The View From Here; Teaching at a Turkish university is a huge uplift for the spirit

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The Independent Online
The high plateau of Central Anatolia has been tramped over by armies since the Old Testament, and looks it. In fact Ankara, its centre, was chosen as capital of the Turkish republic in 1923 precisely because it enjoyed a position and a climate that were alike forbidding; the proposal to turn it into the capital came from a German general who found Istanbul and its inhabitants, respectively, enervating and enervated. Ankara would not be Levantine: it would invigorate, and so it does. It was from here that modern Turkey pulled herself up by the bootstraps. Predatory foreigners were thrown out from a country that everyone had written off, and Turkey then underwent one of the world's few successful experiments in modernisation without labour camps. In 1970, her economy was one-third that of Sweden. It is now equal to Sweden's.

I went to Turkey over a year ago on Bosnian business. The more the British blundered around in Bosnia, the more the Turks became angry: a large part of their urban population comes from the Balkans (or the Caucasus) and a conference was held, to which those of us who had denounced British doings were asked. The conference was held at a new university near Ankara, Bilkent (the name means "science park"). I had not known Turkey before, but had immediately responded to the country. One thing led to another, and I have ended up teaching on and off at Bilkent. It has been a huge uplift for the spirit. Teaching in English universities is like swimming in glue, and whenever these ridiculous "appraisal" forms come round, I am tempted to answer the section that wonders what I regard as my main achievement with "surviving".

Turkish universities had suffered from the same problems, only worse, because their causes - baby-booms, inflations and governments that have their cakes and eat them - have a larger scale than further west. At some stage, western Europe will have to allow private universities to flourish. Of these, Bilkent in Ankara is an example that repays study. It is, I fondly think, an Ivy League institution where you can smoke (although I have managed, at long last, to do something about that.)

In the world that has come about with the liberalisation of the Eighties - the world that, after all, made The Independent itself - many things, hitherto unthinkable, come about. At Bilkent, there is a library that spends nearly pounds 2m per annum on books (the purchasing power of about 50 British university libraries, I think). There are students who can spell, and handle teaching in foreign languages. There are dons who can afford not to moonlight, and a serious attempt can be made to reverse the brain- drain from which Turkey suffered, mainly to the United States, in the past. It is possible to concentrate money on building up first-class physics without having to set up a cyclotron in any and every other institution in the land. I have thoroughly enjoyed myself, going back and forth over the past year. The strangest moment occurred quite early on when a lad with a thick accent and the appearance of the Afghan mujaheddin asked me whether it were true that Cyril Connolly's second wife had just died, and could I obtain the obituaries? He also turns out to be a fan of Michael Foot's HG Wells (as am I).

The standards, generally, are remarkably high. I have to talk slightly more slowly than I normally would but, otherwise, there is no problem with teaching in English. The students not only speak it well; they can also spell, rather more accurately, in fact than many English students today. It is also quite interesting that women do disproportionately better than chaps. If I ask why, they say that they just work harder, but I suspect that the real reason is that they do feel mildly oppressed - unlike British women who, as far as I can judge, have had nothing serious to complain about since the Fifties (and how the Oxford whinettes hate me for saying this). The same is true, I think, of Russia.

Bilkent is aiming to become "the Harvard of the Middle East", and since Turkey is full of dynamism, that is an attainable object. How is this done? The answer is, by taking advantage of Eighties liberalisation and the various tides that it set in motion. The Eighties enriched a substantial part of society; that part can afford fees for education, and these make up roughly one-third of Bilkent's income. The Eighties also enriched industrialists, and since Turkish ones are quite patriotic, they responded to the crisis in higher education by establishing their own universities. Bilkent is in effect the holding company of a business which encompasses hotels, banking and paper manufacture, the profits of which go back to the university, making up most of the rest of the budget.

Setting up a private university in western Europe seems to be hideously difficult, and most dons still probably think that it is vaguely immoral to do so. But can anyone really say that Western universities are happier and more productive places than they were in the Fifties, when they were at least semi-private? As Bilkent becomes better known in the areas at which she aims, she may well show the fleshpots of the West what can be done when there is a real will to exploit, rather than just to bemoan, the liberalisation of the Eighties. Ex oriente lux? I wonder, and since I shall be co-operating in the establishment of a Russian and Central European institute there, I hopen

The writer is Professor of Modern History and fellow of Worcester College, Oxford.