynamics within society. Elite and class reproduction have been central to this role, as has nationalist politics (Bourdieu 1964; Stevens 2009; Douglass 2021). The recent surge of neo-nationalist and right-wing reactionary politics certainly poses new challenges to the democratic potential of universities. As one observer aptly observes: “In a prevailing era of reactionary right-wing politics, the very mission of public higher education as a site for academic freedom, innovative thinking, and production of new knowledge is being severely challenged on a global scale (Darian-Smith 2020: 3).” The assault on higher education takes various forms, ranging from relatively moderate restrictions imposed by nationalist-leaning governments, such as revised curricula, to the coercion of academics and students who express dissenting views.

9Increasing evidence highlights authoritarian regimes’ efforts to constrain higher education to curtail democratic demands. According to de Mesquita and Downs (2005), the relationship between development and democratization is not always straightforward. Based on their study of 150 countries between 1970 and 1999, the authors argue that autocratic leaders delay democratization even when economic development reaches sufficient levels, limiting access to “coordination goods” such as human rights, press freedom, and higher education. Since universities provide individuals with the means to form critical ideas, express dissent and organize opposition, they pose a threat to authoritarian regimes. As a result, autocratic leaders limit access to universities as a means to hinder democratization.

10However, contemporary authoritarian regimes contradict de Mesquita and Downs's argument (Perry 2020). The remarkable increase in access to higher education in countries such as Turkey and China indicates that autocrats have no qualms about expanding access to higher education while simultaneously tightening their grip on power. So how does one explain authoritarian regimes’ expansion of higher education? Evidence from various countries indicates that the democratization of access to higher education goes hand in hand with the autocratization of governance. Therefore, while there may be efforts to broaden opportunities for individuals to pursue higher education, there is a simultaneous tightening of control over the governance and administration of universities.

11This autocratization of governance manifests in multiple ways, such as increased state intervention, ideological indoctrination, restricted academic freedoms, and the imposition of regulations aimed at stifling dissenting voices. By exerting control over the internal workings of universities, authoritarian leaders aim to shape the educational landscape in line with their own political objectives, ensuring that higher education serves as a tool for reinforcing their authority rather than fostering critical thinking, open debate, and democratic values.

12In order to suppress the democratic potential of universities, authoritarian regimes often resort to implementing various reward and punishment measures (Forrat 2016; Furstenberg et al. 2020; Hanson, Sokhey 2021; Nguyen 2022; Perry 2020). These measures are designed to exert control over academic institutions and deter individuals from engaging in activities that challenge or question the regime's authority while rewarding those who conform or actively support its policies. For example, Forrat (2016) argues that the Russian federal state, under President Putin, increased higher education funding and allocated funds to incentivize universities to discourage anti-regime protests on campus. By employing these reward and punishment mechanisms, authoritarian governments seek to curtail higher education’s democratic influence, thereby solidifying their own power and stifling potential threats to their rule. Therefore, the expansion of access to higher education in authoritarian contexts should be understood within the broader framework of autocratic governance, where control over institutions becomes instrumental in perpetuating and consolidating authoritarian rule.

13China provides a case in point. Despite the significant expansion of higher education in recent times in China, university campuses have remained remarkably free from protests, except the state-organized nationalist rallies that target foreign powers (Weiss 2014; Perry 2020). This peace on campus, Perry (2020) observed, was odd given the historical pattern of student mobilization in mainland China. This was unexpected considering also the active been protests by other groups in society, such as rural villagers, laborers, and the new middle class, as well as large-scale student protests in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Perry argues that the main reason for the passivity of students in mainland universities has been the Communist Party’s policies that aim to keep universities under control following the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. These policies, devised to reinforce existing political controls while employing new techniques to domesticate campuses, include peer surveillance, political and ideological guidance by politically reliable counselors, and social media monitoring. Additionally, the Party provides generous funding to major universities, where faculty and staff face increased government scrutiny as they are pressured to comply with state directives. Consequently, the massification of higher education in China has been accompanied by heightened control, leading to what Perry (2020)) called “educated acquiescence.”

14This double process of the democratization of access and the autocratization of governance in higher education, which Perry observes in China, characterizes the role of universities in the making of the authoritarian regime in Turkey. Explaining the university's role in autocratization, however, requires going beyond country comparisons and considering the mechanics of authoritarian durability. Slater and Fenner (2011) argue that authoritarian durability is rooted in the control of state institutions, which cannot be explained solely by examining parties and elections as in conventional political science approaches. In addressing the durability question, Slater and Fenner distinguish between the regime and the state. They argue that regime durability primarily depends on the state's infrastructural power (Mann 1984) or the regime's “staying power” – the mechanisms through which authoritarian regimes stabilize and maintain their hold on power. These mechanisms include a) extracting revenues, which provides authoritarian regimes with resources to preempt crises and facilitate the implementation of challenging economic policies and timely distribution of patronage; b) cultivating dependence by strategically distributing resources, enabling the regime to bolster its clientelistic power; c)registering citizens, which enhances the state's monitoring capacity, making population legible and coercion feasible, and d) repressing rivals to neutralize any threats to regime durability.

15Drawing on the above conceptualization and the analysis of the Turkish case, this paper departs from the conventional view that sees universities solely as educational institutions and proposes to view them as institutions that perform infrastructural functions for the authoritarian regime. I focus on two dimensions of universities that crystallize in the recent expansion and transformation of higher education in Turkey. First, the economic development dimension, which cultivates and extends dependence and political patronage, is exemplified by Erdoğan's policy of creating a university in every city. Second, universities' role in monitoring, controlling students and academics, and coercing dissent. Through these two avenues, the university expansion has served as a building block of the AKP's political economy and authoritarian regime. The subsequent sections will elaborate on this argument in detail. However, first, I would like to contextualize the relationship between the state and the university in Turkey by briefly examining the pre-AKP period.

