Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Turkey’s Target: 100,000 International Students by 2020

In order to attract tourists from all horizons, Turkey and Istanbul have been promoted as a country/city between two continents – where East meets West. Now Turkey's officials are looking forward to another campaign – how to optimize the benefits of  international students mobility, and maybe take their exports and marketing to another level.

According to the Turkish Student Selection and Placement Center (OSYM) latest statistics, there is a 59 % increase in the number of foreign full-degree students over a 5-year period – from 16,000 in 2006/07 to over 25,500 in 2011/12 (Today’s Zaman 2011). The overall growth is largely due to a 65 % increase in the number of students from Muslim countries – from 11,000 in 2000/01 to 18,000 in 2010/11(Uzum 2012). In times of rising Islamophobia, Turkey was perceived as a politically safe and economically stable country in the Muslim world. However, academics and students cited other reasons for the increase, among which positive experiences of former international students, Turkey's cultural and historical heritage, reputation for  good educational facilities and programs and increased promotion of universities at education fairs.  

Among the 147 countries Azerbaijan, The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, Turkmenistan, Iran, Bulgaria, Germany and Greece were the leading sending countries. In other words, these are either neighbouring countries or countries which have a linguistic and cultural affiliation with Turkey. As for incoming Erasmus students, the biggest numbers came from Germany, Poland, France, Spain, the Czech Republic and Hungary (Mobility Statistics 2012).

Foreign students were most numerous at Anadolu University (4,000) followed by İstanbul University (2,611) and Middle East Technical University - METU (1,478).

With more than 1.3 million students, Anadolu University is the world’s fourth largest in terms of enrollment – that is why the number of international students represents a reasonable proportion. But it is also due to the fact that the university was the first provider of distance education programs in the country - it implements such since 1982. As a result, in 2007 there were 1,300 off-campus students from 15 European countries (see WG2: Surmeli).

Students’ preference for attending Istanbul University and METU can be attributed to the fact that these universities are situated in Istanbul and Ankara but also to their international reputation. METU was among the world's top 300 universities in 2011/2012 THE World University Rankings and the top 100 universities in 2012 THE Reputation Rankings while 2011 Shanghai Ranking (ARWU) placed Istanbul University among the world’s top 400 universities. Overall, 6 Turkish universities were included in the above rankings and although this is not necessarily the main criterion for choosing an institution, it might be one of many and certainly should have raised the educational profile of the country abroad.

In January 2012, Al Monitor reported that Turkey set a target of 100, 000 international students by 2020 in view of getting the most of the expected global flow of 7 million people undertaking studies abroad. Financial gains were also estimated – a student would contribute $30,000 per year to the local economy.

These plans for internationalization led to the launch of the Study in Turkey website. Much like other similar initiatives across Europe and abroad, it promotes the country as a study destination to foreign students and connects Turkey’s 170 universities with education counselors. In addition to study programs, scholarships, housing and useful links, one can see on the website a section on target countries: some of the top sending countries but also China, Russia, Egypt, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia from which, I assume, there are expectations for potential gains. Thus, opting for a country monitor, Turkey seems to be following the example of the Netherlands and New Zealand.

There are three aspects that caught my attention. First, Study in Turkey promotes Turkey as a place where one can learn English, in addition to learning Turkish. Although it does not seem apparent that foreign students would choose Turkey for that reason, the courses have to do with the government plan to recruit 40,000 language assistants to teach English in Turkish public schools. There is a stark contrast between the poor command of English among young people in the country and the fact that some Turkish universities offer study programs only in English and GMAT and TOEFL tests are often required, just like in the US. Therefore, all students are encouraged to learn the language.

Second, regarding the country monitor strategy, the main questions that arise are whether it would be successful or students would come from countries other than the selected ones; whether there would be different approaches applied to the separate countries; and how the strategy will change over time. The agency’s schedule for 2012 is already busy – it has assured its presence at a number of education fairs across the world. According to the director of the Business Education Council  - a recently established council within Turkey’s Foreign Economic Relations Board - it has encouraged private universities to attend more education fairs.

Third, it remains to be seen whether there would be links between the number of incoming tourists and students, for instance in the case of Russia. In other words, the question is whether Turkey would promote its higher education along with other industries as this is often done in Australia and New Zealand as far as tourism is concerned; and in Denmark and the Netherlands when it comes to comparative advantages, both general (work-life balance, sustainability, geographical situation) and academic (programs in English, reputation for modern infrastructure).

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