Development of Private Higher Education in Turkey

By Gürüz, Kemal | International Educator, March/April 2007 | Go to article overview

Development of Private Higher Education in Turkey


Gürüz, Kemal, International Educator


A COUNTRY WITH A YOUNG DEMOGRAPHIC PROFILE, Turkey continues to experience an increasing demand for higher education, which the state institutions have been unable to meet. Several factors in the past have impeded the development of private higher education in Turkey, and consequently, the nation is currently facing challenges that need to be addressed to improve its higher education system as a whole.

Historical Background

The Republic of Turkey was born out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. But, leaving aside the professional "higher schools" founded in the nineteenth century, present-day Turkish universities did not evolve from the previously existing Islamic institutions of higher learning. Rather, the university as an institution was transplanted from the West by the young republic to replace the madrasa. As a result, for many years, universities were regarded as state institutions and the provision of higher education as part of public service. This is still the prevalent view in Turkey s highly egalitarian society, with an important bearing on the governance of Turkish universities as well as on the development of private higher education. The election of rectors and deans by the faculty has come to be considered a sine qua non policy for university autonomy and academic freedom.

The historical exception was Robert College in Istanbul-the first American institution of higher education outside the United States, founded in 1863. In 1956 Middle East Technical University (METU) was founded, modeled after American state universities with rectors and deans appointed by a lay board.

For-Profit Institutions in the 1960s

With the development of a vibrant free-market economy and a growing population, the then existing institutions of higher education failed to meet the rapidly increasing demand; the gross enrollment rates remained a meager 4 percent during the 1960s. The vacuum was soon filled by some 50 for-profit institutions, in which enrollments rapidly reached 50,000. In 1971 these institutions were ruled unconstitutional and were incorporated into the existing polytechnics. Robert College, too, was transformed into a state university in 1971. Similar legal arguments based on the traditional view of higher education were cited in various rulings of the Supreme Constitutional Court in the 1970s in abolishing the powers of the METU Board of Trustees and those of the Council of Higher Education. The council had first been established in 1973 as a nationwide coordinating body, in response to the rapidly increasing demand.

Present Structure

In 1981 new legislation was enacted that radically altered the higher education scene in Turkey. The Council of Higher Education was reconstituted as a national board of governors with powers to nominate candidates for rectorships and to appoint deans. In addition, the establishment of nonprofit institutions of higher education was permitted. However, it took several years before the first private institution, Bilkent, could use the title "university," because the Supreme Constitutional Court ruled that the constitution allowed private schools only to be named "institutions of higher education," not "universities." The legal dilemma was resolved by enacting a separate founding legislation for each and every one of the private universities and giving each of them "corporate public body" status.

Growth in Enrollments

In the past two decades, 24 new private universities have been founded, and they now comprise the unified higher education system in Turkey, along with 53 state universities. Total enrollments in private universities have now risen from only 426 in 1986 to 91,000, constituting 4.3 percent of the total enrollments of 2.1 million students. Distance education is provided by one state university, Anadolu University, with about 700,000 students. Private enrollments are 6.5 percent of the total full-time enrollments; those in bachelors-level programs compose 5.

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