The university as a state infrastructure: the pre-AKP period

16In Turkey, universities have historically been intertwined with the state's developmental, ideological, and coercive infrastructure. The two significant aspects of higher education policy have been addressing the growing demand for higher education and ensuring universities’ political compliance. During the transition from the Ottoman Empire to the Republic, the university known as Darülfünun (established in 1846) was initially excluded from the new Republican state's efforts to establish its ideological infrastructure. The nationalist ideology of the new Republic found expression through institutions such as the Turkish History Association and the Turkish Language Institutions, which were operated outside the university. It was not until 1933, a decade after the proclamation of the Republic, that the state turned to Darülfünun, but only to close it down for the institution's failure to support the new regime’s vision and efforts in building a new nation-state (Mazıcı 1995; Tekeli 2019).

17With the transition to the multi-party system in 1946 and the introduction of democratic elections, the state granted some institutional autonomy to universities and implemented elections for rectors and deans (Law 4936). However, this autonomy did not necessarily guarantee freedom of research. Additionally, in the backdrop of the Cold War, universities became a breeding ground for rising socialist and social democratic movements, further heightened government concerns and led to crackdowns on leftist activism. In the decades following World War II, Turkey experienced increasing economic and infrastructure development, population growth, rural-to-urban migration, and higher levels of education. These factors created a growing demand for higher education. In response, new universities (Ege, Karadeniz Teknik Universitesi, Ortadoğu Teknik Üniversitesi, and Atatürk Üniversitesi) and trade schools were established in the 1950s. Simultaneously, the government under Adnan Menderes, Turkey’s first democratically elected Prime Minister, ironically targeted universities and faculty members for their criticism of its policies.

18The 1960 military coup against the Menderes government marked a significant turning point for Turkey and its universities. The coup resulted in the execution of Menderes and two of his ministers, ushering in a new era. While the coup led to the dismissal of 147 faculty members, including prominent public intellectuals such as Sabahattin Eyüboğlu, Halet Çambel, Haldun Taner, and Yavuz Abadan, it also brought about a new constitution, which expanded universities' institutional autonomy in 1961 (Article 120). This period also witnessed changes in economic planning. The State Planning Agency, established by the new constitution, guided research-based policymaking attuned to demographic changes and labor market requirements in the country. The first five-year plan stipulated TUBITAK (Turkey Scientific and Technological Research Council) as a state institution to develop, regulate and coordinate scientific research and development activities aligned with the country's economic priorities. However, during the ten-year period between 1960 and 1970, only one new university, Hacettepe, was established, leading to a significant shortfall in the capacity of higher education to meet the growing demand.

19In the context of the rights and freedoms expanded by the 1961 Constitution and the global student mobilization peaking in 1968, Turkey's universities experienced a rise in student political activism and call higher education reforms. The state responded to these demands through a variety of tactics, including inciting rivalry among student groups, provocation, and violence. The 1971 military intervention eventually aimed to suppress political mobilization within universities. Following the intervention, Martial Law Courts were established to arrest and prosecute leftist faculty members in charge of promoting communism. Measures such as the implementation of a national university entrance exam and correspondence education were instituted to meet the increasing demand. Furthermore, several new universities, including Çukurova, Diyarbakir, Anadolu, Cumhuriyet, Fırat, Bursa (Uludağ), and On Dokuz Mayıs, were established, bringing the number of universities to 18 in the 1970s. New faculties and departments were opened in existing universities to accommodate the growing demand. Despite this significant expansion, the capacity of higher education remained still short of the demand and addressed the challenges of higher education (Tekeli 2019).

20The 1980 military coup had a devastating impact on university autonomy and academic freedoms (Tekeli 2010). Following the coup, the military regime established the Board of Higher Education (YÖK) in 1981, and its role was enshrined in the new authoritarian constitution of 1982 (Article 131). The introduction of the YÖK law resulted in the abolishment of universities’ administrative and scientific autonomy. It led to a significant shift in power, transferring authority from university rectors, deans, and the faculty to the President and the YÖK. Although universities continued to hold elections, the ultimate decision-making power rested with the central authority, which could appoint or veto the names chosen through faculty votes. The board also implemented control mechanisms for decisions that fell outside of its direct purview.

21While the constitution acknowledged the concept of scientific autonomy, its limits were readily written into laws and regulations related to “state security,” which resulted in the suppression of faculty and student dissent during and after the military rule (1980-1983). The YÖK helped draw boundaries of freedom of expression and research, as well as monitoring and penalizing academics who crossed these boundaries. For instance, researching or teaching topics deemed contrary to national unity and state interests, such as ethnic and religious minorities, state violence, and class inequality, could lead to disciplinary actions.

  • 3 The military regime purged over 4800 public employees, and many had to resign for reasons related t (...)
  • 4 Ayhan Efeoğlu, a socialist student at Yildiz Teknik University, who was abducted, killed, and disap (...)

22Preventing political mobilization and oppositional politics became a significant focus of higher education restructuring in the aftermath of the 1980 coup. The military regime's aim to discipline universities was evident in the dismissal of about 150 academics3 by the State Emergency Law (no.1402). To cultivate a politically compliant student body, the military regime installed compulsory religious education in schools and national(ist) history courses at universities. In this new order, especially leftists, Kurdish and Alevi youth were suppressed into submission within schools, universities, and neighborhoods.4 The state's systematic practice of targeting dissident youth found its most brutal expressions in the execution of leftist student leaders following the 1971 military intervention and the destruction of the lives of many others in military courts and prisons following the 1980 coup.

23During the 1990s, the state maintained its control and exerted coercion over student mobilization, especially in response to austerity and privatization policies guided by the IMF. An illustrative example is the case of “kalemli cete” (the gang with a pen), a group of seven university students who displayed a banner “No to fees” in protest against the 400 percent tuition hike during the 1995-1996 academic year. As a result, they were arrested, subjected to torture, and sentenced to a total of 75 years of prison on charges of 'forming an unarmed terrorist organization' (Uysal 2001; Tahincioğlu, Göktaş 2013).

