Originally posted July 2010

There is a tendency to associate the internationalization of higher education with economically developed and Anglophone countries (e.g., the US, UK, Canada, and Australia). Although there are various different rationales behind internationalization (e.g., social, political, and academic),[1] economic rationales are more prominent for these countries. However, several recent developments have made internationalization one of the top issues on the agendas of countries in a wider geographic and economic landscape — including developing and non-Anglophone countries.

Turkey’s engagement in the internationalization of higher education has several distinctive attributes. First, although Turkey is characterized as a sending country in the global scheme of student movement, the comparison of in-bound and out-bound student mobility in Turkey shows that the number of out-bound students has significantly decreased while the number of in-bound students has slightly increased since 2000. It is important to note that a great majority of these in-bound students are from the Middle East, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Balkans. Second, Turkey’s government has actively supported higher education institutions in their efforts to establish joint universities and develop joint programs with partners from countries in these surrounding regions. Third, the government has played an active role in establishing international universities, determining the scale of student exchange, and facilitating the development of joint programs (e.g., implementing a scholarship policy for foreign students). The extent of the involvement indicates that Turkey is using higher education as a foreign policy tool.[2]

These developments suggest that, compared to other developing and non-Anglophone countries as well as developed and Anglophone countries, Turkey’s internationalization of higher education is a distinctive process. A close examination of Turkey’s geopolitical, historical, cultural, economic, and educational characteristics suggest several key insights about this process.

First, it can be argued that Turkey’s geopolitical position is the most important factor defining its role in the internationalization of higher education. Turkey is a natural bridge between the East and the West. Turkey is also a gateway for neighbors seeking access to advanced industrialized European economies, which suggests that there is a parallelism between international migration and student mobility. However, Turkey is more than just a geographic bridge between the East and West. It is a secular state that has a relatively long experience with Western parliamentary democracy. Its multiparty system is more mature than many other countries in the Balkans, Caucasia, and the Middle East. This distinctive characteristic makes Turkey a model for these countries. Turkey’s political atmosphere is likely to be one of the key elements attracting foreign students and institutions to the country.

Second, the capacity and diversity of Turkey’s higher education system as a whole is another factor contributing to Turkey’s distinctive position in the internationalization of higher education. Since 1950, almost all higher education institutions have been established according to the Anglo-Saxon university tradition. It is important to note that Turkey’s higher education system suffers from several structural and functional problems such as excessive demand, unequal quality, a high degree of centralization, and a lack of academic autonomy. However, compared to other countries in the region, Turkey’s higher education system has a longer tradition of engagement with the Anglo-Saxon-type. Indeed, it can be argued that because of this tradition, the country has encountered fewer problems in the Bologna Process — through which many European countries are trying to convert their higher education systems to an Anglo-Saxon type system. In addition, together with the recently established universities, the number of institutions and the diversity of academic programs have increased in Turkey. More importantly, a significant number of these programs are English-medium programs. However, the distinctive nature of Turkey’s higher education is not limited to quantitative capacity. The quality of some of these institutions is well above that of most of their counterparts in the region. Finally, in public universities the tuition fees are extremely low. These distinctive qualities make Turkey’s higher education system attractive to foreign students and foreign institutions seeking to establish joint programs or universities.

Fourth, Turkey’s macro-economic performance is another defining characteristic behind the internationalization of Turkish higher education. Compared to all other countries in the region, Turkey has a longer engagement with a Western economy. In addition, compared to the economic performance of the other countries in the surrounding regions — including Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Greece, Bulgaria, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russian Federation, Iran, and Albania — Turkey has a relatively more rapidly growing and larger economy. Moreover, in the last ten years Turkey has resolved some structural economic problems (e.g., high inflation). Though not a prime reason, Turkey’s economic performance attracts foreign students for study abroad and foreign institutions to consider partnerships with Turkish higher education institutions. A considerable number of foreign students choose Turkey with the prospect of finding a job and staying in Turkey for the purpose of improving their living standards.

Turkish higher education facilitates the movement of people at the intersection of the Middle East, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Balkans. Hopefully, the increased movement of people will foster interactions among different nations and communities and ultimately help reduce the risk of conflicts between them.


[1]. Jane Knight, “Internationalization Remodeled: Definition, Approaches, and Rationales,” Journal of Studies in International Education Vol. 8 (2004), pp. 5-31.

[2]. Yüksel Kavak and Gülsün Atanur Baskan, “Educational Policies and Applications of Turkey towards Turkic Republics and Communities,” Hacettepe University Faculty of Education Journal, Vol. 20 (2001), pp. 92-103 (in Turkish).