The Internationalization of Higher Education in Turkey

September 20, 2016

Turkey has taken critical steps in recent years to strengthen the internationalization of its higher education system. The enrollment ratio in Turkish higher education has also increased, and, at present, Turkish higher education experiences the internationalization phase.

The internationalization of higher education constitutes one of the essential components that countries pursue for their higher education systems. Higher education institutions are compelled to put effort into the international arena in accordance with their own priorities, due to financial factors and others, such as increasing the quality of the education they offer, having more international students and faculty members and higher international rankings, increasing the research quality, and increasing their international recognition. Therefore, higher education institutions focus more on internationalization every day.

International students and faculty members positively affect education and research capacity and the quality of higher education institutions with which they are affiliated. In addition, higher education institutions can have multinational and multicultural campuses owing to the international students and faculty members they host. According to UNESCO’s 2013 data, there are a total of 4 million international students around the world. The countries that have the largest numbers of international students also entertain the largest economic income due to the international higher education they offer. International students and faculty members also offer significant opportunities in terms of public diplomacy and soft power.

The enormous growth, or better, the delayed massification in the Turkish higher education institutions after 2006 has facilitated access to and increased supply in higher education. Today, the number of higher education students in Turkey nears 7 million. In conjunction with the growth in higher education, economic development, and international recognition of Turkey, we have seen a remarkable increase in the number of international students and faculty members in the country. The Bologna Process, in particular, with its student and faculty exchange programs, has made significant contributions to the internationalization experiences of our higher education institutions. In this regard, Turkish higher education institutions have spent tremendous efforts; and state universities, in particular, have engaged in competition with each other.The Board of Higher Education (YÖK) has taken critical steps to transform Turkey into a center of attraction for higher education. YÖK has been pursuing an active agenda with international partners and developing joint projects with various countries. Similarly, the Turkish Ministry of Economy, the Ministry of Development, the Presidency for Turks Abroad and Related Communities (YTB), and the Yunus Emre Institute support projects related to international students and programs. To illustrate, the Ministry of Economy offers a support program for international fair promotions; the Ministry of Development prioritizes internationalization in higher education in its planning efforts; the YTB provides scholarships in addition to other opportunities; and the Yunus Emre Institute pitches in through its mission offices in different parts of the world.

It is known that the number of foreign students in Turkey has been on the rise. According to data from the last 10 years, the number of international students remained level at about 15,000 until 2008. It has dramatically increased since YÖK actively has taken charge of the process and introduced regulations in procedures and implementations. The uptrend continues. For instance, the number of foreign students in Turkish higher education institutions in the 2013-2014 academic year was 48,183, but jumped to 72,178 in the 2014-2015 academic year and increased by 1.8 times and settled at 87,903 in the 2015-2016 academic year.

The number of foreign students enrolled in graduate programs in Turkish higher education institutions was 10,855 in the 2013-2014 academic year; the figure almost doubled and jumped to 22,721 in the 2015-2016 academic year. Therefore, the ratio of international students to the total number of students enrolled in Turkish graduate programs increased as well. This ratio was 3.3 percent in the 2013-2014 academic year and improved to 4.5 percent in the 2015-2016 academic year. Notwithstanding, the ratio of foreign students in total graduate programs across the world has hardly changed in the last years and remains almost at the level of 25 percent.

Turkey needs consolidation and rehabilitation in its internationalization of higher education. Internationalization of Turkish higher education lacks in-depth study, field studies in particular. Articles containing general assessments or short reports are seen more often. It is very difficult to administer the process without conducting field research and without observations from the field. More studies should be carried out in order to help policy makers to make the right decisions.