24This historical context highlights the intricate relationship between the state and universities in Turkey. Universities have played a crucial role in the state’s developmental, ideological, and coercive apparatus. On the one hand, the state has established new universities and faculties to address the country’s economic development goals and society’s growing demand for higher education. On the other hand, it has implemented measures to regulate and restrict freedom of thought, expression, and research within these institutions, ensuring that faculty and students do not challenge the established ideological and political order.

25In the following sections, I will examine how the AKP aligned itself with this framework and spearheaded an extensive expansion of the university system amidst the neoliberal transformation of the Turkish economy. I will argue that this expansion not only increased access to higher education but also expanded the state, creating new venues for political patronage, control, and coercion.

Government and Expansion of Universities under the AKP

  • 5 The Washington Consensus refers to a set of neoliberal economic policies promoted by international (...)

26Neither the authoritarian control of universities nor the neoliberal transformation of higher education began with the AKP in Turkey. The state control over higher education was institutionalized after the 1980 coup, with the establishment of the Board of Higher Education (YÖK) in 1981. The coup and the military regime established afterward facilitated Turkey's adoption of neoliberal transformation in line with the Washington Consensus5 by quelling labor resistance to economic liberalization.

27This neoliberal transformation in Turkey was in line with the fundamental changes in the functions and organization of universities. During the last few decades of the twentieth century, higher education came to be viewed as an economic enterprise governed and organized by principles of profitability, accountability, and efficiency. As Patricia Gumport (2000: 67) observed, “the dominant legitimating idea of public higher education has changed from higher education as a social institution to higher education as an industry.” Scholars have coined the term “academic capitalism” to describe this new paradigm, wherein knowledge shifted from being a public good, produced and used for social benefit to a commodity traded for profit (Slaughter, Leslie 1997; Slaughter, Rhoades 2004; Alemdaroğlu 2016). The commodification has had adverse effects on institutional autonomy, the objectivity of research, and the social ideal of universities, as extensively studied by scholars (Readings 1996; Kirp 2003; Bok 2004; İnal, Akkaymak 2012; Değirmencioğlu, İnal 2015).

28The neoliberal restructuring in Turkey occurred simultaneously with the repressive transformation of the higher education system following the 1980 coup. One of my interviewees, who works at a prominent public university in Ankara, reflects on the legacy of this earlier transformation on the current situation in the following way.

Before the recent authoritarian drift, the university had already lost its progressive position. University-industry convergence, techno-cities, and the emphasis on project-based revenue-generating research (projecilik) indicate that the profit motive has become a significant driver in the functioning of the university. This transformation, in my opinion, had already undermined the university's connection with society. Authoritarianism exploited the already damaged state of the university, which had been transformed by neoliberal policies, and further exacerbated the situation by treating scholars as mere technicians focused on securing project grants.

29The AKP's two-decade rule deepened the neoliberal commodification of higher education, but an even more significant change was the growth of public higher education. In line with the World Bank’s policy recommendations, the party pushed for further privatization to meet the demand at all levels of education. The number of private or foundation universities has more than tripled in two decades, increasing from 23 to 76. Additionally, the public universities were also pressured to further commodify their research and teaching activities to generate their own financial resources. However, besides the increasing push for privatization, the AKP’s most significant policy intervention was the expansion of public universities from 53 to 130 in twenty years. This growth not only represented a larger percentage of increase than in the number of private institutions, but it also corresponded to a much more significant rise in the number of students. Presently, only about 8 percent of Turkey’s 8 million university students are enrolled in foundation universities.6 While this is not a negligible number, it pales in comparison to the rise in the number of public university students. This statist expansion has provided the AKP with a new organizational base for political patronage and control. Therefore, the enlargement of public universities played a crucial role in the AKP’s authoritarian build-up.

30The AKP came to power with an agenda to radically transform higher education and the Council of Higher Education. Prime Minister Abdullah Gül stated: “We will not allow the status quo to continue in Turkey. Universities will be at the forefront of the institutions, saying no to the status quo...There need to be big changes in universities… We will eliminate injustices of the university entrance system… YÖK will coordinate universities. It will not be an institution that interferes with everything in universities or controls them.” However, the AKP's attempts to rewrite the YÖK law to allow decentralization in its first years in power were unsuccessful. When the party appointed a pro-government figure, Yusuf Ziya Özcan, to the Presidency of the Board in 2007, the plan to decentralize the university system was no longer pursued. After gaining control over the Council, the AKP utilized the Board's powers to reshape the higher education landscape by significantly increasing the number of universities and expanding its control over university administrations.

31The great public university expansion began with 15 universities in 2006 (Law no. 5467), followed by 17 in 2007 (Law no. 5662), and 9 in 2008 (Figure 2). In just three years, 41 cities became home to public universities (see Table 1). Among these cities, 32 have populations under 100,000 people. Even smaller Anatolian cities such as Ardahan and Artvin, each with a population of around 20,000, have their own public universities. By 2011, when the AKP sought a third term in power, which many analysts consider as the beginning of Turkey's shift towards authoritarianism, the goal of “a university in every city” had already been largely achieved.

The 2006 Law (5467)

The 2007 Law (no. 5662)

The 2008 Law (no. 5765)

Ahi Evran Üniversitesi(Kırşehir)

Kastamonu Üniversitesi

Düzce Üniversitesi

Mehmet Akif Ersoy Üniversitesi(Burdur)

Uşak Üniversitesi

Rize Üniversitesi

Namık Kemal Üniversitesi (Tekirdağ)

Erzincan Üniversitesi

Aksaray Üniversitesi

Giresun Üniversitesi

Hitit Üniversitesi(Çorum)

Bozok Üniversitesi(Yozgat)

Adıyaman Üniversitesi

Ordu Üniversitesi

Amasya Üniversitesi

Karamanoğlu Mehmetbey Üniversitesi (Karaman)

Ağrı Dağı Üniversitesi

Sinop Üniversitesi

Siirt Üniversitesi

Nevşehir Üniversitesi

Karabük Üniversitesi

Kilis 7 Aralık Üniversitesi

Çankırı Karatekin Üniversitesi

Artvin Çoruh Üniversitesi

Bilecik Üniversitesi

Bitlis Eren Üniversitesi

Kırklareli Üniversitesi

Osmaniye Korkut Ata Üniversitesi

Bingöl Üniversitesi

Muş Alparslan Üniversitesi

Mardin Artuklu Üniversitesi

Batman Üniversitesi

Ardahan Üniversitesi

Bartın Üniversitesi

Bayburt Üniversitesi

Gümüşhane Üniversitesi

Hakkari Üniversitesi

Iğdır Üniversitesi

Şırnak Üniversitesi

Tunceli Üniversitesi

Yalova Üniversitesi"

Figure 2. The Great Expansion, aka “A university per province 2006-2008.”

