The clashes between Erdogan and Macron endanger one of the most prestigious universities in Turkey

Two women hold a banner that reads "All together" in French and Turkish during a protest by Galatasaray University professors against the new restrictions on foreign faculty, this Tuesday in Istanbul.
Two women hold a banner that reads “All together” in French and Turkish during a protest by Galatasaray University professors against new restrictions on foreign faculty in Istanbul on Tuesday.BULENT KILIC / AFP

The clashes between presidents Turkish, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and French, Emmanuel Macron, because of the measures against “Islamist separatism” in France and the disputes between both countries from Africa to the Mediterranean are about to claim a new victim: the Galatasaray University from Istanbul, one of the most prestigious in the country and the only Francophone higher education center in Turkey.

At least 15 professors of French nationality at the university have been in an illegal situation for months, fearful that, at any police checkpoint, the agents will realize that they lack papers and will be deported. “We continue teaching online because due to the coronavirus the classes are not face-to-face, but it is a serious problem because without a residence permit many things cannot be done,” explains one of those affected, who requests anonymity. At the beginning of the course last autumn, the teachers presented all their papers so that the Turkish authorities could grant them the mandatory work and residence permits, which must be renewed annually. After months of waiting, in December, the Council for Higher Education (YÖK) notified them that their work permits would not be renewed unless they certified a B2 level of Turkish, which implies a medium-high command of the language.

“I was not invited to teach in Turkey because of my level of Turkish, but because of what I have to offer in my field of study,” complains the teacher: “Furthermore, it is a totally illegal decision, because Galatasaray is governed by a bilateral agreement in which all decisions are taken by consensus between the governments of France and Turkey, and also each regulatory change must be announced one year in advance. The center was created in 1992 by agreement between Presidents François Mitterrand and Turgut Özal and as a symbol of the ties between the two countries. Also as a continuation of the Galatasaray Lyceum, founded in Istanbul during the second half of the 19th century to train, in French and in European ideas, the modernizing elite of the Ottoman Empire. With the change of regime from 1923, the high school would become one of the nuclei of the new republican and secular elite.

The YÖK, which reports directly to President Erdogan, argues that it has limited itself to imposing a measure equivalent to the one decreed by Macron. As part of its measures to combat Islamist radicalization, suspended the ELCO program, whereby students of immigrant origin in France received classes in their language of origin given by teachers from those countries, and replaced it with a new scheme more controlled by the French State and in which teachers are required to have a level certificate B2 in French. The difference between the two cases is that in France it has been done in an agreed manner with the nine countries that participated in the ELCO (including Turkey) to allow time to look for substitute teachers, while in Ankara it has been a sudden decision that has taken the university and faculty by surprise.

Both Macron, calling Erdogan, and the French ambassador in Ankara, Hervé Magro, have tried to find a solution. In a meeting between the latter and the president of the YÖK, Yekta Saraç, the French diplomat informed his interlocutor that “the measure taken unilaterally and without prior notice” is “unacceptable,” according to the French media. Mediapart. Another source with knowledge of the meeting argues that the atmosphere was frankly tense: “The president of the YÖK replied that he did not care what the bilateral agreements said and that it is his responsibility to decide which teachers are accredited and which are not.”

This Tuesday, the university professors published a statement in which they denounced that the YÖK’s decision endangers teachers but also “the right of students to receive a multicultural and bilingual education.” Even a pro-government columnist like Nagehan Alçi of the daily Habertürk, has condemned the YÖK restrictions on the grounds that they “harm Turkey and not Macron” since, as the professors argue, this will make the majority of French academics decide to return to their country and new ones will not qualify to teach in Turkey, which will mean “kill Galatasaray University”

A professor who requests anonymity and has lived in Turkey for 15 years denounces: “The message that this is a response to Macron may sound good to the voters of the [partido gubernamental] AKP: ‘Look we are forcing the French to speak Turkish.’ But the reality goes further, Galatasaray, depending on a bilateral agreement, is an island of freedom and the only university to which the YÖK has not managed to impose an AKP rector. What they want with this is not only to throw out the French teachers, but impose its ideological, Islamist and nationalist domination over the university “.

In fact, this new controversy arrives amidst student protests against the government’s attempts to control another of the best universities in the country, the Bosphorus, whose students have been repressed by the police and branded as “terrorists” by the government.

Furthermore, the French teachers at Galatasaray are not the only ones with problems. Teachers from European Union member states in other Turkish universities, including some of Spanish nationality, have also seen either that their residence permit was not renewed unless they took a Turkish exam or that their residence permit was shortened. I work for six months. “We don’t know what will become of us. The candidates that we present to renew places are not accepted by the YÖK, even though they meet all the requirements that they demand of us, and that we are in trouble. We don’t know what they want, whether to get rid of foreigners or not to admit more ”, another foreign professor complains:“ What I believe is that there is a political intention behind all this ”.

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