Purpose The purpose of this paper is to measure the financial efficiency and productivity of 23 public universities founded in 1992 in Turkey over the period between 2004 and 2013. The results obtained will provide managerial information and act as a guide to public universities' administrations, in using their resources more effectively. Design/methodology/approach Data envelopment analysis is applied to assess the relative financial efficiency of these universities, while Malmquist total factor productivity index is used to measure the total factor productivity change concerning financial inputs of the universities. Findings The number of financially efficient universities and the number of universities showing an increase in their productivity according to their financial inputs change annually and both of them display a rough trend over the years. A decrease of about 5 percent in the financial productivity of the universities is observed which stems from a technological recession. Therefore, public universities in Turkey are not able to develop effective policies to diversify, increase and use their financial resources. Originality/value When the lack of studies within the literature measuring the financial efficiency of higher education institutions is taken into account, this study can fill a gap in this area. The analyses conducted here distinguish from existing studies on this subject with regards to the extent and diversity of financial data set and the measurement of both efficiency and productivity change of universities considering financial inputs concurrently.