Source: Compiled by the author.

32Starting in 2010, the AKP extended its efforts beyond the university-per-city project and multiplied the number of public universities in medium-sized cities like Konya, Bursa, Adana, Erzurum, and Kayseri, as well as in metropolitan cities such as Istanbul, Ankara, and İzmir. A mere 45 days prior to the June 2015 elections, Alanya, Bandırma, and İskenderun, districts of three medium-sized cities, each a population of approximately two hundred thousand, received their share from the AKP’s pre-electoral favors. The establishment of new universities entailed new projects, procurement contracts, and public services for infrastructure development, including roads, bridges, public transportation, and garbage collection.

  • 7 I apologize for not being able to discuss Tuğba Tekerek’s book Taşra Üniversiteleri in this article (...)

33The AKP politicians and the enthusiastic local elite saw new universities as a means to boost economic activity and development. Universities would stimulate urban and regional development, generate business opportunities, and create employment in small Anatolian cities (Parlak, Kaynar 2005).7 With thousands of students and dozens of faculty members in need of housing, goods, restaurants, and transportation, there would be a surge in demand for these amenities. Moreover, the university would generate employment opportunities for locals in administrative, maintenance, and academic positions. For example, Bingöl University, founded in 2007, has flourished into a large institution with 16,000 people and has become a major employer in this eastern city of about 250,000 residents. Reflecting on the university's growth, Cevdet Yılmaz, the AKP's vice chair and former minister of development and a deputy from Bingöl, stated:

We don’t view the university solely as an educational institution. It is, of course, an educational institution, but it also acts as a development agency. We believe that our university will greatly contribute to the development of our province and region through the projects it undertakes and the ideas it supports... Today, we envision Bingöl as a university city; this is how we plan for its future. According to international standards, a city with more than 10 percent of its population consisting of university students is considered a university city. Bingöl has now become one.

34In the 2000s, when more established public higher education institutions such as Ankara and Istanbul Universities were less receptive to the AKP government, the new universities provided the party an opportunity to establish influence in higher education through the recruitment of new academic and administrative staff. Consequently, these new universities not only acted as agents of growth in higher education but also served as vehicles for expanding the state infrastructure and capacity under the AKP’s rule and as building blocks for the party’s consolidation. They allowed the party to extend its influence as new venues for patronage and political control. A study conducted by the Education and Science Workers' Union in 2014 highlighted the intensification of coercive measures by universities after 2016 and documented the role of universities in making the authoritarian regime. The study identified the top three rights violations in universities as arbitrary and non-merit-based recruitment, political cronyism and favoritism in construction tenders, and allocating income-generating activities (Eğitimsen 2014).

35Long-established universities have also expanded their degree programs by offering evening classes and additional programs, often resulting in heavier teaching loads for faculty members. Teaching extra courses has become a means for faculty to make ends meet, and for university administrators, it serves as a tool to distribute rewards and penalties. One of the interviewees, an assistant professor, explained this phenomenon as follows:

The course load is overwhelming. I teach six courses, three undergraduate courses twice during the day and at night, a master's course, a doctorate course, and a graduation thesis course. Teaching more courses means earning more money. For instance, you receive your regular salary and get an additional 50% percent of your salary for doing extra teaching. Faculty course assignments function as a reward system because you are paid per course. If you teach a lot, you earn a substantial amount. However, it becomes challenging to teach well when you have such a heavy workload. That’s why people end up teaching for just 20 minutes. Universities have become nothing more than high schools. It was not like this when I first started. There was no secondary education. The quantitative growth has been ahead of everything else.

36A faculty member from another public university explained how instructors are assigned courses in his department:

Often, the people who have a close connection to the administration and who do not create issues are the ones who are given extra course assignments. The practice of course sharing and student sharing, especially at the doctoral level, comes with material advantages. Salaries for social scientists are particularly low in Turkey, and as a result, some faculty members opt out to teach courses outside their own departments in order to earn additional income. They may teach in secondary education or non-thesis master's programs or provide counseling to as many students as possible. I see this as a compensation mechanism. Instead of demanding better salaries through organized means, academics try to make ends meet by taking on additional responsibilities.

37Partisan and nepotistic recruitment of faculty is widespread in newly established institutions. While there is a lack of quantitative data, interviews with academics and news reports strongly indicate that appointments are often informed by political connections and personal loyalties. One of my interviewees provided valuable insights into the academic recruitment process, he said:

No one ever asks us. New academic positions are opened up for certain individuals. The system looks like this: After completing your doctorate, you approach the rector's office, and if they are interested, they create a position for you. Sometimes we, academics, come to know about new positions opened at our university on the Internet, just like everyone else. And then they hire someone, and when you inquire about this person, you do some investigation and discover that she is the daughter of a wealthy local company owner or something like that.

38These recruitment practices have significant implications for both accountability and academic quality. They indicate how decision-making processes often exclude faculty members, especially those who hold critical perspectives on government and university policies. The following account is an example of how faculty members are marginalized as top university administrators increasingly rely on and conform to the government’s directives.

