TBY talks to Rıfat Sarıcaoğlu, Chairman of Bilgi University, on the importance of dual degree programs, attracting international students, and meeting education goals for 2023.

Rifat Sarıcaoğlu
After obtaining a BSc in Computer Engineering from the University of Illinois in 1981, Rifat Sarıcaoğlu went on to pursue an MBA at New Brunswick University. From 1982-1986, he served as a System Analyst at Anatolian Industry Holding. He then worked as Sales Manager for NCR and ICL-Regional from 1986-1988 and 1988-1990, respectively. In 1993, he became General Manager of Hürriyet Education and International Trade. Since 2000, he has been CEO of Laureate Education Turkey. In addition to serving as Chairman of the Board of Trustees at Istanbul Bilgi University, he has been the President of the Foundation Universities Association of Turkey since 2009.

How has Bilgi University grown and developed since it was founded?

Bilgi was one of the first in the second wave of universities founded in Turkey. Its story goes back a bit further to the time of private universities, because private universities were not allowed to set up. Initially, the school was set up as a private university that was doing dual-degrees with UK universities. It was established by nine founders who were not entrepreneurs; they were simply in love with education. They wanted to set up a university in Istanbul to introduce a synergy between the poorly served neighborhoods and wealthy students. It serves the A+ to A category in terms of non-scholarship students. Since 2009, we have been a very highly perceived social science university. Because of the competition in mass education, we decided to become a fully comprehensive, national university rather than an Istanbul city university. We added engineering, architecture, health sciences, and many Master's and PhD degrees. For the first time in Turkey, we created a bilateral exchange agreement with the University of Liverpool in the UK. We were the first to do so in a foundation university. And 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. It was a major accomplishment. We have seven such degrees available now, and we want to grow in that area.

Bilgi University is spread across three campuses in underprivileged areas of the city. What was the motivation for organizing the university this way?

The motivation is very simple. Universities in developing countries need to be part of the process of the equal distribution of income and opportunities. That is how we started in terms of our thinking. Therefore, in order to get these neighborhoods involved, we need to be in them. Many schools are in the better neighborhoods, and they try to visit the less fortunate neighborhoods. We find it better to be physically in the area, so we can best serve the needs of the neighborhood. When I say “we," I refer to both the academic students and the staff who are aware of Turkey's greater problems rather than just the problems on the street. That is why we went in with that concept and it worked. Bilgi was initially criticized regarding security concerns, but it has not had a single major incident. We try to serve not just the student population, but also the entire population of these neighborhoods. We have a law clinic that provides free legal services. We try to provide for local educational needs and even food needs to an extent. It is not endless, but we do what we can. In addition, Bilgi has educational services for youths and young adults. Whether through vocational, language, art, or performing art classes, they have the privilege of paying a low tuition fee to attend if they are able to get into the university through the entrance exam.

What should Turkey do to increase participation in post-secondary education?

I think that the Turkish government understands the need to address the youth problem first, and employability second. The government started the demassification process in 2007 when it doubled the size of universities in Turkey. At first, it did this through public means, though there is only so much that can be done by raising taxes. The government stopped at 103 universities. Then, it began to increase establishment approvals to found new universities—the number went from an initial 23 to 65 universities today, and up to 70 as we speak. There were 173 universities in 2012 compared to 80 in 2007. Of course, there are going to be ups and downs, and problems with the new schools—and even with the old schools—but eventually we will find a way to create opportunities for more university graduates. The third phase is going to be the privatization of education. Private education is coming. There is a debate because the Council of Higher Education (YÖK) has announced that it would like to have international branches, but because of past problems in the Middle East during the economic crisis, they may be allowed to partner up with institutions here. Once that goes through, I think there will be another five-year cycle before the demand and supply problem will be solved.

Why is Turkey such a large exporter of students?

In terms of exporting students versus importing students, we have a big deficit. Turkey is one of the top seven countries that send students abroad. Malaysia has a population of 34 million and it imports 80,000 full tuition-paying students. Turkey is over double the size of Malaysia, but we are only importing one-third of that at 24,000, and 9,000 are on full scholarship from the Turkic countries of the CIS. I believe this caught Prime Minister Erdoğan's attention, and through the association we had and through the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey (TOBB) we jointly worked on developing incentives to bring international students to Turkey. Now, there is actually a high-targeted market that would put us at number five in the world. There is a target, by 2023, to bring 250,000 international students to Turkey. Of course, this will require major reforms related to teaching, instruction, language, quality, accommodation, and transport.

Is it a priority for Turkey to attract more international students?

For private universities here, it is a business opportunity. Eventually, supply and demand might become an issue. If you look at North Cyprus, its universities are surviving through the attraction of international students. It was a problem for them when Turkish students stopped attending and they had to solve this issue. I think it will become a problem for Turkey, and not just for that purpose but because of diversification as well. I think the chalk will be picked up by the private side rather than the state. The established schools in the three major cities will have to pursue this initiative, and of course they will gain tuition out of it; education is not going to be free for international students. Furthermore, I believe it will present an opportunity to have the classroom in a better environment. There will be different languages of instruction, and I think the one thing that the country needs more of is English speakers. Even though people in the major cities do speak English, it is not at the standard that you need if you want to be an international player. If you want to be in the top-10 largest economies, you need to have these tools in place.

How would you assess the ability of Turkey's secondary education system to prepare students for the workforce?

I think there is a lot of work to do. The system is young, universities are still being established, and because of the absence of competition, the level of innovation is low. Now, there is more competition—not just between each other, but with the state as well, because we are going after the same students. The problem is that in the demassification phase there are many new universities in the system. Even Bilgi, a 16-year old institution, is seen as an old institution, which should not be the case. We need a much longer cycle to become regarded as a “real" university in essence. Turkish secondary education is now crawling up, taking time to develop. We started walking and are now we are running, and that is the best way to describe it. There will be some institutions that stand out, but as an entire system we need to go through that cycle. That is why many Turkish students go abroad to university; to buy the education that is better outside and then come back to Turkey. That will change in time with the introduction of more dual degrees. However, it will also take time to get a qualified workforce coming through. The government has marked a target of 2023 as the year that Turkish secondary education should be sufficiently reformed.