Removing the Veils: A Conversation with Kemal Gürüz on the Realities of Turkish Higher Education
Published on: Oct 18, 2006

Kemal Gürüz is the former President of the Turkish Council of Higher Education, a cabinet-level post to which he was appointed by Turkish President Süleyman Demirel in 1995 and in which he served until 2003. Dr. Gürüz spent 2004-05 as a fellow at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. Dr. Gürüz also served as president of the Turkish Scientific and Technical Research Council.

Nicholas Rice: After five years of extreme tension between Islamism and globalism, do you believe that the only way higher education institutions in Muslim countries can win full international recognition is by secularizing themselves? Should this rule apply to other religions worldwide?

Kemal Gürüz: Let me first clarify a number of terms. Firstly, Islamism is an ideology and thus has a temporal connotation. Islam is a religion and thus has a spiritual connotation. Secondly, I am a Turk. Islam is an important component of Turkish identity, but Turkey is not a “Muslim country.” Rather, it is a country with a predominantly Muslim population. This subtlety is what sets her apart from the fifty-four “Muslim countries.” We owe this to Atatürk's sweeping reforms of the ’Twenties and ’Thirties, when education and the legal systems were completely secularized. This meant that rational, critical human thought – that is, human intelligence, not divine revelation – was recognized as the supreme regulator of temporal affairs.

Thanks to Atatürk's legacy, Turkey is a member of all of the supra-national institutions of the West, Turkish institutions of higher education are recognized all over the world, and she is a major player in international student mobility. Islam is no more or no less incompatible with globalism than any other religion. But Islamism and, for that matter, any religion to which the suffix “-ism” is attached is incompatible not just with globalism, but also with civilization.

Education, in the sense that we understand it, can serve humanity and contribute to civilization only when it is provided in a completely secular atmosphere where human intelligence reigns supreme. Otherwise, it is not education, but indoctrination of the most
pernicious kind. Unfortunately, that is the case in many institutions in “Muslim countries.” For this reason, their degrees are not recognized in Turkey.

NR: Which institutions in “Muslim countries,” under your definition, can serve as models of education as worthy of international recognition as the best universities in Turkey?

KG: I do not think there is any institution in “Muslim countries” that comes anywhere near the quality of any Turkish university. The only exceptions are the American University of Beirut, the American University in Cairo, and possibly Yarmouk University in Jordan. I am, of course, excluding the Dubai Knowledge Village and the Education City in Qatar. I do, however, strongly caution the administration of these establishments against inviting Iranian institutions to join. They should also be extremely careful with institutions from “Muslim countries.”

NR: Why do you include Yarmouk University?

KG: The Council of Higher Education, of which I was the president from 1995 to 2003, is authorized to issue Turkish equivalency status to foreign diplomas. Thus I had to thoroughly familiarize myself with the curricula and graduation requirements of many foreign institutions. I also did a considerable amount of traveling to visit institutions in those countries. Furthermore, many of my friends worked in institutions in Muslim countries, and I got a fairly accurate idea about the various institutions from them.

Some of the practices are in total contravention of accepted academic norms. In one country, for example, “Islamic Ideology” is a compulsory course every semester in every institution; many others are under the direct control or indirect influence of Islamists, who are not necessarily violent but nevertheless still incompatible with academic values in the sense we understand them.

Thus, although I can in no way claim to have seen all institutions in Muslim countries, I can confidently claim to have sufficient information and personal experience that allow me to reach some conclusions. This is the basis for my response. I am sure a number of other institutions can be added to Yarmouk, but I am afraid not too many.

NR: How you believe international institutions like the Dubai Knowledge Village and the Education City in Qatar have helped pave the way for a more scientific education in the Arab world, where according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics gross expenditure on research and development in 1999/2000 was identical to sub-Saharan Africa (South Africa excluded) at 0.2 percent of GDP, as opposed to Turkey, which spent just over 0.6 percent, and Canada, which spent almost 1.9 percent?

KG: These are very new establishments: I believe they started up just a few years ago. I hope I did not give the impression that these are the solutions to the ills in that part of the world. Nevertheless, they represent very big steps in the right direction.

I know that this sounds like a paradox in view of growing anti-Western, and particularly anti-American, feelings there, but there is a also great demand for Western, especially American-style, higher education in that part of the world. It would be self-defeating for the West, especially the US, to ignore that. Anyone in Muslim countries who shares the common values of academia and global civilization, the supremacy of rational, critical human thought above all, should be fully supported.

