Foreign students and higher education in Turkey

Turkey has become a safe heaven and keeps the dreams of foreign students alive

In recent years, Turkish universities – both public and private foundation – have made strenuous efforts to recruit international students by means of their teaching-research-market oriented promotions, as well as with education fairs worldwide such as NAFSA and EAIE in the U.S., Europe, Africa, Asia and so forth. Since it has been alleged that there may be around 7 million international students in motion, looking for a place to get a proper higher education, the Turkish government has encouraged and financially supported the universities through the Ministry of Economics and the Higher Education Council of Turkey, along with the other means such as the Foreign Economic Relations Board (DEIK), because, today, the recruitment of international students has not only become very much commercialized and a market oriented business, and thus every country wants to get their share of the cake across the world, but it has also become a part of international politics in which those students who are educated in a particular country are equally supposed to act like diplomatic and cultural ambassadors between their homes and host countries later in life. With these possible underlying impulses, it is estimated that both public and private foundation universities in Turkey have recruited around 107,000 international students from various countries, and this trend seems as if it will continue in the following years.

Having international students has visibly availed Turkey and Turkish universities. First, it is obvious that today, across the world, those international students bring revenue to their host countries. Western countries obviously get the largest share and like many other countries and universities, Turkey and Turkish universities, though new, have thus embarked on spending a great deal on promotion and advertisements, mainly through education fairs and other means, to draw the attention of foreign students to Turkey. Eventually, what is anticipated is its economic benefit, yet Turkey still has a long way to go to achieve its ultimate goal when compared to Western countries. Secondly, having international students also makes teaching and learning environments very international, multicultural, diverse and interactive when local and international students mix with each other and live side by side in peace and harmony, leading not only to the cultural transmission from one to another but also to the gradual process of removing prejudices, misinformation and then of understanding each other mainly in positive ways, contrary to what is often written and circulated in the media and to what they listen to and watch on the TV about each other. This noticeably contributes to the world peace much needed today all over the world. Finally, international students also positively force Turkish universities not only to constantly improve their infrastructure, education systems, teaching strategies, and eventually quality but also to hire qualified faculty members and steadily raise their academic standards in line with the demand of its students and of shifting perceptions of higher education in the 21st century, so that the universities grow into more competitive and entrepreneurial institutions with each other domestically as well as abroad. In this respect, it is undeniable that Turkish universities have recently made great improvements in many ways.

However, the meetings I have recently had with newly graduated international students from various universities in Turkey show that although the achievements of Turkish universities so far is great and promising for the future, it is not enough; for them, there are still areas to be improved should they want to attract more international students and keep their global competitive and entrepreneurial place. Among many, I just asked them two basic questions. The first one was: what do you think of Turkey? Or, what is your impression of Turkey? Contrary to the general widespread negative views of mainly Western countries, international students find Turkey more secure, friendly and cheaper. Besides education, mostly for refugee students from Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Egypt, Turkey has become a safe heaven, a place to survive and keep their dreams for the future alive. They, though disadvantaged in many aspects of life, are not exasperated and hopeless but feel themselves valued, lucky and dignified to be and receive education in Turkey: that is, they do not feel themselves like refugees, but at they feel at home in Turkey.

The second question I asked international students was regarding the education at Turkish universities: what is your opinion of the education level of the universities from which you graduated from? Or, what do you think of the level of education in Turkey? Overall, they were happy, and the education they have received satisfied them and met their expectations, yet they think that there is still need to improve the system in the following areas.

First, they suggested that international offices should employ experienced and professional staff who can not only speak primarily English and Arabic, but who could also ease communication with international students and guide them. Secondly, they recommended Turkish universities to employ more English speaking academic staff if they wish to get more international students and keep their international profile, because there are many international students who prefer to be educated in English, which, as it is well known today, has become almost a standard means of communication worldwide in science, politics, economics, education, media and so on. Since the language of instruction is Turkish at the universities excepting the few that offer the courses in English, the universities may send some of their academics abroad to improve their English for six months or a year or hire academic staff with a good command of English inside and outside Turkey, so that they may offer the programs where the language of instruction is English. Besides, newly graduated international students find infrastructure insufficient at Turkish universities – library, laboratory and the other relevant equipment. In their view, particularly the faculties of engineering need to install the latest technological equipment, which, they think, will enable both local and international students to acquire better practical engineering skills. With high-tech equipment, moreover, the universities will be able to compete with the universities in Europe and the rest of the world; otherwise, not only will they be doomed to stay behind, but they may also fail to have more international students and maintain their international image. Finally, international graduates advised Turkish universities to carry out the placement examination for international students. According to the current regulations in Turkey, there are various applications among Turkish universities. They have been given mandate to get their international students on their own, so that some universities require SAT exam scores or the national examination results of the home country, while the others carry out their own placement examinations. Also, there are the universities which admit international students according to high school results. Recently graduated international students argue that the high school results in many countries are very high and full of suspicion, which thwarts competition and pushes many bright students out of the race. For them, the placement examination will apparently not only help the universities get intelligent and talented international students but also improve the quality of education as well.

In conclusion, having international students and teaching them is both easy and difficult today. It is easy because there are many candidates abroad waiting for education, yet it is equally difficult to keep up with increasing shifting trends and developments and then implement innovative policies and creative strategies in higher education. Lately, Turkish universities have improved themselves immensely in this direction, but they should work much harder than they previously have if they want not only to acquire more international students but also to maintain their places in such a competitive and entrepreneurial academic world.

By Prof. Dr. Ali Güneş, Vice Rector at Karabük University



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