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What is More Valuable For the Administration of Foundation Universities?* Three Stories

Mert Batur

In Turkey, the privatization of higher education has been heavily debated, as it is a part of the wider trend of privatization in the field of education. There are 77 foundation universities in Turkey. Aside from the most established public universities, many of these foundation universities  appeal to students both with the opportunities they provide and with their strong academic staff. Even less well off families want to send their children to these universities, often by borrowing money. 

But there is something these flashy campuses cannot hide. Isn’t it really strange that especially the most well-known foundation universities bear the surname of their owners?

Brand value” is one of the corporate indicators of multinational companies. It is different from the (concept of) “value” as we know it. The “value” here comes into existence as a veil that hides what is happening, independent of the story that created it. Thus, the “brand value” becomes a feature that must be protected under all conditions and has the possibility of economic instability when it is not protected. In other words, it is not important to be valuable, but to protect the brand value: The defeat of the content against the form, the invisibility of the act against the word. We can objectively define “brand value” as: The present value of all future financial inputs that a brand owner can obtain from the use of a brand.” So, do foundation universities that are legally prohibited from making profits also have brand value and how is the brand value protected? 

Owner’s Last Name Versus the Name of the University

The most well-known foundation universities bear their founders’ surname, but this has its consequences. The name of the university where students continue their education while being a member of their university has become the brand value of an investor who possibly has  investments in other fields. In that case, a student’s statements about the university becomes associated with the investor’s surname. 

Let’s clarify it with an example. Let’s name the university as “Özkardeşler” to anonymize it. Students came together at Özkardeşler University. This organization was both a network of solidarity for issues in areas such as dormitories, cafeterias, transportation, and a protest network that represents students against the Rectorate for the solution of these problems. Naturally, what these students share is that they are the Özkardeşler University students. The name of the organization was the Özkardeşler Committee and it bore the same name on social media accounts. However, the university administration and the board of trustees had the relevant social media account closed by a lawyer working at the university, arguing that this name cannot be used on the grounds that it infringes the brand value. The students, of course, insisted on keeping the name of the organization and defended the public interest by emphasizing public rights against this “very private” right. They continue to study with the same name. 

To Stand Or Not To Stand In Front Of The University Logo

“Brand” is not just a name. Any attribute that can help distinguish a good or service from others is included in the brand. Among them, the first thing that comes to mind after the name is of course the logo. This logo can also be protected by the brand owner, according to commercial law. But will the logo of a foundation university be similarly protected and more importantly will it be protected against the students as well? 

Let’s change the name of the university where this incident took place  as “Uskumru University“. Uskumru University students organized on the grounds that the university did not provide sufficient opportunities for the students. The students were promised internships at the relevant departments of the university when they graduate, but found that graduates can not be appointed as the law does not allow it. So they tried to get their voices heard and shot a video at the university. The video recounts the youth unemployment, the unkept promises of the university, problems of the graduates and a solidarity call was made to the public. 

But since this video was shot at the university, the university logo was also visible behind the students. What could be more natural than that? Is it a crime to shoot a video in a place considered as a public space where students naturally come together frequently? After the video was posted, the university administration warned the students one by one on the grounds that they had violated brand rights due to the appearance of the logo. Eventually the video was removed and the students’ right to assembly was violated.

Converting brand value into student strength

State or foundation universities are public spaces, and this is in favor of students in terms of the use of freedom of expression, assembly and association. In our third example, we see how students use brand value to their own favor  in an investigation against students for exercising their right to freedom of expression on campus. 

The scholarships of three students who participated in a protest at the university were cut as a result of a disciplinary investigation. Students, on the other hand, set up a website. They said “Students who are about to select their prospective university, do not come here” and announced the name of the relevant university on this site. On the site, they gave information on the cases of violations of rights at the university. When the website views ran close to 100,000 in one night, the university administration refunded the scholarships of the students.

“This is Not A Company And We Are Not Customers; This is A University, We Are Students!” 

Foundation university students have been chanting this slogan during their protests for years. If the brand value that university owners want to protect does not make the students valuable and creates an obstacle to exercising their rights; students have to protect what is indeed valuable. 

However, there is another interesting issue raised by our friends from foundation universities on the subject. Kamil, a foundation university student explains as follows:  “The brand value is sometimes useful for us when we organize protests at the university. In order to avoid bad coverage in the press, they (university administration) often quickly resolve situations that violate the students’ rights. As most foundation universities are new, students worry that if their university is defamed, their diplomas would be devalued and they fear denigrating the university. Regardless of its name, this is our university. We do not denigrate it. But why should we not speak up? If there is a bad situation, even if it is to protect the brand value, we will not fix it, the university administration will. If they cannot manage, let them summon us, let us make the decisions. “

In fact, would universities be more public, freer, more egalitarian in a university model where students participated in management? These questions are not relevant for foundation universities for now. But as students continue to raise their voices everywhere, there is hope.

*Foundation universities are private universities owned by foundations with high fees and tuition. Students can get scholarships but the cost of lunches, dorms and similar amenities can still be quite high as these academic environments are structured around profit.

**Illustration from https://www.leemikyung.com/