Students Flock to Universities in Northern Cyprus (NEW YORK TIMES)
By SUSANNE GÜSTEN
Shaded from the warm winter sun of Cyprus by eucalyptus trees, hundreds of students at Eastern Mediterranean University sat around picnic tables for lunch on a recent day, chatting about their final exams and plans for the coming semester break. Many of them would not be going home, it emerged: Namibia, Guinea or Mongolia are simply too far away for a brief vacation, especially since there are no flights from this part of the world to anywhere but Turkey.
The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, unilaterally proclaimed on the northern third of the island by its Turkish community three decades ago, is recognized by no country in the world except Turkey. It is diplomatically, politically and economically isolated from the world by international trade sanctions and travel embargoes. Yet thousands of young people from more than 100 countries study at its international universities, making education the leading sector of its economy.
Uchechi Owhonda, 26, a management information systems major, shrugged off the inconvenience of the flight embargo, saying that she would make use of the break to study. Ms. Owhonda said she came to Northern Cyprus because frequent strikes at her Nigerian university in Port Harcourt had been hampering her progress. “My experience here has been awesome,” she said, adding that she now hoped to graduate from her four-year program by the end of her third year, this summer.
Northern Cyprus, with a population of 300,000, has nine universities and a 10th is in the works, according to the Higher Education Council, or Yodak, the government body charged with overseeing them.
A total of 63,000 students are enrolled in these universities, of whom only 13,000, about 20 percent, are Turkish Cypriots. An additional 35,000 are from Turkey, and 15,000 international students come mainly from countries in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia.
“We just hit a new record of 110 nations this year,” Yodak’s president, Huseyin Gokcekus, said in an interview in Nicosia last month. After Turkey and Northern Cyprus, Nigeria sends the most students to Northern Cyprus, followed by Iran, Pakistan, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. The main language of instruction is English, with academic staff members from 60 countries.
Students from Turkey are generally placed in Northern Cyprus by the Turkish higher education board, which has integrated the Northern Cypriot colleges into its own roster and assigns students on the basis of a points system that leaves them limited control over where they study. International students, in contrast, come of their own accord, and many have worked hard for it.
“I placed among the top three in nationwide exams in Nigeria for a scholarship to come here,” said Sandra Obiora, a business administration major at Cyprus International University, on her way to class under palm trees on an elaborately landscaped campus outside Nicosia.
International students interviewed at various campuses said they had come for the quality of the education and for the international experience.
“The system is so much better than back home — the modern library, the discipline, the study atmosphere, the lecturers,” said Frederick Amodu, 25, another Nigerian, from Abuja. “If you are interested in learning, you will definitely learn more here in Cyprus.”
But like everything else in Northern Cyprus, the universities exist in a political limbo, unresolved since the outbreak of inter-communal violence between Greek and Turkish Cypriots soon after the island’s independence in 1960.
The Greek Cypriot government of the Republic of Cyprus, which is in the island’s south and is internationally recognized, asserts that the northern universities are unlawfully operating on territories occupied by the Turkish military and accredited by institutions of an “illegal” state.
“Consequently they cannot be accepted by international educational organizations or members of the international community in general,” its Foreign Ministry argues on its website.
Northern Cypriot government officials hold that Turkish Cypriots are within their internationally recognized rights in running their own universities.
“In 1960, when the Republic of Cyprus was established between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots jointly, education was left to the communities,” the Turkish Cypriot foreign minister Ozdil Nami said in an interview in Nicosia.
The universities of Northern Cyprus are accepted as members by educational organizations like the European Association of Universities and the International Association of Universities, but they are blocked from participation in programs based on intergovernmental agreements, like the Bologna Process or the Erasmus Program.
Most important, however, their diplomas and degrees are accepted by most universities around the world, thanks to their accreditation by the higher education board in Turkey, which certifies the Northern Cypriot documents.
“We have no problem with recognition,” Abdullah Y. Oztoprak, rector of Eastern Mediterranean University, said in an interview, pointing to a university newsletter item about an E.M.U. graduate who is now a research associate in bioinformatics at Oxford. “Our students are pursuing their Masters or Ph.D.s at the very best universities of Europe” as well as in the United States, he added.
