State universities v private universities in Turkey

State universities v private universities in Turkey

This year, 2.5 million students have entered university exams. One million are high school students who are entering the exams for the first time; the rest are those trying their chance for the second time: they either failed to pass the exam the first time or are unhappy with the university and the department they qualified to enter.

This week, nearly 900,000 students who passed university exams will start their registrations according to their preferences and the scores they have earned. One of them is an acquaintance of mine who qualified to enter the engineering department of Istanbul Technical University (ITÜ).

İTÜ is Turkey’s oldest and therefore one of the best technical universities. Turkey’s former presidents; the late Süleyman Demirel, Turgut Özal and the country’s last prime minister,Binali Yıldırım; are İTÜ graduates.

As my young friend got a high score that qualified her to enter one of Turkey’s top state universities, she was also offered a scholarship from Koç University, one of Turkey’s first private universities. She was confused and undecided as to which one to choose.

When Turkey’s first private university - Bilkent University - was founded in 1984 in Ankara, it was viewed for at least a decade as the college for the rich kids who had failed university exams.

So when my young friend asked me for advice, my first instinct was to opt for the state university even though I had become familiar in the course of the past decade with Koç University’s high performance. When she and I started to consult those knowledgeable on the issue, almost all of them advised her to go to Koç.

Can we conclude that state universities are lagging behind foundation universities? Can we say that private universities are attracting potentially the best students in Turkey?

An academic who also worked as a rector of a private university for years told me the comparison between state and private universities would amount to comparing apples with oranges.

Currently, there are 206 universities, 126 of which are state universities. “There are some good state universities and bad ones just as there are good foundation universities as bad ones,” he told me.

Private universities still cover a tiny portion of the higher education system. While more than 6.5 million students study in state universities, a little more than half a million students are enrolled with private universities. State universities, especially old ones, have tens of thousands of students in their campuses, while a private university’s campus can consist of only a seven-floor building.

Having said that, some of the private universities have registered tremendous progress especially in the course of the past two decades and become among the top best universities in Turkey. No state university would have accomplished such fast progress in the span of such a short time. And this has happened on an uneven playing field; in other words, foundation universities do not get any support from the state.

What makes a good university is its academic cadre, another academician, who is currently the rector of a private university, told me. Indeed, some of Turkey’s private universities have recruited internationally-renowned scholars. This was the case especially in the first half of the 2000s. There was an exodus from state universities to private ones while the latter were also able to recruit foreign academics. Initially, academicians preferred private universities for economic reasons, but with the improvement in salaries during the premiership of Ahmet Davutoğlu (an academic himself), the academic environment started to become the key criteria.

But ever since the bombings started in 2015, making a peak with the attack on Atatürk airport in 2016, followed by the imprisonment of academics who signed a petition about the conflict in the country’s southeast and finally, the coup attempt; Turkish universities are having a hard time to recruit academics from countries west of Turkey. “Not even Turkish academics working in foreign universities are willing to come. As to foreigners, only the ones from countries east of Turkey apply,” two members of academia told me.

There is no doubt that some of the best state universities no longer enjoy their former reputation while some private universities have caught up with them. Everyone agrees that there is an overall erosion in the quality of the universities: the good private universities do not compensate for this erosion, while the bad private universities further speed up the erosion. So when you take apart the few of the very best ones, which are around a dozen, the rest of the universities produce graduates who keep adding to the army of the unemployed.

There is almost a consensus in society about the need for a better education system. Ironically, each minister for education tries to improve the system while adding to the mess. Yet there is no minister for higher education, and it has been years that this issue has not had a proper debate with all the stakeholders.