It was a real battle last week around the Middle East Technical University (METU, or ODTÜ in Turkish) in Ankara. PM Erdogan visited the university to witness the launch of Turkey’s first ever domestically produced satellite. Students wanted to protest, so Erdogan took along some 3,000 policemen who were very quick to attack the students, who started burning tires and throwing stones, after which the police used excessive force. Now, amazingly, the whole thing has turned into a battle between universities: those who support the students, and those who condemn them.
For me it’s kind of simple. You cannot condemn anybody for demonstrating. It’s a democratic right, and that’s it. Especially students can’t be condemned for protesting. They are young, the ones studying at METU are supposed to be the smartest of the country, they are developing their thoughts, their direction in life, they have opinions, they are supposed to learn to think for themselves. As a student you do that by studying, discussing, reading, and, well, what student’s life is complete without a demonstration now and then? Especially in this country, where freedoms are being limited more and more. To not demonstrate against that as a student would be bad. The rector of METU thinks so too, and is behind his students, and several universities agree with him.
Twelve universities though, among them even those considered to be among the best in the country, like Marmara University, Istanbul University and Mimar Sinan Art Academy, condemn the students’ behaviour. They write in a joint statement that the students were ‘trying to overshadow the historic success of Turkey in the field of space technology through violent acts’, adding that ‘the only way of protest for students should be with critical minds. Students should not be associated with rocks, sticks and Molotov cocktails’.
Universities that want to limit the freedom to demonstrate. Unbelievable. But I’m not surprised. Turkish universities are not free themselves, but rather political actors. The state institution YÖK, the Board for Higher Education, controls academic life. They decide which universities have which faculties and which studies, how many students are allowed, who teaches where, everything.
Teach students repect
The rectors of universities are political figures too, appointed by the President. The ones from the universities that now condemn the students are the ones with rectors close to the the AKP government. They follow the Prime Minister, who said after the clashes that it’s universities’ first responsibility to teach students respect.
New student protests have erupted after the METU clashes. One of the students’ demands is the abolition of YÖK, which was actually installed by the military rulers after the 1980 coup d’état. It’s been a long-term demand of students. And they are right, of course. Academic freedom without political interference is very important, and actually the basic requirement for any university to function properly. The students are brave to speak out and they should keep on doing so, while some rectors show themselves to be unworthy representatives of academic standards.