ANKARA, Turkey — Today, there are close to 54,000 international students attending Turkish universities. Most of these students hail from Afghanistan, Azerbaijan and Kosovo.
But the Turkish government, ruled by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), hopes that even more foreign students will enroll and eventually transform Turkey into a global learning center.
Serdar Gündogan, head of the Turkish Prime Ministry’s International Students Department, plans on increasing the number of foreign students to 200,000 by 2023. This will be accomplished, he says, by allocating additional money for government scholarship programs, which help fund tuitions for approximately 13,000 international students today.
In 2014 alone, $96 million was invested into such scholarship programs, a record. Accordingly, an unprecedented 90,000 applications from 176 countries were received by Turkish universities in 2014, up from 56,000 in 2013 and 44,000 in 2012.
There are more than 4.5 million international students worldwide, Gündogan says, and while Turkey has absorbed 1.1 percent of them, significant progress can still be made.
Turkey sees Latin America as the greatest untapped market for foreign intelligentsia. From Colombia, which boasts the region’s largest number of applicants to Turkish universities, Turkey only received 400 applications in 2014.
Since 1950, more than 80,000 international students have graduated from Turkish institutions of higher education. And in that time, 20 scholarship programs have been developed, encouraging students from diverse backgrounds to predominantly study fields such as medicine and engineering—and with increased popularity today, economics and international relations.
The Issue of Academic Freedom
Presented with increased scholarship opportunities, hordes of international students may stream into Turkey to realize their academic pursuits. But new AKP-backed legislation may give foreign students reasons to hesitate.
In an article for Al Jazeera, A Kadir Yildirim, an assistant professor at Furman University, outlines three major problems that this proposed legislation presents to higher education.
First, the proposed legislation would shift responsibility of tenure and promotion review. The Inter-University Council (IUC,) an independent organization, normally handles such matters. But if this legislation is approved by parliament—Yildirim is quite certain it will—then Turkey’s Council of Higher Education (YOK) will take over these duties.
Yildirim worries that professors who hold or express views against the AKP-ruled government may be unfairly denied promotion or tenure. Objectivity would be replaced by political favor.
Second, the YOK would be able to appoint or elect board members of private universities. In theory, this means university founders, who have invested their time and efforts into building educational institutions, could be ousted from board participation by the government. Yildirim insists this would constitute a violation of a private citizen’s rights. He believes such a move might be intended as targeting certain universities that are affiliated with the controversial and AKP-critical Gülen movement.
Third, the YOK, again displacing responsibilities previously reserved for the IUC, would solely determine the equivalency of foreignly acquired degrees.
In the wake of the 2013-2014 Gezi Park protests that showed Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan’s authoritative colors, Yildirim fears such governmental power could deny strong and qualified professors and researchers posts at Turkish universities simply by virtue of being critical of the Turkish government.
And for a country that has long struggled with preserving academic freedom—think back to the headscarf ban and pre-1982 censure of student politics—Turkey simply cannot afford to further sacrifice the quality of its higher education system.
– Shehrose Mian