Turkey’s Brain Drain: Purges and Fear are Driving Turkish Scholars Out of the Country


The new academic year opened under dark clouds for many scholars in Turkey. The crackdown in the aftermath of July’s attempted military coup has worsened the sense of suffocation. The country now faces the real danger of a “brain drain” as many educated citizens look for a route out.

Over 5,300 academics have been suspended and over 2,300 have been fired for alleged links to the July 15 coup attempt, while 15 private universities linked to the movement of U.S.-based Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen have been closed down. The government says the measures target the Gülenists, a Turkish-designated a terrorist organization accused of orchestrating the coup attempt, but there are rising fears that the dragnet is snaring other opposition voices in a broader witch hunt.

According to a recent Times Higher Education report, two charities that help at-risk academics say enquiries from Turkey have shot up in recent weeks. The New York-based Scholar Rescue Fund, part of the Institute of International Education, has said it is facing an “unprecedented” number of requests for help. Its director Sarah Willcox said it has received 65 applications from academics looking to work outside Turkey owing to fear of political persecution since late July. The U.K.-based Council for At-Risk Academics also said it is receiving 15 to 20 applications a week for help, up from four or five a week last year. There are more of these applications coming from Turkey than any other country in the world.

The case of Candan Badem is illustrative. Badem had been working as an associate professor of history at Munzur University in the eastern province of Tunceli. He was among those fired from his job using state of emergency powers after the coup attempt. What raised eyebrows is that Badem openly describes himself as a Marxist and atheist – far from sympathetic to any secretive Islamic group. He told me: “They have turned against all political opposition. They are using this as an excuse to suppress all kinds of opposition.”

Badem claims that the situation “is much graver and much worse than it ever was before,” comparing today with the period after the 1980 military coup, which explicitly targeted leftists:

Back then some professors were dismissed. But they were able to find work elsewhere. Today if you’re fired by decree you can’t get work in another university. You’re on a blacklist. Dismissing thousands of people with state of emergency decrees, without due process, is something extraordinary.

The situation since the coup is an acceleration of a trend that started well before the coup. In January, 2,212 academics under the initiative “Academics for Peace” signed a petition calling for an end to Turkey’s military campaign against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The reaction was fierce. Senior government figures including President Erdogan repeatedly denounced the signatories and angry protests were held across the country. Some of the signatories fled the country after receiving death threats, and 1,128 of them were subjected to legal action. Hundreds of them faced disciplinary investigations at their universities or were fired, while the rest live in fear that they are on a blacklist. Forty-four of the academics fired since the coup attempt had their name on the petition.

One of the signatories managed to keep his job in Ankara’s prestigious Middle East Technical University (ODTÜ), but he told me on the condition of anonymity that the atmosphere elsewhere is more claustrophobic:

We are quite secure but the situation in universities in small Anatolian cities is a lot more difficult. University directorships there do not support academics so much, so they face a greater threat of losing their jobs. Under the state of emergency anything can happen legally and all active academics are in danger of being fired. There is a narrowing opportunity to do things, especially if you’re dealing with issues from a leftist or liberal perspective.

Professor Kuvvet Lordoglu was one of the 19 peace petition signatories suspended from Kocaeli University in northwest Turkey at the beginning of September. Interviewed recently on the news website Medyascope, Lordoglu described the bewildering process experienced by many academics affected.

We don’t have the slightest knowledge what crime we are accused of. The official suspension decision uses very general, non-specific terms like “links to a terrorist organization,” or “found within a terrorist structure.” The accusations are so vague that they are the kind of thing anyone could be targeted by. It is very dangerous.

The ODTÜ academic now worries about a potentially broader brain drain from Turkey beyond the academy. He explained to me:

People have lost their trust. Many of my friends, either in academia or in other sectors, have been searching for ways to leave the country. They have applied for scholarships or positions in foreign institutions. Others have applied for qualified immigrant programs in Europe and Canada. For those from secular or leftist backgrounds – not necessarily Kurds – this is the first time they have experienced such an oppressive atmosphere. They are traumatized and trying to find a way to deal with it.