Students who have moved on to other countries confirmed that they had encountered few problems in the transition.
“Flagler College accepted all my credits from E.M.U., except math,” Walter Antillon, a Costa Rican, emailed from Florida, where he recently completed a bachelor’s degree in communications. His E.M.U. education had been “most definitely up to the standards of American universities,” Mr. Antillon added.
For many of the students, the universities of Northern Cyprus serve as a stepping stone to higher education in the western world.
“People use it as a link to other places,” said Richard Alubari, 20, from Nigeria.
He that student visas for Western countries were more easily obtainable on the basis of an undergraduate degree from a Northern Cyprus university. Mr. Alubari said he planned to move on to Canada for a master’s degree after completing his bachelor’s at E.M.U. “It’s easier to get there from here,” he said.
The relatively low cost is another factor that attracts international students to Northern Cyprus. Tuition at E.M.U. runs $6,000 to $8,000 a year, with scholarships of 50 percent available to around 3,000 of the 16,000 students there, said Mr. Oztoprak, the rector.
At Near East University, Northern Cyprus’s largest university, with 22,000 students, tuition is $3,800 for most schools, while certain fields like medicine can cost as much as $17,500, said Irfan Gunsel, who heads the board of trustees and is son of the university’s founder. The university offers packages that cover tuition at most schools, dormitory accommodation and three meals a day for $6,000 per year.
While these rates may be low by international standards, they go a long way toward supporting an economy battered by decades of sanctions.
Outside the gates of E.M.U., Famagusta’s streets are lined with copy shops, travel agencies, cafes, exchange bureaus, fast food joints, bars, document translation services and other small service businesses.
With students spending not only on tuition but also on food, transport, travel and entertainment, the universities have become the leading sector of the Northern Cypriot economy.
The local trade chamber estimates that every student spends an average of $16,000 per year in Northern Cyprus, a sizeable contribution to an economy whose per capita gross domestic product was $15,555 last year, according to its Foreign Ministry.
It is welcome revenue in a country that has virtually no other source of income.
“We are not allowed to have direct flights from the rest of the world, we are not allowed to have direct shipping, we have heavy customs duties imposed on our export products,” said Mr. Nami, the foreign minister. “As a result of this environment, we were forced to find an alternative means of earning revenue.”
Mr. Gokcekus, the Yodak president, estimates that education contributes $875 million to the government’s $ 1.6 billion budget.
Suat Gunsel, the founder of N.E.U., is on the Forbes list of the world’s billionaires, estimated to be worth $1.1 billion by that magazine last year.
Quite a bit of that money goes back into the university, which features a state-of-the-art hospital with advanced medical equipment that is unique to the island, drawing patients from the Greek south. The journalism department has its own television and radio studios, broadcasting 24-hour programs around the island. Sports facilities include an Olympic-size swimming pool.
“In Northern Cyprus we don’t have gold mines or petrol or factories,” said Irfan Gunsel. “What we have is education, and we are only as strong as our universities.”
Word is getting around, leading to a surge in admissions.
At E.M.U. alone, the number of international students has almost quadrupled within the last four years to 5,500 this year. Mr. Oztoprak, the rector, estimates that international students will make up half the university’s enrollment of 16,000 within three or four years.
Ali Ahmet, a Sudanese industrial engineering major at E.M.U., said he had followed his brother to Northern Cyprus.
“My brother graduated two years ago and got a job back home right away,” he said. “His salary is fine, so now he has a wife and they are having a baby.”
Ilsat Fakudinov, 17, from Tatarstan in Russia, followed the internet buzz to come here. “I surfed the internet,” he said: “I found this university, read about it in some chat forums and chose it.”
Across Northern Cyprus, international enrollment has jumped from 3,500 students in 2008 to 15,000 now, according to Yodak. The total number of students has also surged in that time, from 43,000 to 63,000.
“We can reach 100,000 students within the next 10 years,” Mr. Gokcekus, the Yodak chairman, predicted. “We will call ourselves University Island.”