A recently published higher education cooperation plan with Tunisia represents the latest milestone in Turkey’s plan to set up joint universities with North African Arab states in what is seen as an expression of cultural diplomacy or 'soft power' aimed at building regional alliances and partnerships.
The Tunisia-Turkey higher education cooperation plan was published on the website of the Tunisian Higher Education Ministry on 9 March and marks a first step in the implementation of recommendations issued at the Turkish-Tunisia Universities Collaboration Forum held by the Higher Education Council on 2 May last year.
The plan is part of a broader Turkish strategy to build cooperation between universities in Turkey and the Arab world’s 22 states approved at the First Turkish-Arab Congress on Higher Education held in Istanbul in April 2014.
According to a 2016 report entitled The Soft Power 30: A global ranking of soft power, which uses data to rank the top countries in terms of soft power, including higher education, cultural production, and technological innovation, Turkey ranked at 32 globally and is the highest-ranking Middle Eastern and majority Muslim state.
The cooperation plan includes the establishment of a joint Tunisia-Turkey university, promotion of collaboration among Turkish and Tunisian universities, and the enhancement of student and faculty exchanges.
The proposed Tunisian-Turkish University will be the third Turkish university to be set up in the North Africa region, after the Morocco-Turkey University and the Sudan-Turkey University, which are currently under development.
Besides setting up a masters degree programme in Turkish language at Tunisia University through the cooperation with University of Istanbul, the plan includes organising a programme to enable Turkish diplomats and students to study in the fields of Islam and Arabic language. This programme will be implemented by Ez-Zitouna University -- one of the oldest institutes of Islamic education that has been providing training for theologians since the eighth century.
The partnership with Turkey has also paved the way for the establishment of North African cross-border institutes or campuses in Turkey as part of a wider bid to position Turkey as a higher education hub for Arab students.
Turkish academic Mahmut Özer, writing in the journal Insight Turkey, said the country “has the potential to become a safe and reliable option for all international students and academic staff, especially for Muslims".
The first branch of a Sudanese university was opened last year in the Turkish capital of Istanbul by Neelain University which has also opened satellite centres in Saudi Arabia, Somalia and South Sudan.
Looking forward, a branch of the Bourguiba Institute of Modern Languages of the University of Tunis El Manar is to be created at Istanbul University. It will conduct applied research in methodologies for the teaching of Arabic to adults as well as offering courses in Arabic throughout the academic year, in addition to intensive summer courses.
Turkey is also taking advantage of political instability in countries such as Egypt and Libya, to consolidate its positon as a regional higher education hub.
An Arabic-language university was opened this year in Turkey called the Nation University of Science and Technology under the supervision of the Turkey-based Union of Arab Academics which serves as an academic home for Arab students and scholars who have left their countries and migrated to Turkey because of political instability.
To further strengthen historical and cultural relations between Arabic countries and Turkey, several Turkish universities in cooperation with Arab and Islamic universities have launched programmes aimed at teaching Arabic to students to achieve near-native proficiency, and to enable them to examine and analyse a wide range of texts in Arabic literature within various social, cultural, political and philosophical contexts. Examples of such Turkish universities include Ankara University and the School of Islamic Studies at Istanbul Sehir University.
Samir Khalaf Abd-El-Aal, research professor at the National Research Centre in Cairo, described the cooperation plan as a “win-win deal".
"While it helps North African states in developing its human scientific capacity, it helps Turkey in enhancing its regional soft power as well as deepening and strengthening its political, economic and cultural relations."
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