Brain Drain in Turkey: An Investigation

“There were no opportunities for genetic engineers in Turkey when I graduated,” says Pelin, stirring sugar into her tea. We are having dinner at her place in Oxford on one of my recent visits there. “That’s why I left immediately after finishing my first degree. I wanted to do my PhD in the UK so I could find a job here also.” Her partner, Yusuf, nods his head. “I dropped out halfway through my biology degree as I knew I had no future with it in Turkey,” he says. He came to Oxford in early 2007 and took up a career in IT. “I wanted to learn English and the UK is the best place for it. Plus, America, Canada and Australia are just too far away.” Yusuf admits that the prospect of earning more money also influenced his decision to leave Turkey. “Also I have more freedom here. Rules work fine for me,” he says and we all laugh. “Of course, I do have plans to go back to Turkey, but not until I’m in my mid-40s.”

Turkey has been battling with a brain drain since the mid-1960s when many skilled people emigrated following the 1960 military coup d’état, which left people feeling uncertain about the country’s political stability. By the 1990s and 2000s it had become popular for students studying overseas to remain abroad, mainly because of better economic opportunities. In 2000 the Turkish government formed a special task force to investigate the brain-drain problem, but that didn’t seem to stop Turkish youth moving overseas to study—and staying on.

In June 2012 Today’s Zaman reported that “with the country’s 102 state and 75 private universities unable to cater to Turkey’s vast and ambitious young population, students are increasingly looking elsewhere for their higher education.” Out of the 1.5 million students to take the Undergraduate Placement Examination that year, only 30% were admitted to a domestic university—a major reason for students choosing to migrate overseas. While student numbers grew, Turkish universities did not, with the result that in 2010–11 there were over 22,383 Turkish students enrolled in formal education overseas, compared with 20,400 in 2002, according to a Ministry of National Education report.

But could this trend be reversing, as a result of Turkey’s economic boom over the last few years? It appears there is a new breed of educated young Turks returning to their homeland to cash in. And new private universities seem to be popping up every day in the big cities, especially Istanbul, offering more and more students the chance to complete their studies in Turkey.

Last October, Hürriyet Daily News ran an article on how the Scientific and Technical Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK)’s research fellowship program, aiming to bring home Turks living abroad, had seen a significant spike in numbers in 2013. The former minister of science, industry and technology, Nihat Ergün, said in October that 117 researchers had applied for the program in the first nine months of 2013—a five-fold increase over the past five years.

Al-Monitor reported in March that the Turkish government—after a report ranked Turkey sixth in a list of foreign citizens obtaining US doctorates between 2002–12—is keen to bring back its educated students and is looking into what incentives in can offer.

And it’s not just about Turks returning to their homeland. Those born overseas but with Turkish roots are becoming increasingly attracted by Turkey as well. Germany—with approximately three million citizens of Turkish origin—is one country seeing this trend. “Turkey is no longer willing to lose its qualified labour to Germany and is instead calling for a reverse, a ‘brain gain’,” it was reported in France24 last year. Meanwhile, Flanders Today stated in November that an increasing number of “young people with Turkish roots want to leave Flanders and return to the native country of their parents.” The sociologists Zeynep Balcı and Joris Michielsen, from the University of Antwerp, interviewed 27 people in their 20s and 30s about to leave for Turkey or already living there. “But there were many more young Turks who wanted to talk to us,” said the Balcı and Michielsen. “These are not isolated cases.”

However, there still seems to be no shortage of young Turks leaving their homeland to study overseas. Many desire to work abroad as well. I talked to my young friend, Ahmet, who graduated from university last year and is now working for a logistics company in Istanbul. Throughout his university years, he dreamed of studying abroad but for this reason or that, didn’t go. Working overseas is very appealing to him as well. He asked four colleagues if they ever wanted to study and/or work overseas and all four said yes to both. One 25-year old woman told Ahmet: “Absolutey, yes, I wanted to study overseas.” Asked whether she wants to live abroad, she replied: “It is my dream.”

So these days perhaps it is no longer a lack of universities or job opportunities that is persuading the young and educated to leave Turkey; perhaps one reason is the country’s increasingly authoritarian government. In April, SES Türkiye reported that “popular websites like Ekşi Sözlük may move operations abroad, [which in turn] raises concerns about a brain drain in the wake of recently enacted internet restrictions.” The founder of Ekşi Sözlük, Sedat Kapanoğlu, said it would be “ridiculous” to stay in Turkey after the Internet Law 5651 was enacted. And the head of the Alternative Informatics Association, Ali Rıza Keleş, told SES Türkiye that other online companies may choose to leave the country in the future.

The Turkish blogger and political scientist Binnaz Saktanber wrote on her CNN blog earlier this year that when she was leaving New York after completing graduate school to go back to Turkey two years ago, “[it] did not seem to be such a gloomy option. The buzz was that it had become the 16th biggest economy in the world, with a dynamic, young workforce.” But things have got worse. “I saw Erdoğan’s unbearable authoritarianism, his denigrating and polarising stance, a discriminatory attitude towards anyone who is not a Sunni Muslim or an ethnic Turk and no respect to anyone who is not 100% pro his AKP party. As for my beautiful Istanbul, the city I dreamed of whenever I missed home, I saw an utter lack of sustainable urban development.” Although the Gezi protests of last summer gave Saktanber renewed hope for the country’s collective consciousness, she admits that she does, from time to time, ask herself whether she should leave Turkey again.

A friend of mine, Kurt, who left Turkey in 1996 to study, returned to his home country three years ago. A graduate in chemistry and biochemistry from Trinity College, Connecticut, he told me he loved living in the States but thought it was time to return for a number of reasons: complacency settling in, a busted post-housing-market-crash economy and thus a lack of jobs in his field, wanting to re-Turkify and familiarize himself with his family, to spend his adult years in his own nation state, and to “take a cold culture shower.” But Kurt does recognize the problems in his homeland and acknowledges that he might return to the US “if Erdoğan goes berserk and 1984 on us. That, or a big earthquake destroys Istanbul…”

Another friend, Melissa, left Istanbul two months ago to return to the UK. She had been born in the UK to a Turkish mother and an English father, and after completing her degree in makeup artistry in 2010, followed by a year’s work experience, she decided to go and live in Istanbul. “I always wanted to experience living in a different country, and because of my Turkish roots I was curious about living there. Also opportunities within my industry seemed plentiful in Istanbul. I heard not only that there would be a lot of work but that those with a makeup qualification were held in high regard, especially those coming from a Western country.” But a little over two years later she has had enough. “I never planned on living in Turkey permanently, but also I found it very difficult to adjust and to accept the working culture here.” Although Melissa thinks there will be fewer opportunities in her industry in the UK, she feels her prospects in general are better there. “My experience in the beauty and fashion industry in Istanbul left me feeling a little disillusioned. I worked on quite a few film and TV series’ sets and did a few commercials, but I felt the level of professionalism just wasn’t there. And 90% of the time, I didn’t get paid my agreed upon fee and got paid three, four or even six months after completing the job.”

Economic development is only one piece in the puzzle of how a country grows. If things continue as they are—and who knows what Erdoğan has in store for us now that he’s president—Turkey may witness something I call a “reverse-reverse brain drain.” That is, young Turkish professionals returning home after study abroad, then leaving again after seeing the way their homeland is regressing.

This article was first published in Cornucopia Magazine on August 29, 2014.

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