One of the most critical areas that needs rehabilitation is, beyond the total number of enrolled foreign students, the distribution of foreign students in undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral degree programs. International students in Turkey mostly concentrate on associate degree programs (approximately 6 percent) and bachelor’s degree programs (approximately 69 percent). In developed countries, however, the ratios of foreign students in graduate degree programs constitute higher percentages. The OECD’s Education at a Glance 2015 report indicates that the OECD average number of international students enrolled in bachelor’s or equivalent degree programs stood at 6 percent in 2013, but rose as the level of education increased, settling at 14 percent for master’s programs and reaching 24 percent for PhD programs.

In Turkey, however, the numbers of foreign students enrolled in bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD programs were 1 percent, 4 percent and 4 percent, respectively, in 2013. Having qualified international students in graduate programs amplifies research capacities in higher education institutions as it positively contributes to a country’s power of economic competition. Therefore, it is necessary for Turkey to concentrate more on the distribution of foreign students in higher education programs, develop new policies to this end, and accelerate the relevant implementations.

The percentage of foreign students in PhD programs in Turkey is one-sixth of the OECD average and this points to a significant issue. It seems that doctoral programs in Turkey are not attractive for international students. In fact, irrespective of the perceptions of the foreign students, master’s and PhD programs in Turkey need improvement. Although the problems of master’s and PhD programs and solution recommendations are not the topic of this article, the situation involving these programs must be promptly addressed and remedial steps must be taken.

The problems involving PhD programs in Turkey were presented in a report titled “Views on the Status of PhD Education” by the Turkish Academy of Sciences (TÜBA) in 2006. Apparently, the same problems still exist today. The number of master’s students increased from 92,862 in the years covered in the report to 417,084, and the number of PhD students from 27,393 to 86,094 in the 2015-2016 academic year. Again, the number of PhD graduates remained between 2,000 and 2,500 in the same years, and the current figure has risen to 4,500-5,000. However, the number of graduates has not increased as expected, though the numbers of master’s students and faculty members have increased considerably.

According to the same report, one master’s student graduated per one or two faculty members, and one PhD student graduated per 10 or 11 faculty members. The data for the academic years of 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 reveal almost no change for master’s programs, but the situation worsened for PhD programs to one PhD graduate per 13 or 14 faculty members. The ratio of the number of graduate students enrolled to the number of graduate degrees granted was calculated in the same report. The ratio was four for master’s degree programs, while it was 10 for PhD programs. It is stated that the difference stems from the prolongation of postgraduate education programs. The difference is even wider today. For instance, the ratio for master’s programs increased to approximately six in the 2013-2014 academic year (262,752/41,842) and to approximately eight in the 2014-2015 academic year (342,101/43,713). As for PhD programs, the ratio increased to approximately 15 in the 2013-2014 academic year (65,864/4,516) and to approximately 16 in the 2014-2015 academic year (78,223/4,910).

PhD programs are the education programs that have multiple effects. Quality and quantity problems in doctoral degree programs negatively affect many areas involving R&D activities in our higher education system and our country. To maintain the enormous growth of recent years in our higher education system, an in-depth discussion of doctoral education is necessary. Additionally, the quality of these programs must be improved and immediate measures must urgently be taken in order to increase the number of PhD graduates. To this end, TÜBA must play an active role and develop solutions. In particular, opening graduate level courses with languages of instruction completely in English, French, and Arabic is a must. The international recognition of Turkish higher education institutions must be achieved and encouraged as well. Efforts in this direction will naturally have a positive effect on the number of international students enrolled in Turkish higher education and increase their capability to conduct joint international research projects.

One of the issues that needs improvement is the scarcity of international students and faculty members in the universities of good reputation in education and research capabilities. The number of international students in leading universities around the world has a good share in the total number of students. For instance, the ratio of foreign students to the total number of students is 62 percent at the London School of Economics, 33 percent at MIT, 21 percent at Stanford, and 17 percent at Harvard. In the academic year of 2013-2014, a sizeable portion of international students in Turkey (3,051 students, 6.33 percent) were enrolled at Istanbul University; however, this figure amounts to 2.37 percent of the total number of students enrolled at the same university.