The university administration is only accountable to the government. The rector or vice-rectors want to appear legitimate only to the government. Even as department administrators, we are not consulted about much. The main concern is not to upset the government. For instance, there was a scandalous hiring case where a university's top administrator recruited his relative instead of one of the candidates who scored the highest in the exam. He then resigned, not because he was embarrassed by what he did, but because he did not want to be seen as a troublemaker to the government that brought him to that position in the first place.

39The recent changes in the Higher Education Law (No. 2547) allowed universities to include additional eligibility conditions in academic position descriptions with permission from the Board of Higher Education. While this change was initially intended to provide universities the flexibility to tailor academic positions according to their needs, it also resulted in increased arbitrariness and nepotism in academic staffing. Unfortunately, the public becomes aware of these malpractices only when they are publicized in news sources, as university administrators often overlook them. An example of such oversight occurred at Recep Tayyip Erdoğan University in Rize, where administrators accidentally announced new positions with notes specifying the individuals to be recruited (GIT Türkiye, Akademide Hak Ihlalleri Dosyası III, Istanbul, March 2016). Several other examples highlight the lack of transparency and accountability in recruitment, which has significant repercussions for the quality of research and teaching (Eğitimsen 2014).

40The expansion of higher education has had a negative impact on the quality of higher education, as evidenced by various indicators. One such indicator, the student-faculty ratio, has significantly deteriorated over the past decade. The Board of Higher Education had previously set a target to reduce the student-staff ratio from 32 in 2005 to 21 in 2020 and eventually to 17 in 2025. However, this ratio has worsened, with 45 students per instructor in 2020 (See Figure 3). These statistics highlight the challenges in achieving a better standard of education amidst the expansion of higher education, especially when there is a significant shortage of trained academics in the country.

Figure 3. The student-faculty ratio between 2002 and 2020.

Source: Compiled by the author based on the numbers of the Council of Higher Education.

41There has also been a significant decline in research output amidst the rapid expansion of higher education. A study published in 2020 by Turkey's Academy of Sciences revealed a notable slowdown in scientific publications since 2006, contrasting with the earlier period between 2000 and 2006 (Akçiğit, Özcan-Tok 2020: 24). The study highlighted that while the increase in the number of universities led to a rise in the number of faculty members, this growth was overshadowed by a larger rise in the student population. As a consequence, faculty members faced heavier teaching loads, further reducing their limited time for research. The study also found that the new universities demonstrated lower research productivity compared to older public and private institutions. This indicates that the expansion of higher education has not been accompanied by a proportional increase in research output.

42Furthermore, the expansion also correlated with a decline in the merits of academic administrators. A study conducted in 2019 revealed a significant number of rectors lacked international publication.8 Out of 196 rectors surveyed, 68 (44 public and 24 private “non-profit”) have no international publication. Additionally, 71 rectors had never been cited by a scientific publication, suggesting a lack of scholarly impact. Only eight rectors had a single international publication, while just 49 rectors had more than one publication or received at least one citation. These findings raise concerns about academic leadership in Turkish higher education.

43Even though the link between expansion and quality needs further investigation, one can argue that the core functions of universities as institutions of higher learning and research have taken a back seat to the government's “a university in every city” drive. A study conducted by Parlak and Kaynar (2005), which examined the earlier 1992 wave of university expansion, when 23 public universities were founded overnight (Law no. 3837), found that this previous period of expansion also resulted in poor outcomes in education and research quality, primarily due to inadequate physical infrastructure and a shortage of the number of faculty members in Turkey. These findings highlight the potential challenges and shortcomings associated with rapid university expansion.

44In summary, when the AKP came to power in 2002, it pledged to decentralize control over universities and dismantle the Board of Higher Education. However, as the party consolidated its power, it chose to retain the Board and instead utilized it to carry out a large-scale expansion of universities. While this expansion increased access to higher education, it also grew the state resources, which the AKP would utilize to create loyalties and control. Furthermore, the democratization of access to universities has been accompanied by further autocratization of university governance. Subsequently, academic freedoms declined, and coercion within Turkish higher education increased. The following section will provide a more comprehensive exploration of these trends.

Control and coercion of students under the AKP

45As early as 2010, when analysts still regarded Turkey as a democratic model for the rest of the Middle East and the AKP as its agent of democratization, there were increasing concerns in the country’s universities about coercion. The government's efforts to control academic freedom and suppress dissent have resulted in numerous incidents of intimidation and censorship on campuses. Both students and professors who are critical of the government have faced disciplinary action, dismissals, and even imprisonment. This has had a chilling effect on free speech and academic inquiry, leading many scholars to fear expressing their opinions or engaging in critical research.

46Under the AKP, the imprisonment of students reached unprecedented levels. The Anti-Terror Law (no. 3713), after its amendment in 2006, became a comprehensive tool to prosecute and punish student dissent. Particularly, from 2010 onwards, the government’s suppression of student opposition has intensified. This intensification ironically occurred against a background of the AKP’s ongoing democratic reforms and the peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party after a thirty-year armed conflict. Being a member of a student union or a legal organization, or a political party critical of government policies became a reason for prosecution under anti-terror laws. Kurdish and Alevi students were particularly targeted. Consequently, thousands of students faced criminal trials and pre-trial detention, spending months or years behind bars. Reports also suggest that incarcerated students are subjected to a series of human rights violations and arbitrary restrictions affecting their right to continue their education (Kural, 2021).9

47The government's escalation of punitive policies became evident in 2012 during then Prime Minister Erdoğan’s visit to the Middle East Technical University (METU). Thousands of police officers, dozens of armored vehicles, water cannons, and tear gas were deployed to disperse the students who had gathered to protest government policies. Many students were detained as a result. Following these events, METU’s rector expressed his disapproval of the police’s use of violence and gas bombs against students on campus. In response, Erdoğan targeted the rector and academics at METU, accusing them of failing to control the students and maintain order on campus. Erdoğan's statement regarding METU students and administration was as follows:

We don't have any problem with METU students. The problem is with this (METU) administration's crippled mentality. There is a weakness here, and you have to accept it. If some students impose fascist pressure on other students, if some students terrorize the school, the university administration should use many disciplinary tools in its hand against these students. Suspend them for a week; if they do it again, suspend them for two weeks. They used to do this to others... to students with headscarves… (Tahincioğlu, Göktaş 2013: 150)

48The response of the METU rector in support of students was a rare occurrence. In contrast, the rectors of 14 universities, including prominent universities such as Hacettepe University, Mimar Sinan University, Marmara University, and Istanbul Technical University, condemned student protestors, suggesting increasing conformity of university administrators to coercion. The police intervention and brutality during the 2012 METU protests, as well as the subsequent targeting of the METU rector and students, highlighted the government's increasing pressure on university administrations, police, and courts to criminalize students.