One academic at a small Ankara university told me that “almost everybody I know personally is either thinking about leaving or has already taken action in that regard.” It is not something yet being widely discussed in the Turkish media, but I can certainly confirm anecdotally that educated Istanbul locals have started to talk among themselves about moving abroad to escape the gathering gloom.  Narrowing horizons, paranoia, and political instability are prompting many to explore their options. Turkey has never been a bed of roses, but this sense of pessimism did not exist a few years ago. In a reflection of the mood, many of the academics I contacted for my research only agreed to speak off the record, fearing reprisal.

There is a potentially dangerous incentive dynamic at work for Ankara: Any brain drain would play into the hands of the Turkish government’s populist political strategy, in which all opponents are dismissed as illegitimate and inauthentic citizens estranged from the “real nation.” Much of contemporary Turkish politics is built around a perceived socio-cultural schism between the largely conservative, religious masses of the “periphery” and the more westernized secular “elites.” The ruling AKP could exploit any evidence of a brain drain as confirmation that only its supporters – content not to flee the country – represent the authentic Turkish nation, clearing the path for it to continue with its Islamist-nationalist ideological project. The demographic shift caused by any brain drain could potentially have deep implications for the texture of Turkish society, its human capital, and its ability to escape the middle-income trap.

Still, it should be noted that the situation today would likely be considerably worse if the July coup had been successful. After the “post-modern” coup of 1997, restrictions on female headscarf-wearing academics and students were tightened, while religious school graduates hoping to study non-religious subjects at university were handicapped regardless of academic performance. Back then a different kind of brain drain took place: Public universities still banned students from wearing headscarves, so many pious female students opted to study in Western universities rather than remove their headscarves in Turkey. President Erdogan’s own daughters studied in the United States, citing the headscarf ban in universities back home.

Turkey’s education system has always been a highly charged ideological battleground. It can also be seen as a microcosm of a broader story in which once bright hopes for democratization have dimmed as the government centralizes ever more powers. The situation of the Higher Education Institute (YÖK) neatly illustrates this trajectory. YÖK was established in 1981 to give the post-1980 coup regime overarching authority over Turkey’s universities. It has long been criticized by Turkish liberals and leftists for stifling academic freedom, and years ago there was hope that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) would reform or even abolish it as a relic of the undemocratic old order.  However, now that the government has brought YÖK under its control and started to enjoy its authority, talk of reform has been quietly shelved. YÖK remains a heavy weight hanging over Turkey’s higher education system.

As the ODTÜ academic explained to me:

Before 2002 Islamic groups and Islamist political parties were at the margin of the machine, but after 2002 they gradually became its center. Now, they obviously want to benefit from the opportunities that this gigantic machine provides.

Candan Badem is blunter, pointing the finger at a general lowering of standards:

What we’re seeing is a triumph of the mediocre. In recent years [the government] has bent regulations to promote only its cronies, without any concern for merit. The same is true in state institutions and in academia. Now we are reaping the results of this.

The government’s bid to reengineer Turkish society through the education system extends earlier than higher education. Schoolchildren of all ages returned to school on Sept. 19 to be greeted by a special syllabus crafted by the Education Ministry. The first class of the new school year focused on the failed coup attempt, followed by a week of themed classroom activities. These activities included “writing letters on their feelings about the democratic heroes against the coup,” “listening to poems on the Homeland and the Flag,” and “listening to speeches and seminars on national unity and togetherness, love of homeland, and democracy.” Children were welcomed back to school with a special eight-page booklet on the coup attempt, which was also the subject of a tub-thumping Hollywood movie-style video due to be screened at all schools.

For better or for worse, Turkey’s failed coup attempt was a game-changer. The long-term effects of the current purges will become clearer with time, but the many Turks already exploring options to move abroad are not waiting to find out.


William Armstrong is a journalist based in Istanbul. He presents the Turkey Book Talk podcast.

Image: Danbury, CC