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Turkey aims to build on recent gains to host 150,000 international students by 2020

Turkey – geo-politically important, multicultural, and an Erasmus member – is catching the attention of an ever-increasing number of international students. In today’s ICEF Monitor article, we speak with Miraç Özar, Director of the International Office at Özyegin University and a key member of Turkey’s collaborative effort to gain more international students at its universities. Dr Özar fills us in on what Turkey offers international students as well as potential partnering institutions in the West. In addition, we provide an overview of Turkey’s aim to become a regional hub for higher education, with a goal of hosting 100,000 students in 2015 and 150,000 students by 2020.

Brand Turkey

At the May 2014 NAFSA conference in San Diego, Gökhan Çetinsaya, the head of Turkey's Higher Education Council (YÖK), told the audience that the number of international students has more than doubled between 2011 and 2013:

“There were nearly 30,000 international students in Turkey in 2011. Now, this number has reached up to 70,000.”

Turkey’s huge gains are the result of a coordinated and collaborative national branding project called “Study in Turkey.” The effort, spearheaded by the Turkish Universities Promotion Agency, a private organisation devoted to attracting students to Turkey, has support across a range of stakeholders in Turkish higher education – as far up as the country’s President Abdullah Gül, who has declared:

“I will tell the [YÖK] … don’t hesitate to bring more foreign students and scholars [to Turkey]. Quite on the contrary, let’s encourage it … I will consider removing the quotas of foreign students so each university can independently enroll students from other countries as a great contribution to Turkey.”

President Gül sees the internationalisation of Turkish campuses as an incentive for higher quality standards. He has said: “As you go to any province in Turkey and visit it with a helicopter, you will see the most beautiful campuses, buildings and gardens of this province belong to the universities. It wasn’t like this before. So as the state, we give such incentives and support; our expectations from the universities are also grand.” The expansion of higher education capacity in Turkey has been integral to Turkey’s ability to welcome more international students. Between 2006 and 2011, 50 public universities and 36 private foundation universities were established. There are now up to 165 universities in Turkey, which host students from more than 155 countries. In the following clip, Dr Özar notes some of the most important source countries, including Azerbaijan, Cameroon, Iran, Iraq, Morocco, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, and Turkmenistan. Study in Turkey reports that in 2011/12, these source countries had the largest representation in Turkish universities:

  • Azerbaijan: more than 4,200 students;
  • Turkmenistan: 4,110;
  • Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus: roughly 3,800.

It points out that “Europe also showed strong numbers, with both Germany and Greece sending more than 1,300 students.”

Outbound ambitions, too

Turkey also houses a notable population of domestic students interested in study abroad: a 2013 British Council report found that fully 95% of Turkish students would like to study overseas. Despite the country’s growing higher education capacity, there are signs that vast demand remains unmet:

“Only 530,000 of the 1.8 million pupils who sat the country’s university entrance exam, known as the YGS, gained places at domestic institutions.”

Turkey is also a ripe market due to its large proportion of young people (43% under 24 years of age) and growing income among the middle class.

Why students come to Turkey


is an important catalyst for Turkey’s international pupils; nearly 15,000 students have come to Turkey via Erasmus since 2004, according to data published by the European Commission. Dr Özar explains in our second video clip below that additional factors drawing students to Turkey are its geographical proximity, the general ease of getting student visas and residence permits, the relatively affordable cost of living, and its healthy economy – the latter particularly attracts students with ambitions of setting up businesses that involve ties with Turkey. He singles out business, engineering, IT, and health fields as popular courses of study. Regarding health sciences, Dr Özar explains that health tourism is a booming sector in Turkey; he says Turkey boasts an excellent health care system and that there are many foreigners who come to Turkey to receive medical treatment at the same time as enjoying the beautiful sights and recreational offerings of the country.

Centralised higher education system attractive to institutional partners

In addition to offering single degrees ranging from two-year diplomas to PhDs, Turkey also offers dual degrees conferred by Turkish universities as well as a foreign university partner. In the following interview, Dr Özar explains that Turkey’s centralised higher education system – in which all universities are regulated the same way – is attractive to foreign partners looking for quality assurances. Under 2+2 or 3+1 schemes, graduating students enjoy the career-related advantages of leveraging either the Turkish or foreign nature of their degree, depending on the job in question and where it is located. Although many university courses are offered in English, Dr Özar notes good demand for courses taught in Turkish.

Some challenges remain

Despite the expansion of Turkish higher education and the country’s steady path toward its enrolment targets, there are some challenges Dr Özar readily admits need to be addressed. In the final video segment, he notes that work permits – during and after studies – are not currently available to foreign students. He explains that progress still needs to be made on “making the stay of international students easier,” but that like anything, this needs time. Dr Özar cites the example of health insurance for international students, for which higher education stakeholders pressed the government, and which is now in place. Dr Özar also comments that there is a need for more qualified, English-speaking professors and researchers. Dr Özar’s concluding remarks echo a recently released report called Growth, Quality and Internationalization: A Road Map for Higher Education in Turkey by the YÖK. The report concludes that Turkish universities are in need of 45,000 more academic staff to bring them in line with international standards, and recommends a top priority for Turkish higher education is “a transition from quantitative growth to qualitative development, increasing human resource potential in academic life and internationalisation.” For more background on the government’s sustained drive to make the country a regional education hub, readers might enjoy our market snapshot, or you can review our analysis of Turkey as a sending market.

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