Foreign language policy in Hacettepe University

Author(s): Orhun Yakin
Institution/Organisation: Hacettepe University Ankara (TR)


Turkish higher education dates back to the Nizamiye Madrasa, founded by Seljuk Turks in Baghdad in the 11th century. A Turkish-Islamic institution, corresponding to the medieval university in many respects, the madrasa offered courses in religion, canon law and rhetoric as well as in philosophy, mathematics, astronomy and medicine. Geared to the learning and interpretation of knowledge rather than its creation and dissemination, the madrasa also served the needs of the Ottoman Empire during its formative centuries and years of power. However, lacking the capacity to provide intellectual stimulation and induce change, the madrasa as an institution became an obstacle to Ottoman attempts at modernization in later years.

In 1773, soon after the Russian navy annihilated the Ottoman navy at Ce?me on the Aegean coast, the Ottomans felt the need for an entirely different type of institution of higher education for the first time. Subsequently, in 1795, the Imperial Military Engineering College (Mühendishane-i Berri-i Hümayun) was opened. Under French influence, several other state institutions of higher education, similar to the Grandes Ecoles, were opened towards the end of the 19th century and in the early 20th century. These included the School of Public Administration (1877), the School of Law (1878), the Higher School of Commerce (Ticaret Mekteb-i Alisi, 1882), and the Imperial School of Fine Arts (Mekteb-i Sanayi-i Nefise-i ?ahane, 1882). The decision to set up a European type of university was taken in 1846, soon after the proclamation of the Gülhane Imperial Edict (1839), an official declaration of will by the Ottoman Empire to modernize.

The Tanzimat (reorganization) Reforms (1839-1876) created a system of contemporary schools of three years each: Sibyan schools, Rushdiya, Idadiya and Sultaniya, Teachers Colleges and University, respectively. Despite a variety of obstacles, Tanzimat succeeded in creating Rushdiya and Idadiya and in training their teachers in the western tradition. Though University failed or fell short of its objectives, the professional schools filled the vacuum. Tanzimat was successful in introducing:

  • Writing, mathematics, history, geography and some natural sciences
  • Modern techniques and aids in classroom teaching and applications
  • Teaching of Turkish and modern languages (ie, French) in schools.

The decision to set up a European type of university was taken in 1836, soon after the proclamation of the Gulhane Imperial Edict (1839), an official declaration of will by the Ottoman Empire to modernize. It took seventeen years of preparation from 1836 to 1863 before the Darulfunun (House of Sciences) was inaugurated. Moreover, due to social resistance, mainly from teachers in the madrasas, which by that time had become bastions of reactionary activities, the Darulfunun was closed down and reopened twice before it was firmly established in 1900 with a new name, Dar’ul-fununi Osmani (The Ottoman House of Sciences).

Robert College, the first Anglo-American type of higher education institution in Turkey, was founded in Istanbul in 1863 as a typical liberal arts college by the American missionary and philanthropist Cyrus Hamlin. In 1971, Robert College was converted into an English-medium state university and renamed Bogazici University as an English-medium state university.

The established pattern of the Turkish university based on the Continental European model underwent a critical change in the 1950’s, following the coming to power of the Democratic Party. The relatively more market-oriented new government apparently believed that the manpower requirements of the growing market economy would be better met by the American university model, and showed a keen interest in the expansion of the university system. Four new universities were established: Karadeniz Technical University in the northeast and Ege University on the Aegean coast (both in 1955), Middle East Technical University (METU) in Ankara in 1956, and Ataturk University in the east in 1957.

All four new universities were set up as campuses, rather than urban universities with the component parts isolated from each other. More importantly, however, METU was organized as a typical American state university with a lay board of trustees who appointed the president of the university, as opposed to elected rectors in the three older universities. Furthermore, its medium of instruction was English. The first private university, Bilkent, was founded in 1983. Its teaching medium is also English.To keep up with the demographic pressure and to meet the manpower needs of a growing market economy, 25 state and two private universities were founded in the period 1992-1993, bringing the total to 56 universities. Among these was Galatasaray University in Istanbul, the first French-medium university in Turkey. The system has continued to expand during the last four years, this time in the private sector. Sixteen new universities, 13 in Istanbul, two in Ankara and one in Tarsus, were founded by non-profit foundations. The system presently comprises 53 state universities, two of which are English-medium and one French-medium, and 19 private universities, 18 of which are English-medium and one German-medium institutions. In addition, some programs in the Turkish-medium state universities are carried out either wholly or partly in English, and a smaller number in German. A one-year intensive preparatory English course is required in various state universities.

There are two viable contenders to a higher education degree: foreign languages and computer sciences. Most of the public advertisements for market employment require both, even before the diploma or the institution. Then the question is how to acquire these skills. One of the dilemmas of recent decades has been (a) “teaching of a foreign language” or (b) "teaching in a foreign language. Private schools that teach in a foreign language also seem to be more successful in teaching the foreign language. Families in middle income groups who cannot afford the high tuition fees charged by private schools, forced the ministry to have a new category of “Anatolian Schools” teaching some selected subjects like maths and sciences in foreign languages so that students will learn. Everybody agrees that mastering at least one foreign language is essential. Yet the method and techniques of teaching it have yet to be found or innovated, without sacrificing, the language of national instruction-Turkish. The popularity of private secondary school teaching a foreign language is so high that the “private classrooms” (dershaneler) of tutoring have already become a billion dollar business. Among the cries for educational reform, those who can afford the tuition fees of private colleges teaching one or two foreign languages stand better chances in the higher education placement exams, for admission to a foreign language university and finding a job waiting ready at graduation.


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