Established two-and-a-half years ago to counter FETÖ’s educational activities abroad, the Turkish MaarifFoundation currently operates 257 schools, of which 191 used to belong to FETÖ.
“After one year under our control we have not seen a drop on the number of students. On the contrary there is an increase on all of them. They are now truly accepted as the schools of Turkey,” Professor Birol Akgün, the president of MaarifFoundation, told the Daily News.
Q: It has been two-and-a-half years since the foundation began its activities. Tell us where you are in terms of tackling the issue of FETÖ schools abroad.
A: Together with the Foreign Ministry, we have been conducting talks with 95 countries. Some have decided to hand them over to us, and 191 schools in 21 countries are currently under our responsibility. But it does not mean that those countries which have not handed over have done nothing. Some have closed them; others have taken them under the authority of their own education ministries, some other handed them over to third parties. Some governments have sent away the personnel of these schools who were considered as threats by Turkey.
So in essence our foundation has a solution-based approach. In countries where there has not been any transfer, we open our schools. We currently have 257 schools, under our authority, of which 191 used to be linked to FETÖ.
Q: It looks like you have achieved the most progress in Africa. How do you deal with the problem in Western countries where they say they cannot do anything as long as these schools operate within the law?
A: In the first year, the transfer or the closure of schools was faster in Africa. Countries in Central Asia, for instance, preferred to keep them under their control by transferring to foundations or companies close to the government.
When it comes to the Western world, like the United States or Europe, there is indeed a different approach. But they are not totally indifferent to the issue. As they receive information about these schools and those who operate them from Turkey they take some measures. They start inspections into tax and financial irregularities. We see that these schools come under very serious monitoring. After all, there is a warning from one state to the other and it is impossible not to take it seriously.
Q: If you were to give a figure of schools that still remain problematic?
A: In the non-Western world 70 percent of schools are no longer under FETÖ’s control.
There aren’t too many in the West; the largest number is in the United States. There are 150, and according to some others, 180 charter schools. But that system does not allow FETÖ to select the students and introduce its indoctrination.
But obviously they have also taken teachers there from Turkey, or they transfer the teachers in the closed schools in other countries to the United States.
Q: Looking at this whole process, how do you evaluate FETÖ members’ current attitude? Are they in a mood of defeat or are they relentlessly fighting back?
A: They are in a survivor mentality. They don’t want to give up, but they cannot go on. Their financial resources from Turkey have been cut off. After all, a significant amount of money was being transferred from Turkey in terms of constructing and operating the schools. That’s why they were called Turkish schools. Education is an expensive business, and it is not always profitable.
When you look at schools which were not handed over to us — with a few exceptions — there is a serious drop in the number of students, loss of revenue and deterioration in quality. There are serious problems in terms of repairing and renovating the schools.
Q: What is the picture you come across during the transition of these schools? The ones abroad used to be promoted as excellent education centers.
A: It is not possible to endorse abroad the same type of education and indoctrination process that were taking place within Turkey. The function of these schools abroad is not so much about indoctrination. FETÖ has a very complex structure. It has an economic dimension, cultural dimension; it has a social network. These schools were seen as part of a process to feed this complex structure. They were recruiting elites. These schools were also supporting FETÖ’s universities in Turkey. They brought students from their schools to the 15 universities they had in Turkey. So we have to think of it as a large trade network as well.
Q: Certain countries would tell you that it was the Turkish government that promoted these schools in the past. How do you respond to that?
A: I am not the direct interlocutor of this question. It is rather the Foreign Ministry. But for the past 40 years we have known them as educational institutions. We thought they were apolitical, free of ideology. They were seen as institutions open to modernization, but at the same time endorsing traditional and religious values. But indeed they have created a perception abroad that these schools were opened by the Turkish state. But we are explaining to our interlocutors that it is a structure with a hidden agenda.
Q: Have you lost students in schools that were handed over?
A: During the transition period there has been, from time to time, a drop in the number of students due to some disinformation campaigns.
But after one year, under our control, the number of enrolled students has not gone down. On the contrary, they are on the rise in all of them. They are now truly accepted as the schools of Turkey. And thanks to the activities of our embassies we are consolidating this trust.
We have as well announced incentive packages towards students. We said for instance that we will make a reduction of 20 percent in tuition fees if the schools are handed over. We made a pay rise for local teachers. We have earned the appreciation of parents thanks to these reductions.
In addition, if FETÖ schools are not closed down, we tell them that the graduates from these schools cannot come to Turkey to study. The students that are graduates of the FoundationSchools can enter the university exams in Turkey and study in Turkish universities without paying any additional fee, just like Turkish citizens. The government also gives scholarships. All these have positively affected the parents’ and students’ views on Turkey.
Q: How is the curriculum in these schools?
A: National education is one of the areas countries are most sensitive on. Some 80 to 90 percent of the curriculum is designed by national ministries. There is a flexibility of 10 to 20 percent for cultural courses. So you can offer Turkish-language courses.
Q: You have said that education is an expensive business. What kind of a financial burden does Turkey have to assume in order to continue quality education in these schools?
A: When you look at countries like France, the U.K., and the Netherlands, you will see that they all have education agencies that give education services abroad. They spend serious amounts of money. Our budget is published in [Turkey’s] Official Gazette. Last year we had a budget of 351 million Turkish Liras — that was equivalent to $90 million.
This year it is around 300 million liras. As a foundation, we are obviously open to donation and there is also income coming from the tuition fees. A school needs three years’ time to have its income cover its costs. That’s the world average.
But in schools we have taken over there were delayed investments, in terms of technology, repair, etc. So we need to spend some capital, but our aim is to come to a point in five years where we will no longer take financial assistance from the state and continue on a sustainable basis.
WHO IS BİROL AKGÜN?
Prof. Dr. Birol Akgün is currently the president of the Turkish MaarifFoundation and head of the department of international relations at Ankara Yıldırım Beyazıt University.
Akgün received his BA in political science at Ankara University. He completed his MA and PhD at the Case Western Reserve University. He was appointed as assistant professor in 2001, associate professor in 2004 and professor in 2009 at Selçuk University in Konya. He continued his career at Ankara Yıldırım Beyazıt University as professor of international relations while also serving as the president of the Institute of Strategic Thinking (SDE).
He has many articles published in International Peer Reviewed Journals and books on international relations.