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OPINION - Turkish higher education in days of pandemic

We are witnessing a period when digital, remote teaching in higher education is standing out

Prof. Yekta Sarac   | 21.04.2020
OPINION - Turkish higher education in days of pandemic

ISTANBUL

More than 300 million people are no longer in their workplaces and classes due to this extraordinary situation, which was declared as a pandemic on a global scale by the World Health Organization on March 11. Daily life and many sectors such as education, business life, economy and tourism continue to be severely affected in this period. Even if the process is taken under control, its impact will persist in many sectors in 2021.

Today a total of 7.5 million students are studying in 207 universities in Turkey, making it the second largest country of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) after Russia. As YOK [the Council of Higher Education in Turkey], we act adopting a swift management approach within the framework of the decisions taken by our state in order to manage Turkish higher education effectively in this severe pandemic period. In the meantime, we are also following practices and decisions made by world universities.

We are witnessing a period when digital and remote teaching in higher education is standing out, and the capacity of countries to offer mass open online courses has become significant in various levels. For this reason, we are working intensively with university rectorates, deanships and academic groups. This new education environment is expected to continue for a long time. In this period, we have realized that working at home, self-isolation and remote communication are quite difficult experiences. We are in an effort to manage the process by being aware of the fact that administrators should follow these challenges carefully and pay maximum attention to the values ​​that keep our students motivated socially, emotionally and mentally.

The measures announced and implemented by YOK during the COVID-19 outbreak are as follow:

On Feb. 4, all institutions for higher education were asked to take necessary measures and announce precautionary measures.

On March 6, when any coronavirus case was yet to be announced in our country, the precautions to be taken in higher education institutions regarding COVID-19 disease were classified into three categories; “Travel and Overseas Meetings”, “Meetings with International Participation” and “Measures Against Discrimination”. These precautions were sent to all universities in three languages regarding the foreign students in our country. On March 11, the day when the first coronavirus case was confirmed in our country, a meeting was held in the YOK building with “Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19)” its agenda with the participation of rectors (including some members of Coronavirus Scientific Advisory Board), of university hosting a high number of students, especially foreign students, academics specialized in infectious diseases and executive board members of YOK. In the meeting, the board decided to establish a “Coronavirus Board” in universities and to determine a vice rector who will carry out the process by making a broad evaluation of measures against the coronavirus. A constant and direct relationship has been established between the universities and YOK. Through this common communication platform, all decisions taken by the board regarding the pandemic are immediately reported to universities and questions from universities are answered.

As of March 16, education at all universities was suspended for a week with the decision taken by the government on March 12. During this period, the opportunities and capacities of universities for distance education were determined.

The Digital Transformation in Higher Education Project, initiated two years ago by the Council of Higher Education made important contributions to distance education process. As part of the project, a course titled Learning and Teaching in Higher Education in the Digital Age was given to nearly 6,000 academics in 16 universities. Another course named Digital Literacy was given to over 50,000 students. These students and academics were coming from less developed regions of Turkey in terms of socio-economic status. But thanks to more than 120 distance education centers founded in Turkish universities over the past years, this challenge was dealt with more easily. Also, YOK's Department of International Relations, which follows and reports on developments in universities in the world, also serves as a support unit.

A roadmap for distance education at the universities was created on March 17, by a delegation of concerned experts of universities. This roadmap worked on five primary topics: curriculum, infrastructure, human resources, content, and implementation. All decisions taken about these topics were swiftly put into practice.

In addition, all digital courses in the universities' course pools -- specifically major universities such as Istanbul, Anadolu, Ataturk Universities -- were opened to access through the interface, called YOK Courses (Courses of Higher Education Institutions), created on March 23 to meet the content needs of universities, and it was decided to add digital course materials of other universities to this pool.

The council decided that digital sources and distance learning methods will be used for theoretical courses in practice-based programs. Also, the applied courses will be given at the most appropriate time (including the extension of the calendar) determined by the universities. This practice and approach will also be ensured in the graduate education. Provided that it is auditable, no interruption will be allowed in these processes by using distance education and digital facilities. The same opportunities will be provided to Turkish citizens who are studying in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

Taking into account that the COVID-19 pandemic broke out after the spring term started and some students do not have the opportunity to follow the distance education, the council decided to enable students to suspend their registration for the spring term of 2019-2020 academic year if they want. This period suspended will not be counted in maximum time. In graduate education, the decision was left to the universities’ executive boards.

Measures to heal aggrievement of students in education

In accordance with the requests submitted by prospective teachers to the council, considering that students attending education departments participate in the practice-based programs in schools between 5-6 weeks, as a result of the works carried out in coordination with the National Education Ministry, it has been decided to compensate for the shortcomings in the practice-based programs through a written project like preparation of lessons, homework and files. Students in nursing, dentistry and pharmacy programs can serve their internships (including the summer semester) in the appropriate time in health units by taking protective measures or complete their internships via distance education. The final decision is on faculties.

During the pandemic, many sectors have halted their operations, and started part-time work and work on flexible hours. Likewise, students attending programs where the 7+1 and 3+1 education models are applied, do not have the opportunity to continue their hands-on training in operations. Before the first COVID-19 case was reported in our country, the students attended hands-on training businesses. Taking this into account, it was decided that the higher education institutions will allow students to complete their missing hands-on training and time in courses, with homework, projects, practice files, etc. via distance education. These decisions apply to the 2019-20 spring semester only.

It is still being evaluated that whether the senior medical students, who completed the greater part of their education and had to halt their education, would be able to work in university hospitals, and hospitals and health units operating under the Health Ministry as a doctor.

Another issue to be affected by the pandemic is mass tests, such as university entrance exam, foreign language test required for graduate education, selections exam for civil servants, and such. Even before Nunzio Quacquarelli, CEO of Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) a research institution on higher education, said "the global higher education sector should be flexible in their decisions, and the dates of applications for exams can be delayed", Turkey had taken decisions in a similar direction.

At this point, it is observed that Turkey's higher education system is clearer compared to many European countries and it has realized practices targeting minimum aggrievement. Both the central structure and the flexible administration have played an important role in this. It is seen that universities in many countries that are advanced at higher education but lack central structure have taken different decisions from one another in a disorder.

There are lots of structural changes in the agenda of higher education these days. It is often stated in the world literature this month that students will prefer to study in the cities and regions they live, instead of going away. So, education close to home will be preferred. According to this prediction, a new page will open in the higher education.

Despite all these challenges, the world has started to get used to this new system. The solid infrastructure of higher education in our country, no compensation in the minimum criteria, variation process, central coordination with flexible administration system, and a disciplined operation of our universities play an important role in overcoming this challenge. Our surveys show that the online education process in Turkey is being successfully carried out in many universities. We thank our university presidents, academics and students for their support and understanding in rocky road.

Lastly, I want to remind you remarks of Paddy Cosgrave, CEO of Web Summit: Cambridge University was shut down due to black death in 1665, Isaac Newton decided to work from home and created the ultimate formula for Newton laws. We will continue learning and working.


[ The writer is head of Turkey's Council of Higher Education (YOK) since 2014, and professor of old Turkish literature, rhetorics and exegesis. ]

*Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency

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