49In the following years, university administrations became pivotal in the suppression of dissident students. Disciplinary investigations and procedures became the primary mechanisms of control and coercion within universities (Molu et al., 2013). Activities that are typically protected under constitutional rights, such as freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and academic freedoms, became subjects of investigations by university administrators and resulted in suspension or/and expulsion from the university and, in some cases, even led to criminal investigations, trials, and imprisonment of students.

50During the first decade of the AKP rule, often referred to as the party’s golden years in economy and democracy, the number of disciplinary investigations at universities increased from 2,601 in 2000 to 6,001 in 2010 and 5,871 in 2011.10 The reasons for these investigations included organizing or participating in meetings and demonstrations, demanding courses in the Kurdish language, hanging printed material without permission, protesting the YÖK, insulting Erdoğan, and membership or propaganda of terrorist or criminal organizations (Tahincioğlu, Göktaş 2013).

51Following the Gezi Protests in 2013, the government specifically targeted student organizations, portraying them as potential terrorist groups. Any form of organized political event, including peaceful demonstrations, was used as evidence of terrorism. The advent of social media platforms provided students a means to share information, voice their complaints, and organize protests, thereby expanding the scope of government surveillance beyond the physical confines of campuses and into the virtual world. However, certain groups of youth, such as the Kurdish and Alevi youth, were particularly vulnerable to police violence and criminal prosecution (Yonucu 2022). For instance, the testimony of a senior Law School student, who was detained in 2018 sheds light on the ethnic dimensions of the disciplinary logic, and highlights the role played by the police and media in the criminalization of students.

  • 11 Edirne is a city at the northwest border of Turkey with Greece and Bulgaria, geographically furthes (...)

I was at a friend’s place when I learned that my parent’s homes had been raided at dawn. When I checked the news on pro-government media channels, it stated that there was a “terrorism operation in Istanbul and that they had apprehended and detained terrorists who were allegedly preparing for a riot on May 1st. The following day, on May 1, while I was preparing to meet with my lawyer friends and go testify, I was detained. I was shocked; I was just an ordinary university student. Why would the police arrive at my parents’ house early in the morning with long-barreled guns? It did not take long for me to find an answer. Because I had expressed my dissent publicly. One police officer said to me, “You are from Edirne,11 what are you doing in the protests? We weren't initially planning to take you in, but I noticed that you've been very active on social media lately, so I decided to bring you as well. Don’t worry, you will get out after six months, and you won't involve yourself in these things again. Alternatively, you can organize from within (implying joining leftist organizations in prison), and we will come and pick you up again.” Statements like these made me realize that there is no legal process in this place (interview 11/29/2021)

52Students were subjected to trials in courts with hastily constructed indictments relied not on evidence but on suspicions, allegations, and vague facts. The European Court of Human Rights decisions against Turkey have consistently indicated the frequent violation of defendants' right to a fair trial by Turkish courts. As an example, in 2016, four years after the METU protests, forty-five students were sentenced to 10 months in prison for violating laws on assembly and demonstrations, as well as obstructing state officials from performing their duties.

53The persecution of students only worsened in the following years. In 2017, the Ministry of Justice announced that there were seventy-thousand students in prison. However, this number was later contested as it also included people who had begun open university education while already in prison, leading to an overrepresentation of the student-age population in the prison system. A subsequent report confirmed that over 8,000 youth were imprisoned while attending school (Akyüz 2021). Lastly, the recent court decision, which sentenced 14 Boğaziçi students to one year in prison for protesting against the President’s appointment of a new rector, indicates that students’ struggle against the authoritarian rule persists, and so does the government’s coercion.12

The dire state of academic freedoms: the perennial “red lines” and the great university purge

54Scholars in Turkey have faced an uphill battle in their pursuit of academic freedoms. Many academics have devoted their research and teaching to fostering peaceful resolutions to Turkey’s historical conflicts and advocating for human rights. Unfortunately, they have encountered numerous obstacles and even persecution in their endeavors. The challenges have become particularly pronounced during the past decade as academic freedoms have faced growing restrictions. This has significantly hindered scholars' ability to freely express their ideas and engage in critical academic research concerning government policies.

55When the AKP came to power, in addition to its promise to liberalize the higher education policy, by eradicating the Higher Education Council (YÖK), it also made commitments to lift the red lines of the Turkish state that had led to the persecution of scholars who challenge the state’s nationalist purview. As part of the European Union membership negotiations, the party introduced democratic reforms in the legal and institutional domains. In 2009, for instance, the YÖK authorized the establishment of the first academic program offering a degree in the Kurdish language at Mardin Artuklu University (MAU), which was hailed as a significant step forward.

56However, the initial optimism surrounding the reforms proved short-lived, as efforts to foster a pluralistic research and teaching environment at universities fell below expectations. An academic associated with MAU described the AKP’s reforms in the following way: “While seeking to create a liberal image by launching the program, the government found ways to curtail and undermine it by controlling the scholars and students who work in and with Kurdish” (Özok-Gündoğan 2020). The party’s loss of parliamentary majority in the 2015 June elections marked the end of this uncertain liberalization and completely abandoned the Kurdish Peace Process and reverted to previous state policies that criminalized the Kurdish opposition.

