Worlds of Education

#OffTrack #3: Government Violation of Trade Union Rights and Educators’ Academic Freedom in Turkey

published 14 July 2019 updated 18 July 2019

Today, at the United Nations High-Level Political Forum (HLFP), Turkey will be presenting a Voluntary National Review (VNR) of its progress towards achieving the SDGs.

However, this review is unlikely to critically assess the government’s numerous policies that actively undermine progress towards the SDGs.

This blog illustrates how, at this very moment, the trade union rights of education unions in Turkey are being violated, education has become politicised, and higher education personnel not only do not have academic freedom but are being imprisoned for speaking out against the government. It explains how education unions are fighting to defend their rights – without respecting the basic rights of educators, SDG 4 will never be a reality.


In Turkey, violations of human and trade union rights have intensified following the adoption of the SDGs. Teachers and academics lack academic freedom, as those who oppose the government’s policies and aims for the education system are targeted and punished.

Attacking the academic freedom and professional autonomy of teachers through spreading fear: mass teacher dismissals and imprisonment of academics

In July 2016, a state of emergency was declared after an attempted coup. The Turkish government began to target and persecute any citizens who appeared to be critical of the Erdoğan administration. According to Stevenson and Bascia,  “Thousand of teachers and academics were dismissed and suspended (…) the coup has clearly been used as an opportunity to also attack those with a history of supporting oppositional political opinions, including many teachers and university academics. All of this has created a climate of mistrust and fear amongst teachers in Turkey”.

In July 2018, the state of emergency was lifted, but an anti-terrorism law was introduced, which meant that the “witch hunt”, as many deemed it, could continue. Since 2016, approximately 140,000 public servants have been dismissed. There is now an Inquiry Commission in place to deal with appeals against unfair dismissals. Over 125,000 people made appeals, but 93.24% of the appeals were rejected.  As of April 2019, only 37 teachers had gotten their jobs back.

In 2016, six months before the attempted coup, 1,128 academics published a declaration stating “We will not be party to this crime”  on behalf of the Academics for Peace Initiative (the petition has now reached 2,212 signatures). It calls on the Turkish government to end state violence and demands immediate peace in the southeast of the country. Lawsuits were filed against all 1,128 academics for “propagandising for a terrorist organisation”. Many are still embroiled in court cases, whilst all those who have already stood trial were sentenced to prison sentences ranging from 15 months to over three years.

Violation of trade union rights

In Turkey, far from meeting their SDG obligations, the government has violated ILO Conventions 87 (Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise) and 98 (Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining). As a result, Eğitim Sen, the Education and Science Workers’ Union, submitted a report to the ILO in 2018, outlining the violations and instances of anti-union discrimination. Numerous individuals, being members of the union, were dismissed from their school positions (since 2016, over 10,000 Eğitim Sen members have been suspended, and 1,628 members of Eğitim Sen have been dismissed without explanation or the possibility of a fair appeal), relocated to remote areas or prevented from engaging in trade union activities. Most school principals who are members of Eğitim Sen have been dismissed, teachers who are members of pro-government trade unions are favoured for promotions, and most union activities have been banned or prevented by authorities.

Velat Kaya, General Secretary of Eğitim Sen, has been subject to a travel ban after being arrested in May 2019. The ban prevented him from attending the International Labour Conference in Geneva, where Turkey’s (lack of) implementation of ILO Convention 87 was to be discussed at the Committee on the Application of Standards.

The Government’s Teacher Strategy 2017–2030: promoting precarious teacher employment

This strategy  is a roadmap for reforms in the education sector until 2030, and as such it should demonstrate how Turkey’s teacher policy is going to support the achievement of SDG 4. On the surface, the strategy appears to support teacher professionalism. The three key objectives of the strategy include highly qualified and well-trained teachers, high-quality teacher CPD, and a high-status teaching profession. The Minister of Education’s foreword emphasises that teachers are critical actors in any education reforms, and he even notes that “if reform attempts are not interiorised and adopted by teachers and reflected in the classroom, they become unsuccessful”.

