Every year, an average of 1.5 million students take the Undergraduate Placement Examination (LYS), but according to overseas education consultants ASBA, only 30 percent are admitted to a domestic university. As a result, the number of Turkish students choosing to pursue their higher education interests abroad is steadily rising. In 2010/11 alone, there were over 22,383 Turkish students enrolled in formal education overseas (this figure excludes summer schools and short language programs). Compare this to 20,400 students reported in 2002 in a Ministry of National Education report.The ministry’s 2010/11 report identifies the US, UK, Germany and Azerbaijan as favorite destinations.
Each of these countries enrolls thousands of Turkish business and language students annually.
Traditionally, the expenses incurred by a move abroad have been a barrier for those Turkish students who are not endowed with private sponsors. However, with the number of Turkish students studying abroad on scholarships doubling since 2005/6 according to the ministry, figures amongst the wider community of Turkish students are on the rise as well.
Onurcan Kurucu, a native of Ankara now studying business and finance at Bath University in southern England, believes strongly in the benefits of higher education overseas -- “I have grown so much as a person. My time abroad has given me the confidence to make my own decisions even in the face of other people’s criticism,” he told Today’s Zaman. He attributes this personal growth to his immersion in a wholly different culture, emphasizing the multicultural feel of the social scene at Bath. “I mix with students from all over the world, and every different nationality brings a different perspective on things. In the last two years my horizons have broadened hugely,” he explains.
Bayram Can Ercen reflects with similar enthusiasm on the half year he spent studying in North Carolina, in the US, describing the newfound independence and maturity his experience has instilled in him.
Ercen, who intends to go into business when he finishes studying, also points out that time abroad, studying alongside students from all over the world, is an excellent opportunity to begin building the kind of international network of acquaintances that is so important for success in his field. “I have friends, good friends, going into business from all over now -- from Saudi Arabia, from all over the US, this is a very useful thing for someone in my profession to have,” he says.
Both men do have a few minor reservations about their experiences, both stressing the culture shock faced by Turkish students entering Western-style university residences. Ercen, for example, talks disparagingly of the notoriously excessive drinking culture that pervades colleges in the US, whilst Kurucu reflects on the reserved nature of English students. “The street culture is very different over there,” he says. “Here in Turkey, people always greet each other, shake hands and say hi, even if you don’t know someone that well, it’s an important part of how we live. In the UK, people are much more closed. Honestly, in the first month, I was convinced people didn’t like me.”
But both Kurucu and Ercen nod furiously when asked if they would recommend studying abroad to other Turkish students, and it is the concern of Turkish policy makers that many such students will stay on in the UK and the US after they have completed their studies, thus draining Turkey of highly educated individuals, a valuable economic resource. Indeed, the migration of students overseas is viewed by many as a threat to the economic development of the country, with academic studies consistently pointing to the prestige associated with an education gained abroad and the limited space within domestic universities as the major pull and push factors behind the so called “brain drain.”
Of course, Turkey is not alone in sending large numbers of students abroad for undergraduate and graduate degree programs -- the UK, for example, also had approximately 22,000 students studying abroad in 2010 according to the UK Council for International Student Affairs.
But whilst the UK sends a similar number of students abroad to study, it can be confident that any potential “brain drain” is more than compensated for by the massive influx of foreign students arriving to study at British universities. Non-EU students account for over 11 percent of students at all UK institutions according to research published in The New York Times in November 2011.
The key question is whether Turkey can claim to be managing a similar inflow of international students to offset the loss of bright young minds. According to the 2010 Open Doors report published by the International Institute of Education for example, 12,397 students from Turkey studied in US in 2010 (this figure includes graduates, undergraduates and students on intensive English-language courses), whilst the number of US students choosing to pursue their higher education in Turkey was only 1,261. Student mobility statistics from the UK, Germany and most other Western countries paint a similar picture.
However, the growing number of students from the Near East that are choosing to study in Turkey actually outnumber the Turkish students who are heading west for higher education. The Student Selection and Placement Center (ÖSYM) estimated that 26,000 foreign students were studying in Turkish universities in 2010/11, a figure that has soared over the past decade, with countries such as Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan heading the list. Thus, a healthy balance in Turkey’s short-term student mobility seems to have been struck. Nevertheless, the long-term loss of Turkish graduates who have chosen to stay on and work in the country of their chosen institution remains a major concern. In a wide-ranging survey conducted in 2002, “Brain Drain from Turkey: An Investigation of Students’ Return Intentions,” 22.1 percent of Turkish students questioned indicated that it was “either unlikely for them to return or they would definitely not return.”
There is, however, a more positive way of looking at the situation. The strides taken by Turkey’s economy in the past 10 years have begun to make it a far more attractive prospect for graduates from overseas. And although some students will not return home after their overseas studies, the ones that choose to are all the more valuable for their time abroad. Equipped with the skills learnt from the experience of finding their feet and eventually learning how to study and succeed in an entirely new environment, Kurucu and Ercen are impressive young men, undoubtedly an asset to any ambitious country’s economy.
They meanwhile, have every intention of remaining in their homeland. When asked what Kurucu misses most about Turkey when he is studying in England, he doesn’t hesitate, “The first thing I see when I get off the plane at Atatürk airport: the sun!”