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North’s education sector riddled with corruption

feature esra three officials from the cyprus health and social sciences university in the north were arrested last week for fake students registrations and diplomas
Three officials from the Cyprus Health and Social Sciences University in the north were arrested last week for fake students registrations and diplomas.

University after university accused of issuing fake degrees, misconduct and embezzlement

 A new fake diplomas and fraud scandal at a university in the northern part of Cyprus has reignited the debate on widespread corruption in the Turkish Cypriot higher education sector.

Three officials of Kibris Saglik ve Toplum Bilimleri Universitesi KSTU (Cyprus Health and Social Sciences University) and a senior civil servant were arrested last week after the owners of the university went to police following an internal audit that revealed embezzlement and fraud through fake student registrations and fake diplomas. The university is owned by Turkish citizen Levent Uysal, who is a member of parliament in the Turkish Grand National Assembly from the National Movement Party MHP.

The university’s secretary-general and director Serdal Gunduz, vice-rector and lecturer Serdal Isiktas, and the head of the international students office Amir Shakira are being charged with larceny, forgery of documents and circulation of forged documents. Celebi Ilik, the recently resigned head of the Turkish Cypriot registrar of cooperative companies and former undersecretary of the ministry responsible for labour and social security, has a fake graduate and a post-graduate diploma from the university. He has been charged with forgery of documents, circulation of forged documents and eliciting funds through fraud. Ilik presented his fake diplomas to get promotions and pay rise in civil service. He resigned from his position on Thursday.

Ilik and Isiktas were released on bail while Gunduz and Shakira remained under arrest.

KSTU, in an official statement following the arrests, said the fake diplomas are just the tip of a huge iceberg of misconduct, embezzlement, fraud and forgery at the university involving tens of millions of dollars. “The university will support the police investigation until all the crimes have been established,” the statement said.

On the other hand, Turkish daily Birgun alleged on Thursday that the university’s owner Uysal himself attempted to get a €45 million loan from Swiss IntaCapital bank with fake documents in 2022 but escaped judicial proceedings when he got elected to parliament in May 2023.

In a related development over the past week, a document revealed by the former Turkish Cypriot chief negotiator and head of People’s Party HP Kudret Ozersay allegedly showed that another university, Dunya Baris Universitesi (World Peace University) owned by Altinbas Holding is operating illegally. The document written by the north’s chief public prosecutor’s office stated that as a result of the university’s lack of permission to operate, all diplomas obtained by students at the university would be deemed invalid and unrecognised. The Holding’s executive Vakkas Altinbas, along with members of his family and associates, are separately being investigated over irregularities concerning a real estate purchase in Kyrenia.

Higher education sector

The higher education sector in the north, which is one of the main engines of the Turkish Cypriot economy, has grown exponentially in the last two decades as the focus has been on opening as many universities and enrolling as many students as possible. There are 23 universities some of which are owned by big Turkish businessmen who, in some cases, also own casinos, that host almost 110,000 students on paper. Close to half of the students are from countries in the Arabian peninsula, Africa, Middle East and Far East.

The aim of making profits rather than offering education, paired with the ease with which student visas are issued, the inadequate legal framework and the general lack of controls have created a sector rife with corruption.

In October, rector Oytun Sozudogru and student affairs staffer Zihni Ozturk of Ada Kent Universitesi (University of City Island), were arrested for stealing tuition fees worth more than 12 million TL (about €363 thousand). They pleaded guilty. The university is owned by Talip Emiroglu, known to be a close friend of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“The unsupervised higher education sector handed over to bosses…is faced with crisis after crisis,” said Burak Mavis, secretary general of the Cyprus Turkish Teachers Trade Union KTOS. “The problem is the mentality that sees education as a commodity and and the students as clients.”

Human trafficking and smuggling

Corruption is not the only problem. Easy student visas and lack of controls over whether enrolled students are indeed going to school have turned universities into a backdoor to enter the county. Many of these universities are being accused of being a vehicle for human trafficking and smuggling.

According to figures from the education ministry, at least 20 per cent of the enrolled students are “passive”, meaning they have entered the country on a student visa, but are not attending any classes. Many of them are believed to be in the hands of human traffickers and human smugglers.

According to the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report in 2023, in many cases, agents working with universities falsely promise students low tuition fees, accommodation and access to good jobs in an EU member state. Once in the north, they end up being exploited as cheap labour, or forced into prostitution or drug trafficking.

Human smugglers exploit the ungoverned higher education sector to offer young people a path to the Republic of Cyprus and therefore Europe through the island’s green line. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) communications officer Emilia Strovolidou recently told the Sunday Mail that for years the vast majority of the asylum seekers in the Republic of Cyprus were arriving via the north. She explained that as of 2020, increased numbers of refugees and migrants from Africa and Asia arrive by air in the north on student visas. In recent months, however, the Cyprus interior ministry said that arrivals via the green line have fallen sharply.

Turkish Cypriot police often hold up foreigners on student visas as they attempt to illegally cross the green line. The two Cameroonian suspects of a horrific murder of the 32-year-old Turkish Cypriot Ayca Alav two months ago were also in the north as students and fled to the Republic of Cyprus shortly after the murder.

Yodak

The higher education watchdog Yodak (Higher Education Planning, Audit, Accrediation, Coordination Board) in the north is the entity responsible for determining the minimum conditions, supervising the quality of education of higher education institutions and taking necessary measures in case of noncompliance. However, Yodak’s chairman Turgay Avci himself is under investigation on allegations that his diploma is fake. During the latest hearing in December, Avci failed to present his diploma in court.

“Does it not bother you to be living in such shoddiness; such a country of corruption, fraud, conspriacy, robbery and fiascos?” journalist Ali Baturay exclaimed in his column in bagimsiz.com as he commented on the developments. “Aren’t you uncomfortable in this unrecognised statelet so rife with decay and depravation?”

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