However, a closer look at the strategy reveals policy proposals that not only detract from teacher professionalism but also threaten students’ right to quality education. The government would like to update and strengthen the “contract teacher” model that was introduced in 2016 following Law 652. The contract model, combined with oral examinations for recruitment and regular performance audits, mean that teachers are employed under precarious conditions and risk being dismissed if they do not comply with the political leanings of the government. According to Eğitim Sen, “teachers are expected to demonstrate loyalty and obedience to political power… being forced to work by using insecure employment as a threat means, in effect, being forced to act for the benefit of the political power, not for our students”.  Eğitim Sen is strongly resisting the passing of a new law to implement the strategy. The union is organising gatherings, centrally and in four regions of the country, to protest the law.

Increasing politicisation and privatisation of the education system

According to Özgür Bozdogan, Secretary for Education and Higher Education of Eğitim Sen,  the government’s education reform project is based on two interlinking pillars: Islamicisation and privatisation. These pillars constitute obstacles to many aspects of the SDG 4 agenda: free education, quality ECE, primary, secondary, TVET and higher education, and teaching of Education for Sustainable Development and gender equality in education.

With regard to the first pillar, by publicising their vision for Turkey’s schools to be modernised, the Ministry of Education are introducing system and curricular changes that focus on increasing the influence of religion in schools. The spread of Islamic “Sibyan” early childhood education institutions is understood to be damaging the quality of ECE provision as a result of the use of traditional pedagogies based in direct instruction. Recent curricular reforms have limited the teaching of science and humanities whilst expanding the teaching of religious studies. In Year 9, five courses (chemistry, physics, biology, philosophy and geography) have been integrated into one course (“Basic Science”), and the number of hours spent on the subjects has been reduced from ten hours to one. According to teacher representatives, the Islamicisation of the education system also hinders the achievement of educational gender equality for SDG 4.5.

The erosion of the public education system comes hand in hand with increasing education privatisation. Just as parents who disagree with the government’s political interference in education choose to send their children to private education institutions, the government is supporting the conversion of dershanes (private tuition centres) into fully private schools.

Eğitim Sen’s view is that the government want to ensure that teacher profiles are in harmony with these pillars. By creating a climate of fear within the teaching profession, the government is moulding teachers into public servants whose teaching is controlled by government rather than professionals who are committed to the needs of their students.


This case study demonstrates the importance of peering beyond the veil of government rhetoric. Too often, governments use language of participation, inclusion and professionalism in relation to teachers and the SDGs whilst simultaneously introducing policies and taking actions that limit freedom of expression, attack teacher professional autonomy and attack fundamental trade union freedoms in contravention of international law. If SDG 4 is to be achieved, international labour conventions must be respected, and governments must take seriously the agreed strategies for implementation outlined in the Education 2030 Framework for Action. “Official” government statistics that countries provide to monitor SDG commitments are far from sufficient to monitor the reality on the ground.

Above all, the Turkish case shows the difficulty of achieving the full scope of the 2030 Agenda in countries in which the political standpoint of the government clashes with the transformative vision of the SDG agenda. In Turkey, there is some hope for change, as the 2018 local elections (which had a turnout of over 50%) showed that AKP’s hold on urban areas is weakening. However, as long as there is still repression of trade union rights, teachers’ freedom of expression and the teaching of science and sustainable development, SDG 4 will remain a far-off dream. Urgent change is vital.

In 2015, governments committed to achieve inclusive, equitable, quality education for all by 2030 (Sustainable Development Goal 4, SDG 4). Four years later, the world is severely off track to achieve the goal. This mini blog series illustrates some of the many obstacles to the achievement of SDG 4, from the point of view of teachers and education support personnel.

Download “Off Track: Educators Assess Progress Towards SDG 4” here and the summary in FRENCH, ENGLISH and SPANISH.

This blog article was produced thanks to the contribution of Özgür Bozdoğan (Eğitim Sen, Turkey).

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.