Prof.Dr. Ali GÜNEŞ
Social Sciences University of Ankara
A month ago my colleague and I attended the EAEI 2018 Education Fair/conference in Geneva, Switzerland, to promote both Turkish higher education and Social Sciences University of Ankara (ASBU). Around 5500 participants were present in the conference to establish and expand networking with the universities across the world. Founded in 1989, the EAIE is the recognised European centre for expertise, networking and resources in the internationalisation of higher education across the world, and it organizes international education conferences every year in a different European country (for example, the EAIE 2019 will be held in Helsinki, Finland, from 24–27 September 2019 with the theme “Encompassing all voices”). It was very successful for us since we found a good chance to promote our university for the first time in an international conference; we were also able not only to share SSUA’s mission and vision as a social sciences university with the other participating universities but also to establish many agreements for the exchange of students and academic staff, as well for the future joint projects. It was a fruitful activity for the internationalization process of both Turkish universities and ASBU, and such international conferences thus seem necessary for us to present our universities abroad and exchange ideas and experience with the other universities and education experts about new trends in the field of higher education.
However, we witnessed sadly during the conference ongoing unfair smear campaigns against Turkey organized and carried out by overt and covert enemies, terror groups and Western media. This situation obviously distressed us. Some news leaflets we read and people we listened to visibly strove to defame Turkey with their false, biased and unfair views and claims, in which our country is shown to the outside world and international higher education institutions as an unsecure, fragile, and chaotic country to travel and get education. Also, what is emphasized in these unfair statements is that there is no freedom of thought and expression in Turkey, that there is no academic freedom, and that nearly half of academics, who do not approve of the current government’s policies, are at risk in their profession. In Times Higher Education (THE) published on September 13, 2018 (Thursday) and distributed to almost everyone inside the conference hall and outside at hotels, where conference participants stayed, for example, Ellie Bothwell penned a short article, in which she argues that scholars and academics are at great risk in Turkey. She comes to this conclusion after interviewing an anonymous Turkish expatriate, who fled to the Netherlands after the closure of 15 universities in 2016 and 2017 due to their links with the Fethullah Terror Organization (FETO) blamed for the failed military coup attempt in July 2016. Based on the views of the anonymous expat interviewed, Bothwell writes that those academics who used to work for the closed universities are unable to find jobs at universities in Turkey because the university authorities are afraid of hiring them due to their worry not to offend both the ruling party and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In the article, the unnamed one interviewed is quoted as saying: “People are not asking about people’s skills any more if you are coming from a fragile university in this situation.” Moreover, in the same article, Bothwell also quotes Emily Borzcik from the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund as saying about how the academic scheme works: “‘mostly [with] professors who have PhDs and are engaged in teaching and / or research. What qualifies somebody for the programme is that they are, most of the time, affiliated with an academic institution and they are conducting scholarly research.’”
We also read another disparaging news bulletin during the EAIE Conference against Turkey published by Scholar at Risk Network (www.scholarsatrisk.org) based in New York, the USA. According to the news bulletin, 51 % of scholars in Turkey is at risk as being based upon the factors such as “Threat of arrest or violence, General situation at risk, Loss of position, Harassment & intimidation, Prosecution, and Other.” These risk factors and percentage indicate that Turkey is in a worse condition than Syria (19%), Iran (9%), Iraq (5%), and South Asia (1%) and that Turkey is like a hell for scholars and academics, who teach and do research. In addition, while visiting the booths of some participating universities with the intention to promote SSUA and enlarge our networking, we also met the people, who told us many things particularly about lack of security, lack of academic freedom and expression, harassment, intimation, growing rigid nationalism, and so on in Turkey. Our friends from the other universities in Turkey told us that they also heard similar stories.
Of course, we did our best to tell them that what they hear on TV and what they read in mass media is not true but false and biased smear campaign against Turkey organized and conducted mainly by the Western politicians and media, as well as by the terror groups such as the outlawed Kurdish Worker’s party (PKK) and FETO. We told them that Turkey is, indeed, a secure country and that we have not witnessed any harm done to international students and scholars. For instance, while doing my postgraduate study in England, I witnessed many xenophobic, racial attacks on oversea students, particularly the students with brown skins, and thus we were recommended not to go out late in the evening, not to go out alone in the evening if necessary and not to have any eye-contact with people. As for the bombings that took place in Turkey, they could be in any place across the world. For example, we witnessed the bombings in Paris, Barcelona, London, and New York, which does not mean that these places cannot be visited. In addition, we told them that there are also restrictions imposed on scholars and academics in the Western countries when it is the question of security, and thus no country will ignore the issues of order and security, because one of unalienable responsibilities of a government since Plato has been to keep order in the face of chaos, internal conflicts and anarchy, so that the ruling party in Turkey is trying to maintain order in the country. Once we spoke to these people, however, we noticed that they were convinced; they accepted that political issues and media noticeably often affect the field of education, as well as the decision-making process in many countries. Nevertheless, there is an ostensible fact that these unfair smear campaigns have influenced negatively the image of Turkey and interrupted its internationalization process in higher education. For example, the number of incoming Erasmus exchange students has dramatically decreased in recent years, about which Turkish universities often complain; Turkish universities are also unable to recruit international students mainly from Western countries; academic scholars from the Western countries are not willing to come and teach at Turkish universities probably due to the factors above. This situation is one of obstacles before internationalisation of Turkish higher education.
What could be done?
In fact, it is not an easy process to rid of these negative campaigns and propagandas, but there might be several approaches. For me, the first institution to deal with this issue is the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its offices abroad such as embassies, cultural and education attaches and so on. They could carry out logical, well-organized, programmed lobbying activities by employing all possible means such as media, conferences, bilateral negotiations, non-governmental organisations and so on. Secondly, Council of Turkish Higher Education (YÖK) could also play an active role in this process through its international relations office. Besides, since there are many worldwide education fairs, academic conferences and activities every year in different continents, YÖK could organize meetings, give speeches in the activities above, develop dialogues with civil society groups and cooperate closely with the offices of Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs to remove Turkey’s negative image. Thirdly, almost all Turkish universities have various international exchange agreements (Erasmus+, Mevlana and others) with different universities across the world. Through their international offices and bilateral meetings, Turkish universities could take on responsibility as well for erasing the degrading perception about our country. Finally, social media is also another field which could actively be used by the government, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, YÖK, universities, non-governmental organizations and Turkish mass media in English because today media is one of the most important sources of information employed by politicians, policy-makers, campaigners, news agencies such as BBC, Reuters, Associated Press and others to shape public opinion. Simply, we should employ all our means to start a total mobilization for reversing the unfair smear campaigns against our country.