Opportunities and Challenges for Turkish Universities

Opportunities and Challenges for Turkish Universities

Turkey has a young population, and parents tend to invest in the education of their children because a university degree is regarded as an important key for social mobility and employability. The growth and dynamism in the Turkish economy and Turkey’s recent regional and global activism raise expectations from higher education institutions even further to address vital economic and political questions, as well as to prepare the country’s youth for the challenges of future.

Since I took over the Presidency of the Higher Education Council of Turkey, which was established thirty years ago following a military intervention, I have been trying to understand its complex mechanisms and operational methods. I can observe that Turkish higher education system faces new opportunities as well as new challenges today. It will be a worthwhile effort for universities, think tanks and civil society institutions to think about these issues and questions to draw a new road map that would strengthen our universities and make them more competitive. 

Emerging opportunity windows

First, let me address the emerging opportunities that the higher education system enjoys here. In recent years, the Turkish higher education system has experienced a remarkable growth. The expansion in the higher education sector through the establishment of new universities, the opening of new programs and the increasing number of incoming students should be recorded as an accomplishment. Since 2002, the government has decided to follow a policy of expansion in higher education that has resulted in new universities and community colleges across the country. As of today, there are 103 state universities and 62 foundation universities in Turkey. It seems that this trend will continue for some time to come, as applications for new foundation universities are also considered by the Council. 

The expansion and growth in the higher education sector enabled thousands of waiting students to have easier access to university education. This is a significant step in the right direction, given the fact that there is a positive correlation between higher education and social mobility, economic development and technological, scientific progress. Moreover, Turkey’s ability to compete with the rest of the word very much depends on its human capital. As the world’s sixteenth and Europe’s sixth biggest economy, Turkey needs a better-educated human capital to consolidate its position. Therefore, universities are expected to play more active role in providing leadership and innovation in the economy, as well as research and development in strategic fields.

Recent growth in the higher education sector also brought about chances for aspiring young researchers and academics to enter the job market. Moreover, establishment of new public and foundation universities led to a diversification and competition for higher education institutions to recruit students and staff both in Turkey and from abroad.

As far as the number of university students is concerned, Turkey has the following picture, which indicated that higher education is large sector worth investing in. There are more than two million university students enrolled at all levels in Turkey, excluding “distance learning” students. Half a million of them are studying at higher vocational schools, while more than a million are registered for four-year degree programmers. We have just over 100 thousand masters students and 40 thousand PhD students. Of these students only nine percent (9.19) are studying at foundation universities, which means that there is still some work to be done to increase the share of these universities. 

With the increase in the number of universities, a new window of opportunity was also opened for academic staff and students. That is the mobility both in Turkey and abroad. The mobility of our academic staff and students is strongly encouraged and supported by the Higher Education Council. These are some of the opportunities in front of our higher education system, which make Turkish universities stronger and more competitive.

Challenges for the Turkish University System

Now, I would like to turn to some questions and challenges that the higher education system faces in Turkey. I will only address three of these challenges due to the limited space I have.

The first challenge is the issue of quality. As I noted earlier, we have witnessed a significant growth in the higher education system. Now, it is time to think carefully about the question of providing innovative education, conducting cutting edge research, and producing first class publications. This is all about the quality of higher education in Turkey. We especially need to make sure that newly established universities in Turkey invest in establishing quality mechanisms, while the older institutions should improve their existing systems. It should be noted here that at this stage that there is a healthy debate going on in Turkey about the quality assurance systems. 

The second challenge is the issue of internationalization. Social, economic and political changes in Turkey have turned our country into a regional power and a global player in recent years. Turkey’s economic relations with neighboring countries and its trade volume with the U.S., EU, and Africa are increasing. In this context, universities are expected to offer students such knowledge and skills that can contribute to Turkey’s global competition. Therefore, Turkey should open its education system to the world. In order to achieve this objective, Turkey needs to send more students and academic staff outside the country, while attracting bright foreign students and researchers to Turkey. In this context, a reverse brain drain should also be encouraged for scholars of Turkish origin to return to Turkey for research and teaching. 

The third and most important issue facing us is reforming the higher education system. As mentioned earlier, the Higher Education Council was established after a military intervention in Turkey. Therefore, it still carries the imprint of that period. Today, there is a consensus across all social sectors and political views that comprehensive higher education reform is needed. Drawing on such a broad consensus, we need to work on a new road map that is based on rational debates rather than ideological positions. Rational debate with the participation of various partners is needed, and such an exercise will bear fruits and stimulate constructive discussions for the future of the Turkish higher education system. 

Professor Gökhan Çetinsaya is the President of the Higher Education Council of Turkey. This is an abridged version of speech delivered at the 12th Annual Conference of the Turkish American Scientists and Scholars Association, Washington D.C.