57The election defeat and the termination of the Peace Process had significant implications for academics. The persecution of Peace Academics, who signed a petition calling for an end to violence against civilians in the eastern part of Turkey, marked a crucial moment for academic freedoms. The government’s response to the petition was harsh, with President Erdoğan labeling the signatories as “traitors.” Shortly thereafter, Yekta Saraç, the President of the Higher Education Council YÖK, sent a letter to university rectors, further reinforcing the government's stance. The letter expressed concern and urged rectors to take action against the staff who signed the declaration without specifying the exact measures to be taken (Tekin 2019b; Davas, Tekin 2021). Consequently, many universities swiftly implemented punitive measures against faculty members who had signed the petition, resulting in the expulsion of a significant number of signatories from their academic positions (Tekin 2019a). Furthermore, the judiciary responded to President Erdoğan's provocative speech by initiating a criminal investigation, accusing the petitioners of engaging in terrorist propaganda under Article 7 of the Anti-Terror Law. In March 2016, four academics who organized a press conference in solidarity with the signatories were arrested and held in pre-trial detention.

58The government's crackdown on academics escalated following the failed coup attempt in 2016. The subsequent declaration of a state of emergency provided the opportunity for a more intense witch hunt (Doğan, Selenica 2022). More than six thousand academic staff members were dismissed from their university positions and faced criminal prosecution, with some even receiving prison sentences on terror-related charges (Tekin 2019b). The consequences of the purge have been far-reaching, impacting individual lives, teaching and research activities, and the overall academic culture in Turkey (Özdemir Taştan, Ördek 2019). One notable outcome has been the significant decline in academic research. According to a report, research output has decreased by 28% since 2016 (Akçiğit, Özcan-Tok 2020).

59However, more significantly, the purges led to the removal of a considerable number of critical voices from universities, creating an atmosphere of fear and constant threat of persecution for faculty members. The introduction of government tools like CIMER, a hotline allowing citizens to directly communicate complaints and demands to the President's office, contributed to an environment of fear within universities. This system made students, faculty members, and other staff potential participants in an emerging “informant society” and police state on campuses. Many academics faced administrative investigations as a result of student complaints, and in certain universities, administrators actively collaborated with ultra-nationalist and pro-AKP student groups to exert control over faculty and students. Anecdotal evidence suggests that these youth groups have gained significant influence and power on campuses, thanks to university pro-government administrations. As one professor explained it:

The appointed rectors and deans refer to the AKP and MHP youth as “our children” (bizim çocuklar) and utilize them as a tool of control on campus. While faculty members face difficulty in communicating with the rector, these youth can easily secure an appointment with top administrators. For example, once, they filed a complaint against a professor who discussed Marx during a lecture on political economy. Of course, the professor is innocent, but it is unnecessary trouble for him. The university became a distressing environment. These students have been strategically used in areas where they can infiltrate. Through these methods, paranoid student groups were created. These students are ready to file complaints if they hear any criticism about Erdoğan or the government. Moreover, administrators would also gather information to gain favor from the government, going to the extent of monitoring the online activities of graduate students and pressuring their advisors to take action against them. The authoritarianism really intensified.

60The President has consistently criticized higher education for generating “alienation from national values and interests.” The conservative ideology of the regime has resulted in pressure on university administrations to shut down research programs on human rights and gender studies and to censor specific topics and approaches, such as feminism, in grant applications and research reports (Doğanay, Değer 2019). Universities that remained relatively protected from government intrusion are particularly targeted. President Erdoğan's recent rector appointments to Boğaziçi University and the prison sentences given to students who protested his decision aim to undermine the faculty's autonomy in decision-making, abuse the power of law enforcement and the judiciary to suppress student dissent, and foster a climate of fear and intimidation (Alemdaroğlu, Babül 2021; Gambetti, Gökariksel 2022). The President’s unwavering determination to subsume Boğaziçi against the strong opposition among faculty members, students, and the wider society indicates a final stride in the expansion and intensification of authoritarianism in Turkey.

61Finally, the Academic Freedom Index (AFI), introduced in 2020, offers a comparative and historical perspective on academic freedom worldwide and demonstrates the historical processes and recent transformations discussed above. The AFI assesses four key criteria related to academic freedoms and autonomy, effectively capturing the ebbs and flows experienced by academia in Turkey and elsewhere (Kinzelbach et al., 2022). A compelling illustration of this can be seen in Figure 4, which highlights the close correlation between military interventions, authoritarian regimes, and the erosion of research, expression, and institutional autonomy within Turkish universities. It is intriguing to observe that the current state of universities is comparable, if not worse than, previous episodes of authoritarian rule during the single-party period (1923-1945) and the military regime between 1980-1983. What is striking about the recent decline in academic freedoms, as depicted in Figure 5, is that it began around 2008, a period often hailed in the literature as the peak of democratization under the AKP. Notably, while academic freedoms have experienced varying degrees of decline or stagnation in numerous countries over the past decade, the intensifying coercion faced by faculty and students under the AKP has positioned Turkey at the bottom rungs of academic freedoms globally. In fact, Figure 6 reveals that Turkey now shares this dubious distinction with countries like China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. The duration of Turkey's position among the lowest ranks of academic freedoms in the world will undoubtedly hinge upon the resilience of the authoritarian regime. The insights provided by the AFI compel us to examine the challenges confronting academia in Turkey in relation to the political regime and to strive for the protection of academic freedoms, not only for the advancement of education but also for the democratization of the country as a whole.

Figure 4. The historical change of academic freedoms in Turkey.

Source: Kinzelbach, K.; Saliba, I.; Spannagel, J.; Quinn, R. (2020). Free Universities. Putting the Academic Freedom Index into Action, Berlin, Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi), p. 12.

Figure 5. Decline of academic freedoms under the AKP rule.

Figure 6. Global Levels of Academic Freedom 2020.

Source: Kinzelbach, K.; Saliba, I.; Spannagel, J.; Quinn, R. (2020). Free Universities. Putting the Academic Freedom Index into Action, Berlin, Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi), p. 9.


