• Yağız Alp Tekin

Does university boom in Turkey lead to wider opportunities for Turkish youth

2021 saw an explosive wave of protests against the recent rector appointment at one of the most prestigious universities in Turkey, Boğaziçi University. The protests centered on the political and academic background of the new rector, Melih Bulu, missing out on the systematic problems underlying the education system as a whole. Amongst all the police intervention, passionate slogans, media coverage, and expert opinions; one demand actually offered a tangible objective. Melih Bulu was appointed by a new legislation that was passed in 2016, which reserved the president the right to appoint the university rectors.

The previous system which was implemented after 1992 allowed universities to determine their candidates before the president gave the final decision. By convention, the university’s first candidate tended to be approved by the prime minister up until 2016. The recent changes made the election process more centralized and less democratic thus leading to the recent student protests.

The word ‘‘democracy’’ is a magical word. It is one of those highly charged concepts that justifies almost anything it attributes to. In this sense, it sounds right to demand for a more democratic election process at universities. However, if our end goal is better education and higher rankings then it is not so clear if a more decentralized model is actually better for the quality of education, and international rankings.Chinese universities, for instance, do not have such democratic processes in rector allocation, but have been moving upwards in the university ratings for decades.

Let us use this discussion as an excuse to set aside the recent discussions and delve into one of the most fundamental concerns in Turkey’s education policies, namely the fine balance between quantity and quality.

The mass education policy dramatically changed the function of the universities. After WW2, the world has seen a steady increase in the number of university graduates worldwide. The universities ceased to operate as research institutions that graduate few elites. The changing perception attributed a more practical role to higher education. Universities’ economy-stimulating role has been emboldened and the governments opened new institutions to peripheral regions (smaller cities outside the capital) in the hope of bringing more jobs or consolidating their power in these cities. These attempts met with a similar increase in demand. The families embraced the value of the university education for it positions them higher in social status and increases their likelihood of landing on a well-paying job.

As a result, Turkey followed this trend and the number of universities has seen a dramatic increase in the last decades.

*The darker areas designate the number of foundation universities (which are partially private)

*The lighter areas designate the number of state universities

From Seta’s ‘‘ Türkı̇ye’de Yükseköğretı̇m Karşılaştırmalı Bir Analiz’’ report

The chart above is not up to date. It should be noted that the number of universities almost doubled after 2008, now standing at 209.

In accordance with this trend the number of students saw a dramatic increase. Notice that almost half of them don’t physically attend school, they are distance learners.

From ‘’Türkiye'de Yükseköğretimin Tarihsel Gelişimi ve Mevcut Durumu’’

*The upper line designates the number of applicants to the university entrance exam

*The lower line designates the number of applicants that were enrolled at a university

From Turkish Education 2020: An overview

There is a noticeable increase in the number of university students but is it enough?

Notice that Turkey has the second fastest growing population in the G20. There is a whole new generation that is waiting to be nurtured, educated and put into the workforce. However, the rapidly growing population puts an immense pressure on the quality of education. The years after 2007 saw a great effort to increase the number of universities to contain more students.

As a result, the ratio of university graduates compared to the general population more than doubled, now standing at 13.9%. However, the developments in quantity have not been translated into widening opportunities for graduates. The number of foundation universities (almost like private universities) increased, commercialization began, the private companies found genuine ways to sidestep the outdated university regulations and maximize profit.

The rapidly growing population demands a difficult balance between quantity and quality.

The Turkish government seems to be aware of this difficult task, Turkey was the ninth greatest investor in higher education compared to its GDP in 2017.

The statistics so far presented have been selected in the hope of shedding light on Turkey’s difficult task, namely the fine balance between quantity over quality. So far, the balance seems to be tipping on the side of quantity. The unemployment rate among university graduates is at an all-time high. In 2019, 25% of the unemployed were university graduates, notice that the ratio of the unemployed high school graduates was only 26%. This chart does not give an accurate picture for it excludes the unreported unemployment rate; nevertheless, it is useful for it gives a general idea.

The international statistics are not very encouraging either. The unemployment rate among Turkish university graduates is the greatest among G20 countries.

From Turkish Education 2020: An overview

In other words, there isn’t enough space for the most qualified newcomers. If this is true then it would be fair to argue that we do not need any more universities at this stage. The Turkish economy is not growing fast enough to make use of its university graduates. In fact, the students are moving abroad in increasing numbers. It looks like the number of university graduates have reached its practical limits. This might actually be a great opportunity to spend less on opening new universities and invest more on the already established 206 universities.

Now is the time to strike a new balance between quality and quantity.

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