Since the start of the pandemic last spring, Turkish universities have moved much of their teaching online. The switch hasn’t been entirely smooth, however, leaving students facing higher costs and technological challenges as they try to keep learning in a time of Covid. 

Fatma Atak, who lives in the south-eastern province of Mardin, has still not even visited the campus of Marmara University in Istanbul, where she is taking English lessons in preparation for an engineering degree. Yet the expenses are stacking up, she said.

Fatma Atak (Credit: Personal Archive)

“I need 5,000 liras for a computer. Neither I nor my family have this money,” said Atak, who currently uses her mobile phone to attend lessons because her family’s shared computer is always in demand. 

“My older brother studies dentistry and he had to save for three months to buy a computer. We are five siblings and two of us are in university, but one of my younger brothers is in primary school so he needs a computer as well,” Atak said, adding that her internet connection was patchy because of frequent power cuts in Mardin. “Fortunately, my teachers are quite understanding.”

Hazal Ayar, who studies journalism at Ege University in Izmir, faced similar issues when she moved back to her family home in Kırklareli, north-western Turkey. 

“I’m a scholarship student of Turkish Education Foundation. The foundation sent me 100 liras for internet and 4,000 liras for a computer. But there are three students in my home and one computer wasn’t enough – though at least we have it for our exams and projects,” she said. 

Despite saving on rent since she moved home, Ayar has also found it hard to make ends meet after losing her job at a café in November 2020. 

“I was fired because of the pandemic,” she said. “The foundation doesn’t allow me to work, so I was working under the table [off the books], and there aren’t too many chances to do that.” 

Ayar said that while the pandemic has enabled some students to enjoy solitude, or to “try new bread recipes” she has not been so lucky.

Some institutions have kept students off-campus during the pandemic, but the private Bilkent University in Ankara made the controversial decision to hold mid-term exams in person. The university shifted its position by the time of the end-of-year exams, holding them online and sending out 11,000 mirrors to students, to ensure honesty. The mirrors are supposed to be positioned on students’ desks in such a way that invigilators, watching via a webcam, can see their workspace to make sure they are not consulting phones or other forbidden sources of information. Students also had to sign a declaration promising not to cheat.

Kübra Taşlıtepe (Credit: Personal Archive)

“When I heard the decision [about the mirrors], I thought it was a joke,” said Kübra Taşlıtepe, who studies physics at Bilkent University. “There’s no need to create such stress and strain for students in these difficult times.” 

Taşlıtepe also found the in-person exams stressful. “The university told us to come to campus. We had to go. At least we weren’t sitting too close together.”

For the online exams, Taslıtepe said that students had to take photographs to prove they were there in person. 

“The invigilator shares his screen, showing a unique photo each time, and we are expected to take a selfie with that image,” she said. “We send these photos to an email address that’s opened separately for each exam, and the exam begins after everyone’s message is approved.”

Andreas Treske (Credit: Personal Archive)

Andreas Treske, a professor in the communication and design department at Bilkent University told Inside Turkey that measures to deter cheating were necessary. 

“Many universities around the world are concerned about the possibility of academic fraud during online exams. Unfortunately, this seems to be big business globally and harms the reputation of the education industry,” he said.

Tezcan Özkan Kutlu (Credit: Personal Archive)

Tezcan Ozkan Kutlu, a lecturer in communication science at Anadolu University in Eskişehir, said that many of her students, who tend to come from middle or lower-middle class backgrounds, have struggled to adapt during the pandemic. 

“My first concern was whether the technological and physical facilities of my students were sufficient for distance education,” she said. “Many of my students try to stand on their own feet without financial support from their families by working part-time.”

Online learning, Kutlu added, “was also a new and unprecedented event for professors and lecturers … [it] is not a process where you can teach by looking in the eyes of the other person, get an idea of whether your students are bored or understanding the subject through their body language. No one should be expecting teachers to turn into Youtubers who create ten to 15 minutes of fun content.”

Kutlu said that in the long term, both students and lecturers could benefit from the experience. “I believe that when the pandemic conditions disappear, it will be beneficial to integrate distance learning into our education processes as a supportive and complementary element to face-to-face education.”

A recent survey by Turkey’s Council of Higher Education (YÖK), which oversees the university sector, found that 27 per cent of students wanted education in the spring 2021 semester to be face-to-face, while 47 preferred it to be online. While 69 per cent of academic staff stated that they spent more time on preparatory work, 43 per cent said that students’ attendance and achievement rates had decreased. 

After the survey results were published in mid-February, YÖK issued guidance that universities could devise their own combination of teaching methods. At least 11 universities introduced hybrid teaching – a mix of face-to-face and online lessons – for practical subjects such as medicine, art and sports science. Since April 29, however, when Turkey went into another lockdown, YÖK has asked universities to suspend face-to-face teaching and postpone relevant exams until at least May 17.