Turkey plans to set up ‘elite universities league’

Turkey plans to set up ‘elite universities league’

One of the biggest recent surprises - which are becoming increasingly frequent from President Tayyip Erdoğan on policy changes – came when he announced on Sept. 26 that a new model would be introduced for Turkey’s much-debated higher education system.

Erdoğan said the Higher Education Board (YÖK) would shift to a new categorization, setting up an elite group of “Research Universities” in order to boost the scientific and technological capacities. He has long complained that only four Turkish universities are ranked in the world’s top 500 universities - despite the government’s efforts to establish at least one university in every province of the country.

YÖK head Yekta Saraç told the Hürriyet Daily News that although public opinion had only just heard about the changes, they have actually been working on this “research university” system for more than a year, after examining various similar systems in Germany, Russia,

Japan and South Korea. Apparently 58 universities applied to be selected as a special Research University, which would give them priority access to a pool of special funds and which would make it easier to employ more qualified academics, Turkish or foreign. Competition would be cultivated between the universities in order to stay in the prestigious top 10 list.

A jury to identify the first Research Universities was formed with representatives from the Science, Industry and Technology Ministry, the Development Ministry, the Scientific and Technological Research Agency of Turkey (TÜBİTAK), the Quality Board, and public and private universities. The jury tested the applications of the 58 universities against 11 criteria, including the number of publications with a Scientific Citation Index, the number of projects completed with international cooperation, and the number of academics with scientific awards and patents. This process decreased the number of applicants to 25 as a first step.

A more detailed test was then applied, which included interviews with the universities’ rectors based on the university’s future planning, research and development strategy, governance, and international references. As a result, 10 universities were selected to be in the new elite category of Research Universities: Ankara University, Istanbul University, Middle East Technical University, Boğaziçi University, Istanbul Technical University, Hacettepe University, İzmir High Technology University, Gebze Technology University, Gazi University and Erciyes University. Five more universities have been designated as substitutes, and there will now be a yearly reevaluation process.

“These are going to be our showcase universities, international-quality universities,” said Saraç. “We understand that assuming the capacity of all universities is the same could bog us down in mediocracy. So we initiated this project based on a success-oriented perspective.”

If this project does indeed prove a long-term commitment, it could end up being a way to save Turkey’s higher education system from spiraling ever further down in quality. Under Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) rule since 2002, too much importance has been placed on the quantity (not quality) of universities in Turkey, and the governance of the university system has been changed every two or three years. As the head of the project, Saraç says he hopes this system will prove long-lasting, for the good of the country.

Still, incentives for science and technology and giving priority to already better universities is only part of the problem of higher education in Turkey. The level of freedom is expression is also a pressing issue in universities, and this remains linked to the troubled overall political atmosphere in the country.

Murat Yetkin, hdn,