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Turkey saw widespread student protests in 2021 due to political meddling, financial problems

Students chant slogans and hold placards on January 4, 2021 in front of the Bogazici University in Istanbul during a protest against the direct appointment of the new rector to Bogazici university by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. (Photo by Ozan KOSE / AFP)

Turkey witnessed a large number of student protests in 2021, mainly due to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s appointment of loyalist rectors to universities and financial problems that deprived many students of accommodation and the means to continue their studies.

A prolonged series of protests broke out at İstanbul’s Boğaziçi University after Erdoğan appointed Melih Bulu, a founding member of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) Sarıyer district branch and former deputy chairman of the AKP’s İstanbul provincial chapter, as rector in early January.

Bulu was dismissed in July, and Naci İnci, a former deputy to Bulu, was appointed despite a 95 percent disapproval rating he received in polls held among the university community to determine possible rector candidates.

Although 17 candidates emerged with high rates of approval, the president appointed İnci, again prompting outrage among academics and students.

The Artı Gerçek news website on Friday quoted university student Ebru Sert as saying that more than 1,000 students were subjected to violence during police interventions in protests against the government-appointed rector at Boğaziçi University in the first five months of 2021.

Twenty-one students were arrested and 10 were put under house arrest, with two still behind bars, Sert added.

Erdoğan also appointed many pro-government figures as rectors to dozens of universities across the country in a move that many said dealt a blow to academic freedom and the independence of universities.

University student Mert Batur from the “We Can’t Shelter” movement, which seeks to draw attention to problems encountered by university students in finding affordable housing, also spoke to Artı Gerçek, saying that before the pandemic, while most students could rent an apartment or a room to live in with their friends, with the support of their family or by working, it is impossible to do that now.

An economic downturn and the value of the lira, which had been hitting record lows before regaining some value this week, coupled with an additional negative impact caused by the pandemic, rendered Turks’ financial difficulties visible in 2021, with students having difficulty finding affordable accommodation.

Batur added that while he barely covered his monthly expenses by living in rented accommodations before the pandemic, now he couldn’t even afford a room with the same money.

Among 8 million undergraduate students, those who could find a place to stay in Turkey’s Higher Education Credit and Hostels Institution (KYK) dormitories live in small, crowded rooms with only small portions of food offered to them in an unhygienic environment, Batur also told Artı Gerçek.

In the meantime a total of 230,595 university students in Turkey suspended their enrollment over the past five years, local media reported on Friday, citing the Council of Higher Education’s (YÖK) answer to a parliamentary question posed by an opposition deputy.

Levent Gök, an MP from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), submitted a parliamentary question addressed to Education Minister Mahmut Özer about university students’ problems finding affordable housing.

Gök stated in the question that the 2021-2022 academic year started with university students’ housing problems and that some students didn’t enroll or suspended enrollment because of dormitory fees and house rents that had spiked due to the economic crisis in the country.

YÖK said an average of 46,119 students had suspended enrollment every year since 2017, failing to mention the effect of the economic crisis and students’ housing issues on the increasing number of students who don’t enroll or suspend enrollment, local media reports said.

The number of students who didn’t enroll in a university despite being entitled to increased by 18,971 in 2021, according to YÖK, which also said that 2021 has seen the lowest number of students entitled to enroll in a university since 2018.

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