Universities: Little accord on the island

Does it make sense to punish the thriving universities of Northern Cyprus for its troubled past, asks Lucy Hodges

Published: 08 November 2007

When Gordon Brown met Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minister, last month at No 10 Downing Street, a little-noticed item up for discussion was Turkish universities – specifically, their exclusion from the Bologna Accord, the process whereby degree standards are being harmonised across Europe.

The British Prime Minister promised to help the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus to "engage" with the Bologna Accord, as part of a strategic partnership between the two nations. Turkish Cypriots have seized on this pledge as a sign that the tide of world opinion may be turning in their favour. Needless to say, the promise is being viewed with alarm by the Greek side.

The Turkish Cypriots applied to join Bologna, but were rejected on the grounds that Northern Cyprus is not recognised as an independent political entity by any member of Bologna except Turkey. This, they say, is unfair, because it means that their academics and students are prevented from enjoying the same rights to free movement as other countries in Europe.

"We are suffering from discrimination and isolation," says Ostroprak Canan, the minister of education in the Turkish part of the island. "It is not fair to keep out six universities that have achieved a high level of education. Education is a human right of everyone on the planet, but they say 'Not you, because you are living on another bit of the planet'."

The pickle in which Northern Cyprus finds itself is entirely a product of its history – specifically, the events of the 1960s and 1970s after independence from Britain. Relations between Turks and Greeks on the island deteriorated, resulting in violence between the communities, the creation of 20,000 Turkish Cypriot refugees, and, finally, a Greek military coup in 1974, quickly followed by armed intervention by Turkish soldiers who marched in and secured the northern part of Cyprus for Turkish-speakers.

The island has been divided ever since. Large numbers of Greek Cypriots abandoned their homes, and Cyprus has been left with a legacy of bitterness. The economy of the northern part of the island has also been hampered by a trade embargo, which has meant that it has been heavily dependent on Turkey.

Despite all this, its economy has been growing fast since 2001, and it has developed a thriving higher education system, with six universities and an army of 42,000 students from overseas alone. These universities believe that they will be handicapped, or even have their very existence threatened, if they are not able to offer their students the same rights enjoyed in countries that have joined Bologna. These rights include moving easily from one European country to another on exchanges, and doing Masters degrees and PhDs in these other countries, as well as joint degrees. That will be difficult for students in Turkish Cyprus because their degrees will not have the same currency and they will not have the same links with institutions in other countries.

"After 2010, the Bologna process will be completed," says Professor Tahir Celik, the president of Yodak, the higher-education accrediting body in Northern Cyprus. "From then on, a European higher-education area will be created, and the countries who are in that will have mobility of students and staff. They will be able to exchange their ideas, experiences and projects.

"This is very important to us. We need this for our universities to flourish. If we are not in it, our students and staff will have more difficulties in studying or being recognised abroad."

The Turkish community of Northern Cyprus feels European, and is proud of the six universities it has created since 1974, the year Turkey seized control of the area. Although these institutions were set up with Turkish help, they teach in English, charge fees, and are developing fast – in some cases using the fee income to construct impressive new buildings and start new courses.

For example, Near East University, a private institution in Nicosia, is erecting a research centre and techno-park with the help of IBM. It has also just opened new faculties of dentistry, pharmacology and health sciences, complete with spanking new equipment. Some 17,000 students from 45 different countries are enrolled at any given time, and the university boasts an enormous library, open 14 hours a day and containing 500,000 books that can be located on an onscreen map of the library at the tap of a key.

"It is crucial for us that our universities should be part of the European higher education community," says Professor Huseyin Gokceku, Near East's vice rector, who, like many professionals in Northern Cyprus, has a daughter doing a Masters degree in Britain, at the University of Bath.

The exclusion of the Turkish part of the island from the Bologna Accord goes to the heart of the Cyprus problem. The fact is, no country apart from Turkey recognises it, because of the Turkish invasion in 1974. The Turkish Cypriots understand this, but argue that their universities should not be isolated as a result.

"The fact that Northern Cyprus is not recognised should not affect education," says Professor Halil Guven, the president of Eastern Mediterranean University in Famagusta, the oldest and most highly rated university on the island. "Education is a fundamental human right. I can't solve the Cyprus problem, my students can't solve it, the faculty can't – so why are we being deprived of educational opportunities as a result?"

So frustrated are the Northern Cypriot universities that they took their complaints to the Bologna meeting of education ministers that took place in London in May. According to Professor Guven, the day before the issue was due to come up, the Greek Cypriots proposed a solution: establish a committee of higher-education experts from both sides to decide whether Turkish Cypriot universities should be accredited. If they won the right to this, they could join the Bologna process.

The sticking point, however, was that any recommendations from this joint committee would have to be approved by the minister of education of the Cyprus government. In other words, the decision would be in the hands of the Greek Cypriots. "It goes to the heart of who is running the island," says Guven.

The proposal was unacceptable to the Turkish Cypriots. And so the impasse continues.

Both the Near East University and the Eastern Mediterranean University have been able to join the European Universities Association after the EUA changed its bylaws. Guven is hoping that the Council of Europe, which oversees the Bologna Accord, can be equally flexible.

As it is, the Turkish Cypriots believe that they will be faced with greater isolation after 2010. The Eastern Mediterranean University depends on overseas students: almost 65 per cent of its undergraduates come from the Turkish mainland. Guven is concerned that he will find it harder to attract these students after 2010 because they won't have the same rights to move around Europe as their compatriots at Turkish universities.

"Greek Cypriots see this as a game to try to weaken the economy of the North," he says bitterly. "They are looking for a win-lose situation, and that is not stable. Before, they tried to suffocate the Turkish enclaves, and they exploded. I hope Cyprus doesn't explode again."

For their part, the Greek side is equally adamant that it has right on its side and that Northern Cypriot universities not be allowed to join Bologna because they are not accredited by a legitimate government organisation. They say that the illegality of the regime in the North continues, with Turkish troops still stationed on that part of the island, and no country apart from Turkey willing to recognise it. The only internationally recognised state on the island is the Republic of Cyprus, on the Greek side, they say.

"The legal side of the matter is completely watertight," says George Iacovou, the Cyprus High Commissioner in London. "At one time, Britain, faced with Ian Smith's UDI in Rhodesia, ruled that even divorces awarded in that country were not valid because they were issued by courts that were not legal."

The argument is that allowing Turkish Cypriots to join Bologna would set a bad precedent. And that is precisely, say the Greek side, why the Turkish Cypriots want it: to upgrade the occupied part of the island into a semi-recognised state.

And so the argument rages. If Gordon Brown is able to find a way to let the Turkish Cypriots into Bologna, the island may take a small step towards reconciliation.

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