ENGİN KARAMAN/DOĞA CAN ORUÇOĞLU
President Tayyip Erdogan’s accusation against the youth, who demand that their student-loans be waived, of being ‘freeloader’ has amplified the concerns on student-loans.
Hundreds of thousands of young people running up a debt due to the education loans granted by the Higher Education Student Loans and Dormitories Institution (KYK) couldn’t hear the good news they expected. Furthermore, they faced with the accusation of being ‘freeloader’.
Millions of students from low-income backgrounds in Turkey watched the news with deep concern while President Erdogan talking about the educational policy of the government, as the president accused scholarship demanding students of being ‘freeloaders.’
Turkey’s president addressed the youth on the educational expenses, stressing it is better to borrow student-loan rather than receiving a grant: “The loan is better than scholarship because it prevents you to get into the habit of freeloading. This is what we expect from our youth.”
There are more than 7 and a half million students enrolled in higher education who are affected by the government’s decisions changing too often. However, the most of the students were probably aware of that Erdogan’s bitter words have almost the force of law which will probably affect them directly when they try to get a scholarship at any level of studies.
Many students took the plunge and tweeted in response to Erdogan’s statements, insisting debt-free living has become impossible for any ordinary student who has no financial support from their family. One replied Erdogan by hinting his pre-electoral populism when his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) distributed tons of free supplies such as food, coal for heating or cash assistance to the poor: “He does not want us to get into habit of freeloading because we don’t vote for him even if he lavishes us gifts.”
Students tell: I see no freeloaders around me
“I don’t know how to pay my debts to the state, I am just waiting for my father to get rich in near future”, mockingly says Elif, 24, who is among those trying to repay student-loan for years.
She came to Istanbul six years ago from the southern province of Mersin for university education, graduated from a technical university and looking for a job as an engineer since then. As her hopes for finding a stable job diminished over time, she has recently begun earning her life with temporary works in the service industry.
“I had no choice apart from becoming indebted to the state. They offer freshmen student-loans to support the cost of living without providing free education. The students accept regardless of high interests when they were 18, considering their family’s financial situation,” she says. “I would prefer a state which provides me with free education rather than a state lending out at interest, but I didn’t have a choice then.”
The discourse they hear from authorities is offending Elif says. “I see nobody around me who can be called as a freeloader. Nobody! I know some freeloaders in our country but they don’t need to get loans to study,” she added in response to Erdogan’s accusations against students.
The number of students who can’t pay their loans increases
Replying to a parliamentary question on Nov. 5., Minister of Youth stated that 279,897 individuals fell into arrears because of the student loans. The same number was 239,097 in the previous year.
There are many performed students
Many students are being sued for outstanding debts, an indication of how complicated the problem is and what consequences it may lead to for students. Utku Can, 20, was sued last year for the first time in his life because of failing to repay the student loan. Commenting on Erdogan’s remarks, Can says “I think Erdogan’s statement is completely unjust. He is not giving us financial support just for the sake of love. We give the money back with interest, almost twofold of what we borrow.”
High-interest rates have been the main trouble students face. “We needed that loan. There was no other option. But the amount we received monthly was never enough to maintain a standard of living”, say Nilgün and Anıl, both 27. They owe the state at least 40,000 TL (£ 5671) in total, equal to 25 times of the minimum wage in Turkey. It looks like the amount will keep increasing with the interest until authorities realize that Nilgün and Anıl, basically, cannot pay.
“I felt very bad when I read Erdogan’s speech. I am a citizen of this country and there is an article in its constitution saying that we are ruled by a welfare state. This shouldn’t be interpreted like getting used to easy living. We are talking about the basic needs which a state must be able to provide”, Nilgün adds in response to Turkey’s president’s statements.
Indebtedness is on the rise
Nowhere has the issue been more prominent than in Istanbul, where the rent prices are higher than other cities. The high cost of living in Istanbul becomes harder to handle for Turkish youth, partly because of the economic downswing after the severe drop in the Turkish Lira in August.
Turkey’s national debt ratios hit a new record high in recent years as an indication of the economic recession. A report of the Bank Association of Turkey (BAT) focusing on the banking data indicates that non-performing consumer debt in total reached 72.5 billion Turkish Liras (€ 11bn). Moreover, reports show that 849 thousand individuals have been taken in legal proceedings due to their unpaid debts and there is another 2 million expected to share the same faith.
The opponents of current administration lay great stress on the contrast between the living conditions of an ordinary citizen and those benefiting from the economic opportunities of political power. When they are blamed for being a freeloader, also students complainingly compare their economic conditions with Erdogan’s and his children’s high life which constantly remains in the public eye.
“They lead a super luxurious life while Turkish economy is having hard times and many families live on the breadline,” says 27 years-old Ozgur reacting angrily to Erdogan’s rhetoric. “I did not get the student-loan in order to live large but for my basic needs which should have been provided me by the state in fact.”
‘The government doesn’t fulfill our basic needs’
What they think in common is lack of government interest in fulfilling their social and economic needs, at least struggling unemployment by appropriate ways or providing them with opportunities which may help them find a job.
In its bulletin, Turkish Statistical Institution (TURKSTAT) recorded the highest urban youth unemployment rate in decades hitting 20.8%.
Finding Erdogan’s remarks unacceptable and stating that the government doesn’t fulfill its responsibilities towards the youth, Ozgur received 10 thousand Turkish Liras and now has to pay 17 thousand: “I don’t feel uncomfortable now as I normally feel when I owe to a friend of mine, because our basic needs are not fulfilled.”
While public opinion experts agree that Erdogan’s greatest electoral weakness is among young educated voters, here in Istanbul and in other industrialised regions, the president enjoys an economic realist image among ordinary voters who say he is fighting to preserve economic sustainability threatened by the demands leftists put forward.
“We prevent it from becoming a political tool for marginal organizations by cancelling tuition fees,” Erdoğan said in the same speech referring to the massive demonstrations for free education in the past.
Tuition fees in the state universities have been removed in 2012, after a long-termed struggle of student organizations. A much tougher challenge began for the students afterwards, due to the government’s propaganda asserting that it granted free education, despite it was not the case.
Economists criticize: It’s doomed to fail as in the US
On the other hand, Erdogan’s and his government’s policy which urges people to loan more come in for serious criticisms of economists and political strategists.
Dr Sabri Öncü, a financial economist who worked in US financial markets for many years, reacted to Erdogan’s statement on scholarship, recalling the same policy has failed in the US. “I would be glad if anyone tells this to Mr Erdogan. Why should we try a social experiment despite,” Oncu wrote while sharing an article pointing out that student-loan programs are failed social experiments.
‘The indebted students are more obedient’
Political consequences of forcing masses to get into more debt are worthy of notice as well, according to Economics Professor Izzettin Onder. Speaking to Diken, Onder said, “The students who borrow student-loans are coerced into a commitment to the system in a very unique way. In order to repay their debts to the state, they are forced to keep their head down. The only way for them is not going against the establishment when they feel an obligation to discharge a life-long debt.”
The Turkish economy has always been in debt but in the last 15 years, it was also very promising for foreign investors with its high rates of growth and effective government committed to reforms proposed by the EU. Last summer it all changed with an unseen currency slide. Turkish inflation rate jumps above 25% on lira weakness afterwards.
“It always gives me a real scare when something changes dramatically all of a sudden”, says Elif, recalling the news about the recent recession of the Turkish economy. “We know the history. It is like everything changing for the worse for now.” Erdogan’s words for the scholarship demanding students was the last move to depress the youth having economic difficulties.