62In conclusion, the remarkable growth of higher education in Turkey has occurred alongside the ascent of authoritarianism, challenging the prevailing liberal notion that universities serve as drivers of democratization. The preceding analysis has delved into the intricate interplay between universities and authoritarianism, with a particular emphasis on the disconcerting erosion of autonomy within Turkish academic institutions. It posits that the recent regressive developments not only mirror the characteristics of the authoritarian regime but also actively contribute to its establishment.

63The study of universities suggests understanding authoritarian regimes requires more than just studying party politics, elections, and political leaders, as commonly done in political science literature. Examining how such regimes acquire and maintain power in society and within public institutions such as universities is fundamental to understanding their durability. Over the last two decades, the AKP has acquired what Slater and Fenner described as “staying power,” by successfully utilizing strategies of resource extraction, political patronage, and the punishment of rivals. The establishment of new public universities played an important role in expanding state's capacity as well as the AKP’s power. While gradually establishing influence over existing universities, the party capitalized on the opportunity presented by this significant university expansion to establish loyal institutions from scratch, thereby forging local patronage networks through location decisions, construction and procurement tenders, and staffing.

64Long before analysts began questioning Erdoğan’s commitment to democracy or characterizing him as a leading figure in the global authoritarian wave, his higher education policies foreshadowed what was to follow. Instead of limiting the Higher Education Council’s authority to coordination as initially proposed, the AKP expanded and leveraged the Council’s executive power for authoritarian rule. University administrations, courts, and the police were instrumental in subduing relatively autonomous public universities, leading to the investigation, criminalization, and imprisonment of thousands of students, thereby violating their fundamental rights. In addition to the persecution of dissenting students, thousands of academic staff have been unjustly dismissed on terrorism charges. The purge effectively eliminated academics who posed a challenge to the government's pursuit of hegemony, thereby further stifling free speech and academic inquiry.

65In summary, this paper highlights the intricate relationship between universities and authoritarianism in Turkey. While universities have been idealized as agents of democratization in liberal democratic theory, the historical evidence from Turkey indicates that they have never fully played that role, particularly due to their alignment with the state’s efforts to suppress democratic demands. However, what sets the current era apart is the unprecedented level of government control and domination. The significant expansion of higher education, coupled with pervasive cronyism, academic purges, and the erosion of intellectual autonomy and academic freedoms over the last two decades, has inflicted severe damage on Turkey's universities. Reversing these detrimental trends will undoubtedly require significant time and concerted efforts. President Erdoğan's victory in the 2023 elections raises further concerns about the future of academic freedoms and diminishes the hopes for democratization in Turkey’s universities in the short run.

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Timur, Taner (2000). Toplumsal Değişme ve Üniversiteler, Ankara, İmge Yayınları.

Turan, Selahattin (2000). “John Dewey's Report of 1924 and his Recommendations on the Turkish Educational System Revisited,” History of Education 29 (6), pp. 543-555, DOI: 10.1080/00467600050163174

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Yonucu, Deniz (2022). Police, Provocation, Politics: Counterinsurgency in Istanbul, Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press.

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1 Only 11 % of 55-64 years old has a tertiary education in Turkey, compared to 40 % of the 25-34-year-old population. However, Turkey is still below the OECD average of 47 % among the latter age group. See:

2 In 1924, shortly after the establishment of the Republic, John Dewey was invited to Turkey, where he spent three months, observing the school system, and making recommendations for reform (Turan 2000).

3 The military regime purged over 4800 public employees, and many had to resign for reasons related to the coup regime. The number of purged academics is unclear because, unlike the dismissals in 1960 and 2016, the names of faculty members were not published in the Official Gazette. Instead, the information was communicated to academics through individual notifications by rectors, deans, and the YOK President.

4 Ayhan Efeoğlu, a socialist student at Yildiz Teknik University, who was abducted, killed, and disappeared by the police in 1992, and his brother, Ali Efeoğlu, an Istanbul University student, who was killed and disappeared three years after his brother, were only two among over 200 registered extrajudicial killings in the 1990s.

5 The Washington Consensus refers to a set of neoliberal economic policies promoted by international financial institutions, such as the IMF and World Bank, during the late 20th century. It emphasized free-market principles, including fiscal discipline, deregulation, liberalization of trade and investment, and privatization, as the recommended approach for economic development.


7 I apologize for not being able to discuss Tuğba Tekerek’s book Taşra Üniversiteleri in this article. The book was released in Turkey in early 2023, while this article was already in the publication process. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough time to include a discussion of her work here.

8 . For more detailed information about the disqualifications of rectors, please refer to Karadağ 2021.


10; (last visited 19 October 2022).

11 Edirne is a city at the northwest border of Turkey with Greece and Bulgaria, geographically furthest away from the Kurdish region.


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List of illustrations

Caption Figure 1. The change in the number of universities under the AKP.
Credits Source: Compiled by the author based on TUBITAK numbers.
File image/png, 32k
Caption Figure 3. The student-faculty ratio between 2002 and 2020.
Credits Source: Compiled by the author based on the numbers of the Council of Higher Education.
File image/png, 72k
Caption Figure 4. The historical change of academic freedoms in Turkey.
Credits Source: Kinzelbach, K.; Saliba, I.; Spannagel, J.; Quinn, R. (2020). Free Universities. Putting the Academic Freedom Index into Action, Berlin, Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi), p. 12.
File image/png, 282k
Caption Figure 5. Decline of academic freedoms under the AKP rule.
File image/png, 128k
Caption Figure 6. Global Levels of Academic Freedom 2020.
Credits Source: Kinzelbach, K.; Saliba, I.; Spannagel, J.; Quinn, R. (2020). Free Universities. Putting the Academic Freedom Index into Action, Berlin, Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi), p. 9.
File image/png, 1.1M
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Electronic reference

Ayça Alemdaroğlu, The University in the Making of Authoritarian TurkeyEuropean Journal of Turkish Studies [Online], 34 | 2022, Online since 15 September 2023, connection on 24 September 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Ayça Alemdaroğlu

Stanford University

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Creative Commons - Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International - CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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