METU Cyprus students protest. Future of the campus at a crossroads

NEDA reporter

METU (ODTÜ ın Turkısh) ıs one of the oldest Turkısh state unıversıtıes. In 2003 it established a campus in the Omorfo/Kapouti area of Cyprus, which is home to approximately 4,000 students. Around 500 workers are employed there either full time, part time or through private service contracts. Many local businesses in the area rely heavily on footfall from the university. The students are mostly fee paying, although some receive full or partial bursaries from the Turkish state. The Cyprus campus is also very international, in that it attracts not just Turkish and Cypriot students. There are several hundred students from around the middle east and north Africa, who pay between $6.000 and $9,450 annually in course fees. 

Students at Middle East Technical University’s Cyprus campus staged a large and energetic protest, attended by at least half the student population and some staff members, on Wednesday evening, May 31st. METU recently announced that they were increasing dormitory fees for the coming 2022/23 academic year by around 85%. However, that was not nearly as shocking as the fact that students were asked to pay next year’s fees immediately, before the end of the current term! Students shouted slogans such as “We can’t pay!”, “We are students, not customers!”, and “METU, get your hand out of my pocket!”.

Staff at the university immediately began wondering whether this outlandish demand was because METU would struggle to pay their wages over the summer months, and in a meeting between the president and co-ordinators, he confirmed that there was a possibility that the university would not be able to pay staff in July. 

Students and staff are already struggling to make ends meet 

The cost of living in northern Cyprus has become unmanageable for students and their families, with most feeling the pressure of hyper-inflation. Although the official government figure is much lower, the real annual inflation is now somewhere between 150 and 200 percent. Meanwhile, petrol prices have almost quadrupled in less than a year, driving up transportation costs for both students living off campus and staff commuting from larger towns. Some students say they are now struggling to pay for basic food and necessities due to extraordinary hikes in food prices. 

Speakers at the student protest also spoke of a dramatic reduction in the quality of education and services at METU and criticised the university’s constant penny-pinching, leading them to question what exactly the fee increases will pay for. Even though temperatures on the island reached sweltering temperatures near the beginning of May, the university hadn’t yet turned on the air-conditioning system in the dorms until last week, after a wave of complaints. Some academic buildings are still without air-conditioning with some students refusing to attend those classes. Issues such as free water being removed from the cafeteria, the removal of funding for sports clubs and societies, as well as the inexplicable dismissal of several of the university’s most qualified and experienced academics has led students to wonder why they should continue their education at METU at all. METU has the highest ranking of any university in Turkey. Indeed, this is a fact students and staff are constantly reminded of, as if they are somehow lucky to be METU students. In that context, it is extraordinary that a university with such a reputation and glowing history, should be in a situation where the future of its Cyprus campus is uncertain and its management have been exposed as not just completely incompetent, but so arrogant that they are willing to force students and staff to pay for their own reckless mistakes.

Management to blame 

It has been known for several years that the university is struggling financially. Additionally, the global economic crisis following the pandemic and war in Ukraine has driven up electricity and fuel prices, dramatically increasing the university’s expenditure. However, METU enjoys unique status in Cyprus in that it not only receives funding in the form of student fees, but additional funding annually from the Turkish state. Although this state funding has fallen significantly in recent years, many have questioned how wisely the money has been spent. 

Several years ago, the university embarked upon a large-scale construction project to build the luxurious KALTEV (Kalkanli Technology Valley) building. The goal was for this building to be used by the private sector for research and development projects and for entrepreneurs and small businesses to rent office spaces within the building. However, the project has been a complete catastrophe and an enormous drain on the university’s resources, with the building remaining largely unutilised. Only one KALTEV project is currently ongoing but is soon to come to a close. 

In the last year, the construction company that built KALTEV began legal proceedings against METU and the university was forced to use much of its operational budget to pay off this debt, leaving little for the maintenance and day-to-day running of the campus. Funding for research has grinded to a halt. There has been minimal investment in the campus’s aging IT infrastructure with many staff being forced to purchase their own laptops in place of out-of-date and unusable office computers. Many buildings are in a visible state of disrepair, with broken lights, fixtures, and fittings commonplace throughout the campus. When the management is questioned on these issues, no clear answers are ever forthcoming. The university only publishes vague financial reports which contain very little in terms of a detailed breakdown of expenditure. Additionally, METU management has refused to open meaningful lines of communication with front line workers and has both threatened and fired senior union members in an attempt to silence their critics. 

“If you don’t like it, you can leave”

Wednesday was not the first time in recent years that METU students protested on campus. In the year before the pandemic began, students marched to the rectorate building chanting “Don’t touch my teacher” after three long serving academics were dismissed from their posts when the university’s management introduced a mandatory retirement age of 65. Make no mistake, the real reason for the introduction of this rule was to allow management to remove some of its biggest critics. 

