Health & Education

Quality & Quantity


Turkey's rapidly growing education sector has raised standards in the region, attracted more domestic and foreign students, and expanded internationally.

With national statistics indicating that over 41% of Turkey’s population is under the age of 25, the country has a demographic characteristic that will heavily depend on education in the years to come. The young population has already led to major ramifications for the country’s education system, particularly over the last decade as the youth bulge has become more pronounced. To meet the needs of its 31 million young people, Turkey has worked to grow, renovate, and improve its education sector on an unprecedented scale. This includes the establishment of a vast number of new higher education institutions. Across the country, there are now 174 universities, more than double the number from five years ago.

Despite the increased demand created by this increasing youth demographic, the Turkish education sector has achieved significant results in recent years in terms of quality. One example of this can be seen in the primary and secondary school system, which enacted legislation in 2012 in line with the so-called 4+4+4 Plan, mandating that every child complete 12 years of education. This is a leap from previous reforms, which made at least eight years of education compulsory in 1997.

Other notable recent improvements include raising academic standards, improving the results of less successful students, and encouraging more young people to finish school. A World Bank report published in March 2013, Promoting Excellence in Turkey’s Schools, pointed out that “The education system in Turkey has shown remarkable improvement since 2003 in terms of better student performance and reduced inequality, with a concurrent and sustained increase in enrollment.” According to the World Bank, the results of the lowest 1% of high school students have significantly increased in subjects related to reading, mathematics, and science.


As a result of the rising number of young people having the required skills and academic prerequisites, it is not surprising that the number of university applications have increased. Since 2000, involvement in higher education has tripled, with one-third of university-aged people now enrolling in college. With this increasingly well-educated and economically empowered population of graduates seeking access to higher education, the market has responded accordingly as the rapid rate of newly opened universities indicates. One such newly established institution, Istanbul Kemerburgaz University, boasts an enrollment of 1,500 students and employs 150 faculty members. This is remarkable given that the school is only two years old.

One effect of this increase in universities is success in alleviating traditional elitism in the sector and increasing accessibility for students. The university’s President, Yıldırım Üçtuğ told TBY, “In the old days, university admission was more difficult, as competition was too intense. Only 10% of applicants gained access to higher education.”


Traditionally, education in Turkey has been run by the government, activity traced back before the establishment of the republic. Istanbul Technical University for example, regarded as the world’s third oldest technical university, was established under the sultan’s orders in 1773. This is not to be confused with Istanbul University, which traces its establishment centuries earlier to 1453. In recent years, a key driver of the sector’s growth has been government policies aimed at encouraging the establishment of private schools and universities. Means of expanding the sector also include the school lease method, whereby private entities build new institutions that can then be leased to the government. State-owned land can also be provided to private companies seeking to establish universities. This liberalization of the sector and public-private partnership (PPP) has complemented the traditional education system by providing much-needed capital. Currently, there are 66 private universities in the country, compared with 103 state institutions.

As Devrim Karaaslanlı, CEO of Bahçeşehir Schools, told TBY, “Education in Turkey is generally governed by the national system; 98% percent of Turkish children go to public schools. However, there is a huge demand for private schools in Turkey.” Bahçeşehir Schools, as a private institution, is representative of the trend. Since its establishment in 1994, it has opened 43 university campuses and almost 100 primary schools, high schools, and kindergartens.

Overall, the move toward privatization is most applicable to universities, which have mushroomed in recent years. Remarking on the growing number of higher education institutions, Rıfat Sarıcaoğlu, Chairman of Istanbul Bilgi University, told TBY that, “There were 173 universities in 2012, compared to 80 in 2007.”


Although a number of universities are striving to meet international standards in education, Bilgi University was one of Turkey’s pioneering private universities, initially setting up a system of dual degrees with British counterparts. “We were the first to do a 3+1 degree in Turkey, where you study three years here and spend your final year in the UK, ultimately receiving two accredited degrees,” Sarıcaoğlu explained. The popularity of such programs, and Bilgi’s subsequent rise in the Turkish higher education system, is representative of the domestic demand for international standards, curriculum, and foreign language instruction in higher education.

Preparation for these kinds of courses begins early in Turkey. Numerous private schools offer bilingual studies in a range of languages as well as exam preparation courses for standardized language testing and national placement exams. The result of this trend toward global education is evident in Turkey. It has led to the emergence of a generation of open minded graduates, fluent in foreign languages, with internationally recognized qualifications.


As a result of the sector’s growth, improvement, and rapid development, an increasing number of international students are choosing to study in Turkey. Economic opportunity has done its part in making the country a popular destination as well. In 2011, some 26,228 international students were studying across the country. This represents a 70% increase when compared with 15,481 international students in 2005. This figure also reflects the increasing number of university places created by the opening of new campuses or expansion of existing institutions. “Business is growing rapidly here, and this means that foreign students may stay and work here due to the multitude of job opportunities,” explained Bahçeşehir Schools’ Karaaslanlı.

Additionally, the bilateral ties formed with Turkic-speaking nations in Central Asia have attracted large numbers of students from that part of the world. Favorable visa arrangements, close proximity, and ease of travel connectivity bring thousands of Central Asian students to the country each year. Furthermore, almost 9,000 scholarships are awarded annually to students from this region. In addition to expanding the country’s soft power, it also serves as a useful tool for promoting Turkey’s image as a premier education destination in the region. Increasingly, students from across Southern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa are also seeing the benefits of study in Turkey.

The government has great expectations for the future of the international student market. According to Sarıcaoğlu, “There is a target to bring 250,000 international students to Turkey by 2023.” This figure is ambitious when compared with popular study destinations such as the US, which currently hosts around 750,000 international students.


In addition to attracting foreign students, Turkey has been establishing more universities abroad in recent years. The International Turkmen-Turkish University was the first foreign university established in newly independent Turkmenistan in 1994. Other similar institutions in Central Asia include the Turkish-Kyrgyz Manas University in Bishkek, the capital of the Kyrgyz Republic, and the Turkish-Kazakh International Hoca Ahmet Yesevi University in Turkestan, a historical city in Southern Kazakhstan.

Africa is a new destination for the country’s higher education exports. Four years ago, the Nigerian-Turkish Nile University became the first Turkish university to be established on the continent. July 2013 saw the graduation of its first class of undergraduate students, an event marked by dignitaries and state officials, setting a high-profile precedent for Turkey’s presence in the African education sector.

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