Sad state of physics education in Turkey

I am very sad to report that only 16 Turkish universities have physics undergraduate programs. There are currently 193 universities in Turkey. At least 50 of them had undergraduate physics programs until recently. The Council of Higher Education of Turkey (Turkish acronym YOK) decided to close the undergraduate physics programs in all universities except for the chosen 16 universities. There is a rationale behind this decision but unfortunately the rationale also reflects the cultural attitudes towards science in general and physics in particular.

The Council of Higher Education of Turkey (YOK) is responsible for the supervision of all universities in Turkey (public and private). The word “private” may be a misnomer. The universities that charge tuition are known as “vakıf” (foundation) universities and they are supervised by the YOK as well.

The rectors of the public universities are chosen by the president of the Turkish Republic from a short list of 3 prepared by the YOK. You would expect the rectors (presidents of universities) to chose their own deans. But, no. The deans are chosen by the YOK. Do rectors and deans have any say about the closures of undergraduate programs? No. These kind of decisions are made by the YOK.

Number of universities in Turkey increased exponentially in recent years. Physics departments were established in many of them based on the directives of the YOK. Professors were hired but the sad situation was that very few students enrolled in the physics departments of these newly established universities.

The enrollment situation was not any better 35 years ago. The graduation rates were even worse. In 1981, there were only 2 physics graduates at Boğaziçi University (widely considered as the Harvard of Turkey) and those two were actually EE (Electrical Engineering) students double-majoring in physics. The original class of physics majors (30 students) transferred to engineering departments by their junior year.

Turkish society looks down upon physicists. In many cases there is an antagonistic attitude towards physicists. I remember people making fun of Erdal İnönü during his years as the deputy prime minister because he was physicist. Erdal İnönü was the son of  İsmet İnönü who was a national hero and the most important Turkish leader after Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in the 20’th century. His son Erdal İnönü chose physics as his calling and made important contributions to physics. He received the Wigner Medal in 2004. Erdal Inonu was nudged into politics because of his last name. He was successful as a politician too. But, as I said, people never appreciated his accomplishments in physics.

Antagonistic attitudes towards physicists manifest in various cultural arenas. The most visible one is in the marriage prospects of physicists in Turkey. Families do not want their daughters to marry physicists. The reasons are not just economic. It is almost as if people think that there is something wrong with you if you want to be a physicist. Under this kind of cultural conditioning it is only natural that students do not want to study physics.

Obviously there are economic reasons. If you major in physics and do not pursue a Ph.D. degree you will have very hard time finding a job in Turkey. The employers do not appreciate the physics education. The situation is somewhat better in USA. If you have a physics undergraduate degree in this country you will still have a hard time finding a job in physics but you can definitely find a job. In Turkey the situation is much worse. The employers do not consider physics graduates as the best students because of the cultural perception that the best students go to engineering schools.

There are historical reasons as well. Ottomans never paid enough attention to science. When the Turkish Republic emerged from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, the leaders of the Turkish Republic gave priority to engineering education.

I looked into the situation of physics professors who work in those universities that are not allowed to grant physics undergraduate degrees. Obviously, freshmen and sophomore physics are required courses in the engineering programs. So, these professors still teach those “service” courses. They also do research of course. Strangely enough, some of those universities that are not allowed to grant B.S. degrees in physics are in fact allowed to grant M.S (Master of Science) and Ph.D. degrees. Very strange, indeed!




About Suresh Emre

I have worked as a physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and the Superconducting Super Collider Laboratory. I am a volunteer for the Renaissance Universal movement. My main goal is to inspire the reader to engage in Self-discovery and expansion of consciousness.
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