This agenda has continued with the recent firing of both the KAMPUS-SEN union secretary and president. In the case of the union’s president, an entirely arbitrary performance evaluation was used to terminate her contract without prior warning or right to appeal. Meanwhile, other staff members in similar roles didn’t receive performance evaluations at all. METU has also dismissed its professor of fine arts, most likely with a view to closing the department, even though it is one of the most popular elective modules for many students since the campus was established. METU’s campus is decorated with many art works produced by its students in the fine arts department, but this could become a thing of the past. 

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the long list of internal scandals and examples where management at METU have treated its staff with absolute contempt. Some staff members with families living on campus have bemoaned the fact that their homes are crumbling and in desperate need of repair, but the university has refused to invest in maintenance or upkeep of staff lodgings built 12-16 years ago. Several large lodgings have remained empty while staff with growing families have waited years to move into larger more suitable accommodation. Instead, they must remain in smaller 2+1 apartments, some with issues of rising damp and leaky roofs in the winter and no air conditioning in the summer. When one professor asked for campus technical services to repair her home’s air-conditioning, she was told that it would not be repaired and “If you don’t like it, you can leave”.  

A race to the bottom 

Wages and conditions for staff at METU had in the past been very reasonable in comparison to the rest of north Cyprus. However, recent salary increases have come nowhere near matching the rate of inflation and spiraling cost of living. Staff received a 35% pay rise at the beginning of February, but those at the lower end of the pay scale, particularly instructors and lower-level administrators, are finding it difficult to make ends meet. Cypriot nationals working at METU are worst affected as many of them commute long distances and could be losing up to quarter of their wages or more on fuel costs. Across north Cyprus, it is now a race to the bottom for low paid  workers with the majority earning either exactly or not much more than the minimum wage of just of 350 euro per month, less than half of what is typically paid to the lowest earners in the south. Yet food prices are now much the same, and in some cases, even more expensive in the north. 

Student numbers are now in decline and more departments are set to be closed, with some humanities courses and the economics department set to be shut down next year. There are also rumours that chemical engineering is being considered for closure. This will result in more redundancies for staff, some of whom have served at METU since its inception more than sixteen years ago. The university is experiencing high labour turnover and it is becoming more and more difficult to recruit qualified staff, not just in academia but also in some of its administrative departments. Nepotism has become commonplace. In some cases, staff with poor disciplinary records have been given senior administrative duties they are entirely unqualified for, simply because they have cosy relationships with a particular golden circle within senior management. Its vice president somehow escaped disciplinary action despite being guilty of blatant plagiarism and he is believed to have been responsible for the decision to remove a number of texts from the campus library, written by supposed followers of Fethullah Gulen. What credibility can a university have when it engages in virtual book-burning? 

Student-staff solidarity essential. Actions, not words, are needed

In recent years, the students at METU have staged two large demonstrations and organized actions such as canteen boycotts. The activities of the KAMPUS-SEN labour union however have paled in comparison to those of the very vocal and angry students. Instead, up to now, the labour union has resorted to desperate and futile letter writing and petitions, all of which have been ignored by management. At no point has the union followed up on its letter writing with further action. This is clearly not a proportionate response to unjustified and illegal firings, not to mention the mobbing and intimidatory tactics staff have had to endure. There have also been attempts by some, even within the union, to drive a wedge between staff and students, claiming that staff should not take any action that may disrupt education. However, METU staff cannot be held to ransom and obediently continue to arrive to work every day while they have no job security, their working conditions are being attacked and their colleague’s lives, and careers are being destroyed. 

Civil disobedience and actions which cause disruption to the running of the university, up to and including threats to withdraw labour will be the only way forward.  Both staff and students must organize and come together to demand the resignation of the METU NCC president and vice president and for their positions to be filled democratically, chosen by METU Cyprus staff, rather than ‘yes men’ being politically appointed by the Turkish state. Management must be held accountable for their lack of foresight regarding the failed KALTEV project and questions answered over the legality of how it was funded. METU must fully disclose its spending, particularly in relation to KALTEV. The KALTEV board should be dismissed, and the building should be put to an alternative more sustainable use. Private contracts awarded for the running of campus facilities, cafes, shops and dorms should be ended and instead taken under control of the university, so that all student money is reinvested into the campus, instead of taken off it for profit. 

METU’s Ankara campus has a long revolutionary history and a tradition of being one of the most leftist universities in the middle east. Its staff and students have often been unafraid to organize political protests and come out in opposition to wrongdoings. It’s time for METU Cyprus staff and students to follow this tradition. 

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