Turkey's brain drain: Fake news 2.0


This is a serious topic and at the same time a very sad thing to write about, so let us begin with a short paragraph of satire first to brighten our day, just this once.

"Turkey Breaking News: Vast majority of Turkey's academicians are heading for different professional shores. All but a few of the entire sum of Turkish university graduates are considering careers abroad. Turkish firms can no longer find highly qualified personnel at home regardless of whether equipped with a university diploma or originating from a top vocational school." End of satire.

One should not use too many generalizations, but some of those anti-Turkish circles abroad – a topic I shall come back to later with more detailed analysis – hinted at above, might actually hope for this to happen, but what would be their benefit? They are the absolute minority everywhere, but outspoken and financially powerful so average people often think that what they see and hear is actually the truth. And those who defend modern Turkey in all its fascinating variety have a hard time getting published in the highly biased European media anyway. I speak from personal experience.

Is it part of a strategy in so far that domestic circles still intent on damaging the reputation of their own country paired with those who already left Turkey – plus a few foreign counterparts who never want anything positive for this fine country in the first place – simply want to tarnish the model reputation of modern Turkey by circulating false news?

In this context, and leaving the unfair criticism behind and finally approaching the real picture, a recent and very interesting report published by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) in 2016 compared data for Germany and Turkey with regard to both countries as a university and science hub, respectively.

In 2016, there were almost 5 million students enrolled at Turkish universities, whereas by comparison, it was 2.78 million in Germany. This is truly impressive from a Turkish viewpoint. Yet when we compare doctoral candidates enrolled in both surveyed countries, Germany topped the list with 213,200 compared to Turkey's 80,494. So yes, we acknowledge that the two countries are similar in population size and although one of them has almost twice the number of enrolled undergraduate and master's students and those in other university courses, than the other, a clear advantage for Germany is the number of its doctoral students. But things in Turkey have greatly improved in the past 15 years, which I will return to below.

According to Turkey's Council of Higher Education (YÖK) website, as it stands today, there are 185 universities in Turkey.

Last year's student population through secondary school, not factoring in the 5 million university students detailed above, stood at a remarkably high 18 million, with 900,000 teachers. Let us now make a simple mathematical exercise in the sense of that almost the same number of new entrants at one end will successfully graduate at the other end. In most European countries, the number of students and teachers, and eventually university students and professors, declines due to fewer children being born year after year, whereas in Turkey, birth rates continue to rise. Turkish intakes at all levels are expected to continue to go up at least over a foreseeable medium to long timespan. More students, more teachers, more academicians is a knowledge-based economy indeed.

The governing Justice and Development Party (AK Party), after its landslide victory in 2002, embarked on course of reforms. One realized that overhauling the Turkish education system was a must, as what the new government inherited was in no way compatible with other industrialized countries. One could actually go one step further and argue that Turkey was not even yet a fully functioning market economy in 2002. But unlike other countries where sometimes only one segment of that so vital societal pillar works perfectly and others fall behind – take the U.K. where most would agree that the British university system is world class yet secondary education lacks in comparison with Germany or France – in Turkey it became clear that reform of primary, secondary and tertiary education must run simultaneously and should start at the bottom, that is, with the youngest students, and not only support for doctoral candidates.

Examples from a much longer list include introducing compulsory 12-year education instead of the previous eight years and increasing the number of dramatically. Vocational schools saw many improvements, too. It is only fair to say that Turkey has started its progression toward becoming a knowledge-based economy unleashing the country's huge youth potential.

With the numbers as presented in this brief piece, and even if a few thousand academics or graduates head to other shores, no one using logical arguments could possibly declare that there is a brain drain in Turkey. Even more bizarre is the argument in the light of academics from other countries spending time abroad or even searching for employment abroad. Is this not academic etiquette? Is spending a few years working abroad not considered the icing on the cake of any successful CV? Is this again something every other country should benefit from, but Turkish academics and professionals are supposed to stay home?

What I rather suspect is that those who voluntarily leave their country and, once abroad, turn their backs on it have in the end much more sinister motives. Could it be that they either deliberately or by sheer necessity form an unofficial alliance with those who fled the country in the aftermath of the heinous July 2016 coup attempt? I am of course not saying that every one of that limited number of academics or graduates who have recently left Turkey for whatever reason are members of a terrorist network, certainly not. But they must be very careful of not having terrorists using their strange arguments, saying that they have left Turkey because there is a brain drain so as to try and destroy Turkey's otherwise impeccable academic, educational and job market reputation abroad.

Turkish universities are getting more competitive by the day, secondary education fully embraces the modern globalized marketplace and new textbooks and curriculums in primary school set the stage for the former two. One imagines that soon the gap between the total number of students and doctoral candidates will narrow. Finally, Turkey is well prepared to perhaps within a decade reach the on average 40 percent benchmark figure of those of the population holding at least one academic degree.

There is still a lot of work and fine-tuning to be accomplished, but Turkey is at it, so to speak. But a brain drain in Turkey is what I would call fake news 2.0.

* Political analyst, journalist

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