Planning ahead for post-pandemic HE with a hybrid future

Turkey’s 2020-21 academic year will begin in the first week of October 2020, with 781,165 new enrolled students. The total number of students in Turkish universities, including those studying on associate and undergraduate programmes, is currently around 8.5 million.

Students gain access to university in Turkey after sitting the Examination for Higher Education (YKS) upon graduation from high school. This year 2,436,958 candidates sat the YKS. Among the students placed on an undergraduate programme, 54.18% are female and 45.82% are male; and among those placed on an associate programme, 49.28% are female while 50.72% are male.

The number of students placed is determined by taking into account the following:

• Human resource needs analyses at national level and quota planning suggestions. These are made by the Advisory Board for Higher Education Programs, which includes representatives from the public and private sectors.

• The views of academics, including faculty staff members and lecturers.

• The previous student enrolment ratio of each department.

• Feedback from students.

• The dynamics of transition to higher education.

Increasing student numbers

Between 2006 and 2020, there has been an increase in the demand for higher education in Turkey, with the number of applicants rising by 45%. There has also been a 108% increase in the supply of higher education places. Access to higher education is growing – in the last three years total enrolment has increased year on year, with 696,288 students enrolled in 2017, 710,982 in 2018, 753,461 in 2019 and 781,165 in 2020.

In line with Turkey’s goals as a country and its aim to reach a higher level of human, social and cultural development through the “quality of our human resources and knowledge”, the Council of Higher Education of Turkey has prioritised a quality-based growth approach in its planning. This has seen the number of places on associate and undergraduate programmes double from 402,155 in 2006 to 838,221 in 2020.

In order to increase the quality of human resources required by industry, improvements have been made in the two-year vocational school or MYO programmes. A number of MYOs have been set up within Organised Industrial Zones and have been working hand in hand with industry.

Bearing in mind the needs of the professions of the future, new associate degree programmes have been launched this year, including Digital Factory Technologies and a Support Programme for the Disabled. These programmes will start accepting students for the first time. Enrolment rates in vocational schools have continued to rise this year.

Following the entrance exam of 2019, a minimum basic achievement rate has been determined for prospective students to be eligible for admission into the faculties of medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, engineering, architecture, teaching and law. We have seen great success with regard to this requirement in this year’s results. Turkey’s 11th Development Plan has also prioritised quality of higher education.

The Council of Higher Education has taken a series of steps to improve basic sciences programmes in recent years and has developed major support initiatives, including grants. Enrolment rates, especially in chemistry, mathematics, biology and physics programmes, have reached 99% – 100% this year as a result of these initiatives.

We view the successful implementation of this year’s entrance exam during the global epidemic as an important indicator of public trust in the Turkish higher education system. This year, we will build a flexible roadmap and discuss every step we will take to ensure that the coming academic year is effective for all the students who have succeeded in extraordinary conditions.

Preparing the groundwork online switch

The COVID-19 crisis has affected all areas of society and has had a major impact on higher education in 2020. Universities suspended in-person classes in March in the wake of the pandemic.

Worldwide, universities developed and implemented online courses within a comparatively short space of time. In Turkey, the education given online was very successful in most universities.

Three of our biggest universities which already had open and distance education faculties – with thousands of students – were able to move towards online education for all their students more easily as a result. Some other universities already had centres for distance and online education and these centres helped significantly to build successful foundations for the move to online classes.

Also last year, the Council of Higher Education started the ‘Digital Transformation Project’ to support universities with limited infrastructure and expertise to transition to distance learning. Through this project 10,725 academics and 61,346 students took Learning and Teaching in the Era of Digitalisation and Digital Literacy classes.

The Council of Higher Education also built an open source database by collecting all open and distance education materials from universities. This database also includes courses given in the English language.

For 2021, many of our universities have initiatives in place to adopt a hybrid education model which blends face-to-face and online education, depending on social and educational circumstances in the near future.

The Council of Higher Education has recently published the New Normalisation Guide in a Global Pandemic which examines practices across the world. The guide includes framework decisions and recommendations under the topics of ‘Distance Education Practices’, ‘Applied Trainings’, ‘Assessment and Measurement Practices’, ‘International Students’ and ‘Meetings, Conferences and Exchange Programmes’.

Turkish universities are allowed to carry out different practices in line with different regional and local levels of COVID-19.

There are nearly 45,000 different programmes taught at our universities and the way each is carried out varies. For instance, the education or training processes associated with literature, sociology, fashion design, midwifery, traditional crafts, medicine, dentistry and aviation programmes are quite different from each other.

The measures to be taken with regard to the implementation of these programmes during the pandemic will also differ from region to region.

Recent structural changes made due to the pandemic have created broad possibilities for wide blended learning. Turkish universities will be able to make general plans through their coronavirus committees and other related boards and committees so that the pandemic will not threaten the health of students, academics and administrative staff.

These will be carried out in line with the guidance provided by the Ministry of Health and other relevant ministries. The health of all academic and administrative staff, and that of the students entrusted to us by their families, is at the centre of our decision-making processes.

From the outset, our approach has been based on agile management, strong coordination, flexible decisions and corporate diversity. We will support higher education students in successfully coping with the challenges of emergency online education, building their digital communication skills, and reducing stress associated with technology-related fear and social isolation.

Students need not only knowledge, but also the kind of skills, attitudes and values that universities can provide in order to face this challenge.

Professor MA Yekta Saraç is the president of the Turkish Council of Higher Education (YÖK) and has held this position since 2014. He has been working in YÖK as a member, board member and vice president since 2005. He is also a professor of Turkish language and literature at Istanbul University.