The countrywide distribution also reveals that international students in Turkey are mostly from neighboring and Turkic-language countries. Turkmenistan topped the list, followed by Azerbaijan and Iran in the 2013-2014 academic year. However, Turkey receives very few foreign students from the countries sending the highest numbers of students abroad, and the ratio of the students Turkey receives from these countries is very low compared to the total number of students it sends abroad. The international fair promotion support provided by the Ministry of Economy should be used more actively and extensively, targeting these countries in particular.

On the other hand, the number of foreign faculty members in Turkish higher education institutions steadily increases. Still, this is a small number. According to the last 10 years’ data, the total number of foreign faculty members stood at 1,057 in the 2006-2007 academic year and increased by approximately 2.9 times, settling at 3,114 in the 2015-2016 academic year. The number of faculty members coming from other countries to teach in Turkish universities is approximately 2 percent of the total number of faculty members. Turkey must urgently take measures in the matter. YÖK has recently launched the Foreign Academics Information System (YABSIS) to this end. This is a joint project run by YÖK and the Turkish Prime Ministry to primarily create a database of foreign academics and researchers (who had to immigrate to Turkey due to natural disasters and wars), by compiling their job applications, and providing assistance to them to find employment in Turkish higher education institutions in accordance with the relevant procedures. It is reported that the scope of the online portal will be broadened to take in applications from all foreign academics and researchers who are willing to work in Turkey.

It is good news to highlight the efforts towards the internationalization of Turkish higher education institutions. Universities in Turkey are known to have international cooperation and almost every university puts effort into this. References to the numbers of foreign students and faculty members and of international agreements signed by each university are included in advertising and promotion campaigns. However, it is also the case that these efforts are limited to programs involving the mobility of foreign students and faculty members. The number of students in the Erasmus exchange program coming into Turkey is lower than Turkish students going abroad via the same program.

In the last 10 years, from 2004 to 2014, a total of 23,109 Erasmus students attended Turkish higher education programs as opposed to 74,231 Turkish students who joined Erasmus programs abroad. On the other hand, similar exchange programs do not seem to boost joint research programs among universities, and problems exist in this regard. So, this needs to be investigated thoroughly. It is critical for national initiatives to take action in this direction. The Ministry of Development, regional development agencies, and new support programs of the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK) should provide more assistance to the process, develop more international projects, and make more contributions to the development of such projects. All and all, this will mean a crucial step in regional development.

Herewith, Turkey has taken critical steps in recent years to strengthen the internationalization of its higher education system. The enrollment ratio in Turkish higher education has also increased, together with the recent remarkable growth in higher education; at present, Turkish higher education experiences the internationalization phase in a similar fashion. Therefore, the state of higher education today is not independent from that of yesteryears. Although Turkey falls behind other countries in terms of developments in higher education, it is extremely encouraging to see that higher education institutions attach importance to internationalization while competing with one another, and that they are eager in the subject matter.

From the Ministry of Economy to the Ministry of Development, from YÖK to YTB and the Yunus Emre Institute, all shareholders contribute significantly to the internationalization process of Turkish higher education, being aware of the importance of this process to our country. For sound management of the internationalization of higher education institutions, Turkey needs to put forth more effort and conduct studies to closely follow similar processes, developments, and good examples around the world, and to provide venues for constant improvement by taking the potential and opportunities of our country into consideration.

Professor Mahmut Özer graduated from the Department of Electronics and Communication Engineering at Istanbul Technical University. He has been the Rector of Bülent Ecevit University since November 28, 2010. Professor Özer served as the President of the Turkish Interuniversity Board (ÜAK) between August 1, 2015 and August 1, 2016. In addition, Professor Özer is the Chairman of Association of Quality Assurance Agencies of the Islamic World (AQAAIW) and also the vice chairman of the Turkish Vocational Qualification Authority (MYK).