NR: How do you answer critics who say that the ban on Muslim headscarves in Turkish universities amounts to an expression of secularist doctrine that is as detrimental to personal freedom as aspects of the Islamist ideology that you have just described?

KG: As I pointed out earlier in our interview, the Turkish Republic is a sui generis entity that arose from the ashes of a multi-ethnic and theocratic empire. Secularism and constitutional citizenship in a nation state are the underlying tenets of the Republic. The operational definition of secularism in this context is the replacement of a legal system based on revelation, i.e. Sharia, which existed in the Ottoman Empire, by a legal system based on human intelligence, i.e. positive law, and ditto for the national educational system.

The headscarf ban in Turkish universities, which I proudly enforced during my tenure in office, is based on a ruling of the Supreme Court. This ban was challenged in the European Court of Human Rights, where it was upheld. Thus, it is clear that the ban in no way constitutes a violation of human rights. On the contrary, not enforcing it strictly would be tantamount to giving students a choice between the two legal systems mentioned above. That, of course, would be the end of the secular and democratic Republic ruled by positive law.

NR: Why do you believe that the wearing of headscarves would have a detrimental influence on the quality of the educational sphere, given that it would not necessarily need to contribute to the presentation and discussion of academic ideas?

KG: That would be the first step, then will come girls sitting on one side and the boys on the other, no classes during prayer times and on Fridays, ad infinitum, until all vestiges of the secular republic are eradicated. This is a long story, which dates back to the philosophical “battle” with Ghazali on the one side and Avennasar, Avicenna and Averroes on the other. Thanks to Atatürk, we won this battle in Turkey after almost eight centuries. What may be progressive for “Muslim countries” is retrogressive for Turkey.

NR: So headscarves were found to polarize classes in the same manner as separation according to sex?

KG: As I said, that would be just the beginning.

NR: Constitutional measures such as the headscarf ban seem to be some of the few official means by which the government can regulate academic affairs in Turkey, as opposed to the financing of these affairs, over which it has total control. There are also no public quality assessments, for instance, although the funding for Turkish higher education is largely public. You observe in a recent paper that this division of labor between academics and government is unique. Do you think this unusual model has produced an ideally autonomous system of public higher education, or do you believe it has bred confusion and distrust?

KG: It has neither produced an ideally autonomous system, nor has it bred distrust. Here is how I see it.

Prior to the reform of 1980, which established the Council of Higher Education (CHE) as an autonomous constitutional body, Turkish universities were accountable to no one. Rectors were elected on a one-man-one-vote basis. The CHE was constituted as a national board of governors, much like a board of governors in the US. What the CHE did was to introduce a modicum of accountability. Even that was enough. The gross enrollment ratio, which was 6% in 1980, now stands at 37%; the number of publications shot up from about 400 in 1980 to over 17,000 currently, raising Turkey from forty-second in the world to nineteenth.

From the governance point of view, the fundamental weakness of the system, in my opinion, is that it is dependent on an axis consisting of a state bureaucracy and an academic oligarchy. Furthermore, the system of appointing rectors was changed in 1992, and we now have a mixture of appointment and election, where the latter is dominant. The guild-like interests of academia, usually presented to the public as a “collegial” model of institutional behavior, often manifest themselves as “political” behavior or “organized anarchy”, and state bureaucracy almost always asserts itself in the form of a purely “bureaucratic” model.

What needs to be done is that the system must move towards a “market-society” model by introducing elements of lay governance and appointment rather than election for designating rectors. In other words, the system must be governed in a manner that is conducive for institutions to act “entrepreneurially”, rather than “politically” and “anarchically”. I must however add that, with an Islamist government in power, it is best not to make any legislative changes at the moment.

NR: If the system moves towards a more entrepreneurial model, will we see higher tuition fees, a more international student body, and greater resources for research and development? Or will the system lean towards increasing enrollment for residents of Turkey?

KG: The basic ideas underlying the entrepreneurial university are better management, more efficient resource utilization, and a more diversified revenue base so that the institution can carry out its teaching, research and service functions much more effectively. Yes, you will definitely see a more international student body and more resources for teaching and research in an entrepreneurial university, but not necessarily higher tuition fees. In fact, more monies can be made available to needy students.

NR: Do you mean needy students from the EU and from the Middle East as well as from Turkey?

KG: I mean needy students only from Turkey.