CAIRO—In a sprawling conference room at the back of a five-star hotel, Egyptians gathered this week to learn about studying in Turkey.
While at the study abroad fair, Egyptian student Mohamed Hassan grew frustrated with his failure to communicate smoothly in a language he has studied in Egypt for almost a decade. “My country taught us English for nine years, but I can’t speak English well,” he said.
Hassan said that’s merely a symptom of Egypt’s poor education quality—one of the reasons he seeks to leave and study instead overseas. As a student at Suez Canal University, “I’m suffering,” he said.
Like many other students in the Arab world, Hassan is looking at Turkey—a nation on the edge of the Middle East that is working to become a global higher-education destination and is attracting students fed up with poor education quality at home or conflict that is tearing through the region.
“Turkey is a great country to study in because my country doesn’t help me to achieve my dream,” Hassan said slowly, struggling to make his point in English.
Turkey appeals to Egyptians and others from the Arab world because it is a modern Islamic country that isn’t too far from home. Visas are usually easy to obtain and it has close cultural ties to the region, students and academics say.
For Egyptian students recruited through Global Vision, a for-profit company which organized the study abroad fair held in eastern Cairo this week, “it’s an even bigger destination than the U.S., Canada and Australia,” said the company’s business-development manager, Alaa Hammouda. Some students even say they favor Turkey over Germany, where education is free. Most classes at Turkey’s private universities and some of its state universities are taught in English—a language more familiar among Egyptian students than German.
During the 2013-2014 academic year, about 7,000 Arab students studied in Turkey, according to Durmus Günay, an executive board member of the Turkish Council for Higher Education. That comprises only a small slice of the total number of international students studying there: 55,000 this year—more than tripling since 2006, Günay said.
“Arab students’ education in Turkey provides interaction between the two cultures and internationalizes our higher education system,” Günay said, in an e-mail.
Students from Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Morocco and Libya are currently attending Istanbul’s Sabanci University, a private institution located in eastern Istanbul. The university’s president, Nihat Berker, said he would like to see the number of students coming from Arab world climb, particularly in light of cultural links and geographical proximity. “Every international student—it’s obvious—enriches the campus,” he said.
International student recruitment became a primary goal of the Turkish government and Turkey’s Council of Higher Education recently, according to Günay. Now, the government is financing thousands of international students every year in order to achieve that goal. It also no longer requires that international students take a central university entrance exam and is allowing universities to determine their own criteria for international student selection.
To improve higher-education cooperation, Turkish and Arab universities are signing memoranda of understanding. For example, the American University of Ras Al Khaimah, in the United Arab Emirates, signed a series of agreements with several Turkish universities in April to foster research collaboration and stimulate student exchange, according to the university’s website.
But there are challenges recruiting in the region, where security concerns have made it difficult to connect with potential students in countries such as Syria, Libya and Iraq, said Selin Aycil, of the International Relations Office at Sabanci University. Up and down Turkish diplomatic relations with Egypt and Lebanon can also affect recruiting visits.
“In the Middle East the culture is to touch base face to face with people,” Aycil said. While online marketing works, “it’s never the same visiting a country and doing some school visits or attending some educational fairs,” she said. But “that has been kind of blocked for us.”
That may not matter for some Arab students who say the same factors that make face-to-face recruiting hard are also driving them out of their own region.
“I chose to study abroad because in Iraq it’s very tough,” said Hassan Yaas, a freshman at Sabanci University, from Baghdad. “There are a lot of explosions [bombs] and these kind of things, so I chose Turkey.”
In Egypt, the number of students who wanted to study abroad increased after the country’s 2011 uprising, said Shaymaa Fakhry, a senior student counselor at Global Vision. The unrest led to a drop in security, and parents wanted to send their children away: “They gave up on the country, they gave up on the stability, they gave up on the safety,” Fakhry said. “They saw that there was no future here.”
“The conditions in my country right now are not that good,” said Egyptian student Mohamed Kassem, who is now a sophomore in Turkey. “In Egypt I was about to attend the American University but I decided to come here as a new experience, as a new life,” he said. “Here, they care a lot about the academic life of the students and academic progress.”
In addition to those who have moved to Turkey specifically for education, universities have also started to absorb a portion of the Syrian refugee population. Over the past two academic years, Turkish higher-education institutions saw a 300 percent increase in Syrian enrollment, according to an October 2014 report by the Institute of International Education and the University of California, Davis.
The vast majority of university-age Syrians, however, remains unable to access Turkish higher education due to obstacles that include a decentralized admissions process, government regulations regarding Syrian students, the language barrier and documentation requirements, the report said. Syrians and others may also face barriers at foundation universities—Turkey’s private alternative to free public institutions—due to tuition costs, although scholarships are available for the talented few.
Still, many students say Turkish universities are relatively affordable compared to those in the United States and the United Kingdom and the travel costs are lower for attending Turkish institutions. Four Turkish universities ranked among the top 200 this year on the Times Higher Education list, which could—among other factors—make them even more attractive for international students.
Mohamed Ayman is considering Turkish universities because their research facilities “are much better than in Egypt,” he said.
“I saw a robot in Cairo University that’s 28 years old,” said his classmate, Sherif Hussein. “There are no research facilities at Cairo University. There are almost no labs. You just need to memorize concepts and believe these concepts without seeing any practical information.”
For Abdel Rahman Tosson, 26, who studied chemical engineering as an undergraduate in Egypt, going to Turkey for a master’s degree simply makes sense.