News | Party / Movement History - Social Movements / Organizing - Participation / Civil Rights - Turkey The Changing Face of Student Activism in Turkey

Resistance at Boğaziçi University and its implications for democratic opposition in the country



Zozan Baran,

Studierendenproteste an der Boğaziçi-Universität
“We tell the appointee by the appointor”—student protest at Boğaziçi University in early January 2021 after the conservative politician Melih Bulu was appointed university rector by President Erdoğan. Hilmi Hacaloğlu - VOA, Wikimedia Commons

Universities have historically been one of the strongholds of left-wing politics and political mobilization in Turkey. The recent mobilizations against a trustee appointment to Boğaziçi University has sparked a new phase of mobilization and arrived on the scene at a time of silence in the protest arena. Moreover, this mobilization specifically arising from one of the most prestigious universities in Turkey fed accusations of “elitism” from the government supporters. Although at first glance these “elitism” critics seem to single out the Boğaziçi students, such “critics” have been widely used by Turkish conservatives to insinuate that the educated youth are privileged and alienated from Turkish society. Is it true that the students are the cream of the crop and that the protests are to protect their privileges?

Zozan Baran is an activist and independent scholar of Kurdish descent from Turkey. She obtained her BA from Boğaziçi University’s Political Science Department and her MA from the Free University of Berlin’s Sociology Department. She currently resides in Berlin and writes on political regimes and movements from a comparative perspective.

The absurdity of the accusations aside, there is indeed something striking about Boğaziçi being the centre of the recent mobilizations. Boğaziçi, although one of the few truly politically liberal environments in the country, where opinions and identities are generally welcomed, has not been one of the foci of the student mobilizations until very recently. At the same time, other strongholds such as Ankara and Istanbul universities are relatively silent.

One of the clear reasons for this silence is naturally the growing oppressive environment in the country. But perhaps a less visible reason is that, with the exception of a few universities such as Boğaziçi, higher education is less and less able to guarantee a secure life and the privileges that were once attached to it. As Eric Hobsbawm pointed out with regard to the student uprisings in 1968, historically student mobilizations occurred on the fertile ground of social democracy and political and economic security. Despite the endurance of student activism in Turkey, the absence of such an environment leaves a significant mark on the characteristics of the movement as well as its chances to survive.

Several factors caused the erosion of the living standards of the youth and the economic and social privileges that were provided to diploma holders among older generations. In fact, two phenomena contributed to the deteriorating education and economic situation of the youth: the neoliberal transformation of the economy in general and the education system in particular, and country’s vast young population combined with the weak economic system.

In a recent interview, a student from Boğaziçi University rightly pointed out that when the term “elite” used to allude economic privileges, students are far from being elites.[1] In fact, many socio-economic and demographic indicators signal how the youth and in particular university diploma holders are in a precarious position in a plummeting economy. Even before the corona pandemic, Turkey’s young population had found itself in a declining position on the labour market, with precarious jobs that did not correspond to their education level.[2]

The Ministry of National Education recently published enrolment rates at the primary, secondary, and tertiary levels. According to these statistics, last year the net enrolment rate in the tertiary level was above 43 percent. In an earlier study, where the reliability of the information is questionable, the gross enrolment rate was given as nearly 80 percent. When taking into consideration that there are 13 million young people (between the ages of 15 to 24) in Turkey, it is clear that the country’s education system creates a vast reserved qualified labour force. At the same time, according to OECD data, at over 26 percent, Turkey has one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe (sixth, to be precise). More importantly, Turkey has the largest population of NEETs (young people “not in employment, education, or training”) in Europe. Hence, it is clear that Turkey is a country with a large young population that is relatively educated yet suffers from great insecurity in the labour market and lack of qualified jobs. The existence of qualified unemployed becomes even more visible with the worsening economic crisis.

Another development that contributes to the increasing insecurity is the marketization and neoliberalization of the education system. The neoliberal reforms that transformed higher education to an institution whose pure function is to provide qualified workforces for the market increased the competition for education and jobs from a very early age. Hence, for thousands of higher education diploma holders, their education not only fails to provide the kind of secure job that was once promised to older generations, but it also creates an extremely competitive environment that is time- and energy-consuming and emotionally challenging.

First of all, for analysing the decrease of student mobilization, this extremely competitive environment with ever increasing precariousness on the labour market should be taken into account. Second, the existing political and economic struggle is more about halting a downward mobilization than enabling an upward mobilization. For Turkey’s young generations, education cannot promise more than this. The extremely competitive and insecure job market in Turkey, the decreasing importance of higher education, and the ever-growing reserve army of labour army on the one hand enable us to understand why the traditional fortresses of student mobilizations such as Istanbul University are silent. On the other hand, it makes clear what is at stake for students who attend relatively prestigious universities such as Boğaziçi and ODTU and what it means to lose educational quality and public trust in such institutions.

This not to say that the protests are driven by economic factors. Many accounts rightfully pointed out the political and cultural demands behind the mobilization. As emphasized by the demonstrating students themselves, the protests focused on the autonomy of the universities in particular and the quality of democracy in general. Indeed, one of the reasons for the government’s hysterical reaction seems to be their fear of igniting a second round of Gezi protests. Hence, political demands and the defence of democracy are at the core of the demonstrations. In the absence of an effective resistance from the oppositional political parties, the students’ resistance provides an invaluable resource for the democratic forces. Therefore, pointing out the limits and socio-economic problems is not to trivialize the protests. On the contrary, they provided a space for the opposition and enabled a wider mobilization that had not occur for a long time.

However, understanding the changing economic and social dynamics can help us to thoroughly evaluate the strength and weaknesses of protest movements in general and the student movement in particular. Student movements have historically been at the core of protest in Turkey and seem to continue to be so. Thus, we need to ask ourselves how the lost privileges and the new position of “qualified” youth will affect their future mobilizations and the possibility of a wider front that brings educated and uneducated youth together.

[1] That was to express that the students did not necessarily come from privileged and economically advantaged families. Undeniably, as a prestigious university, Boğaziçi hosts many students from such backgrounds. However, at the same time, as a public university it enables many students from lower backgrounds to obtain a quality education. In fact, being a student at Boğaziçi also means opportunities to get scholarships, which are a highly valuable resource in a country where welfare structures are weak.

[2] For example, recent interviews with striking supermarket and restaurant workers reveal that some of them are university graduates.