Learning: Kids take lessons at Burc College’s kindergarten in Istanbul. JP/PandayaFor Taufan, studying in Turkey is a dream come true. He came to Istanbul all the way from the Central Java town of Semarang on a scholarship that the Turkish government offered for a six-month Turkish language course.
“I will go back to Indonesia in September and hopefully will go again to Turkey next year for my post-graduate program in international relations,” said the 21-year-old man who is captivated by the glory of ancient Turkey and the history of early Islam there.
Turkey, the homeland of world-renowned Sufi guru Jalal ad-Din Rumi, has over the past five years become an attractive destination for international Muslim students such as Taufan for the higher education in its 167 universities.
Student Selection and Placement Center (ÖSYM) statistics show that in the 2005/2006 academic year, 16,059 foreign students studied at Turkish universities and other educational institutions. The number swelled to 26,911 in the 2010/2011 academic year.
In a recent interview with Today’s Zaman, an English language newspaper in Turkey, Mustafa Aydın, chief of the Foreign Economic Relations Board’s (DEK) Business Education Council, said Turkey aimed to boost the number of foreign students to 100,000 by 2015. If this target is achieved, they are expected to contribute US$4 billion to the state coffers.
The admission of more foreign students is part of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s effort to play a greater role in the Islamic world and make Turkey a role model as a modern Muslim majority country.
To attract more international students, state universities have increased their quotas for foreign students, offering them low tuition fees and giving them generous scholarships. For example, at the prestigious Fatih University, which currently hosts 1,200 foreign nationals among its 12,500 students, the annual tuition fee for foreigners majoring in law is set at $8,000 compared to the $14,000 for locals.
“In other countries, it’s the other way around,” Sabahattin Atalay, Fatih University’s prep school director, told visiting Indonesian journalists. “There foreign students have to pay a lot more than locals do.”
Atalay said that Fatih admits foreign nationals from any countries, disregarding racial, ideological and religious backgrounds, because Turkey’s true motive was to contribute to the world’s peace and well-being.
As state universities increase their quotas for foreign students, private institutions have also aggressively lured international students by taking part in international expos and offering low tuition fees and scholarships for high achievers.
Burc College in Istanbul, for example, has granted full scholarships to students from impoverished African countries such as Somalia, also admitting students from wealthy countries like South Korea.
A private international school has just opened in Antalya, a fast-developing Mediterranean coastal resort that reportedly attracts more than 13 million tourists every year. Under Turkish law, the school will be allowed to admit foreign nationals after two years of operation.
“Turkish universities ... are rapidly catching up with the world’s highest standards,” said Sedat Gocen, the university’s secretary-general. “Turkey is becoming a hub of higher education in the region.”
Global interest in Turkish higher education was also spurred by 9/11, which was followed by Islamophobia, especially in the US and EU, which are the “traditional destinations” of quality education seekers from developing and Muslim countries.
The prejudice displayed and attacks on Muslim students in the West made prospective students in Muslim countries in the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans look to Turkey, which has been enjoying robust economic growth and affordable living costs.
The relations between Indonesia and Turkey date back to the 13th century when the Ottoman Empire linked up with the Samudera Pasai Islamic Sultanate in what is now Aceh.
Turkey gained accolades for its philanthropic activities during the 2004 tsunami that claimed 130,000 lives in Aceh and the 2006 earthquakes that killed an estimated 6,000 in Yogyakarta and Central Java.
Turks on the street fondly call visiting Indonesians “brother”, largely because of their shared religious beliefs.
Similar to Indonesia, Turkey remains (largely) a secular country, although Muslims account for the bulk of the population. In Turkey, compulsory education is 12 years and the literacy rate is reportedly “almost 100 percent”.
In Turkey, educational reform has been one of the fiercest battlegrounds in the country’s politics, pitting the so-called secularists who support the soldier statesman Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s ideology and the conservative Muslims as represented by the popular Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Ataturk looked to the West for his vision and saw religion holding Turkey back. He closed religious schools and banned people from wearing such religious symbols as headscarves and turbans that he saw as symbols of backwardness.
The military, the chief proponent of secular Turkey, forced out the first Islamist-led government of Necmettin Erbakan in 1997 in a bloodless coup. But Erdogan, who came to power in 2003, rolled back the educational policy seen as undemocratic and hurtful to pious Muslims this March when his administration passed a highly controversial school reform law.
Under the new policy, schools specializing in religious studies also used modern curricula and were known as imam-hatip schools, and were permitted to take male and female students from the age of 11 instead of 15. The policy also allows public schools to take lessons about the Koran and the life of the Prophet Muhammad as an optional subject.
Critics hace charged that Erdogan has been pushing for an Islamic agenda through education and that the policy would encourage more young Turks to study religion, which may spur conservatism instead of science and languages vital for Turks to catch up with modernity. The new system is also feared to end up lowering the country’s education standards.
Supporting eduction: The Bosphorus is shown with the Ortakoy Mosque (left) and Ataturk Bridge.But Erdogan, an alumni of an imam-hatip school like many of his cabinet members, argues the policy is a matter of choice for students to broaden their horizons in the context of compulsory education. It is not intended to force anyone to attend a particular school nor to take religious subjects, he says.
The law was meant to enlarge study frameworks and to speed up professional infrastructure to support Turkish economic development by allowing people wider educational choices at a younger age.
Education will continue to play a critical role in Turkey to make good its ambition to become a role model in the Islamic world because half its 74 million population are under the age of 28.
The need for more investment and resources in education to fulfill that dream is even more pressing because a World Bank study has found that in terms of quality, Turkey’s education remains lower than that of other OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) members.
Indonesia, where religious conservatism is creeping into its school system, has a lot to learn from its brother Turkey, where Islamists and secularists are at odds over the place of religion in the classroom and in politics.
The writer was among the Indonesian journalists visiting Turkey last month at the invitation of Medialog, a media forum promoting dialogue among cultures.