Turks claim student boom

January 9, 1998

The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus boasts one of the best ratios of students to population in the world, with just under 10 per cent of the 200,000 population in higher and further education. In 1986, the country had no university, now it has six.

The fast growth has occurred against a backcloth of international repudiation following the partition of Cyprus between Turkey and Greece in 1974.

The Turkish republic is only recognised by Turkey and a United Nations embargo has been enforced against it since partition. The partition occurred after a Greek-inspired coup resulted in a Turkish invasion of the northern side of the island.

The rapid transformation started with the establishment of the Eastern Mediterranean University (EMU) in 1986. But, as Ahmet Aker, one of the founding members of the university, points out, it was not easy.

"The situation was pretty desperate before EMU. All that existed was a rundown technical college, teaching the same students again and again. Many were expelled and just returned the next year and again were suspended.

"The standards and morale were hopeless. The only students who came were those who couldn't be taught anywhere else."

The first break came when the United Nations refugee body, UNHCR, provided funds for improving facilities under the auspices of providing education for refugees from the conflict.

Dr Aker says that it was a convenient way to avoid the embargo. "Whoever heard of a college just for refugees? It was a means of providing proper facilities for higher education. With the funds we created a physics and chemistry department and put the institution on a proper footing."

Following the UNHCR intervention, funds started to flow from other sectors including the Islamic Development Bank, and business and financial institutions in Turkey. When Turkey's higher educational body, YOK, visited, it suggested the government transform it into a university.

Within ten years large-scale investment from both the private and public sector helped the university grow to seven faculties and eight research centres with more than 10,000 students drawn from 34 countries. The university has a similarly diverse spread of academics with staff from 26 countries.

Several of the halls of residence and department buildings have been built by Turkish industrialists. About 60 per cent of the students come from Turkey, but the university is popular among Islamic countries including Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

The attraction for students from Islamic countries is that "Cyprus is a Muslim country, while being secular and offering a European level of education", according to Dr Aker. "As it is secular, it has the benefits of both cultures. I believe this university will become the cultural centre of the Middle East."

Cost is also an important attraction, being considerably cheaper than its European counterparts. Entrance requirements are based on the admission procedure of applicants' own countries. The university has about 500 students from the Turkish Cypriot community in Britain and there are even British Greek Cypriots.

The university is located close to the partition line in Famagusta, one of the chic resorts of the 1960s where the Beatles and other millionaires used to spend summers. Now much of the town lies empty in a demilitarised zone - the only inhabitants are the Turkish army and students. An old hotel has become a hall of residence.

As the republic is not recognised by the international community, the university has struggled to gain formal recognition from authorities abroad. Dr Aker says: "We slowly managed to overcome this in a piecemeal fashion, through word of mouth. When a student from here is admitted to a university, for example in London, we have a track record in that department. They know the academic level of student we produce and they can judge us: this is how we are overcoming this problem."

But the embargo has prevented the university from receiving some international funding. When it approached the EU for cash for a library, the EU agreed but insisted that the library must be constructed on the Greek Cypriot side of the island although transit between the two sides of the island is virtually forbidden.

The university has academic and cultural agreements with overseas universities, including five from the United States. It also has 24 exchange programmes with countries ranging from Kazakstan to the United States and Europe.

The university's success has led to five other higher education institutions opening, including the American South East University of Washington which has opened up a "branch campus". These institutions are much smaller than the EMU with a student population of only 6,000.

But there is criticism of the academic standards. Some Turkish academics say standards are not comparable with the mainland and EMU is a place for students who fail to get a place in Turkey.

Alpay Durduran, leader of the Turkish Cypriot New Cyprus Party and former mayor of capital Lefkosa, supports such claims. "The best Turkish students would never dream of coming here. These universities are just a place to make money for the island, not academic centres," he says.

EMU has given a welcome boost to the economy. Universities and tourism are two of the main sources of income and with EMU plans to expand to 25,000 students and the government's idea of creating a new university for 25,000 students, the republic may be the first country in the world whose economy is based on higher education.

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