On June 18, the high value placed on a university education was on display throughout Turkey as families waited anxiously while graduation year high school students wrote the university entrance exam, called the ÖSS.
The ÖSS has played a central, and controversial, role as a gatekeeper for Turkey's higher education since it was introduced in the late 1960s. Prior to the 1960s, universities had employed their own individual exams. With the introduction of the ÖSS, students take a standardised exam for entrance to all Turkish universities. While this has certainly simplified the process of applying to universities, the system also has a downside - given the intense competition, without a high score on the exam and no other mechanism in place to measure a student's credentials, students are unlikely to gain admission.
Many educators criticise the system for putting too much pressure on students, who worry that their test results will have lifelong ramifications, particularly for future job prospects. Given Turkey's high rate of unemployment, officially measuring some 10.9% in March 2006, unchanged from March of 2005, acceptance to university is seen by many as a guarantee for employment and economic security.
In 2005, the Turkish Education Association (TED) drew attention to the problem of pressure on students with its slogan "Life = 180 minutes?", questioning whether 12 years worth of learning could really be encapsulated in a three-hour, 180-question multiple-choice exam. Deniz Baykal, leader of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), has even vowed to abolish the exam, which he deems unfair, should his party come to power.
Others contend that the exam highlights shortcomings in the Turkish education system, pointing to the $1bn a year spent on private courses to prepare for the ÖSS. Dersaneler, or private after school teaching facilities, can be found all over Turkey and are common near Istanbul's affluent neighbourhoods. Such courses focus on the types of questions featured in the exam and strategies for how students can best tackle them. Critics note that this gives students from wealthier families an unfair advantage on the exam, as they can more easily afford to pay fees that can amount to as much as several thousand dollars for quality coaching.
While some 1.5m students took the ÖSS this year, it is estimated that only one-seventh to one-10th of those students will receive a place at university. As admission to university programmes in Turkey is determined solely on the basis of an applicant's ÖSS results, more popular programmes such as business or management - selected by some 25% of all university students - require an even higher score than other programmes at the same university.
With an expanding economy and a growing population, expected to reach 90m by 2025, according to figures from the Turkish Industrialists' and Businessmen's Association (TUSIAD), the Turkish educational system will come under increasing strain in the years ahead.
As such, in 2006, the Turkish education system attracted attention and support for reform from the World Bank. In February, the Bank and the Turkish Government signed a $105m loan to help finance the Secondary Education Project for Turkey. The programme is designed to expose students to information technology and bring the curriculum up to international standards in an effort to equip a new generation with the skills needed to compete in Turkey's growing economy and in the global marketplace. The loan comes on the heels of other education projects sponsored by the Bank, which recognises Turkey's potential as it begins the process of EU accession.
Over the last decade many new universities, including private ones, were opened in response to the ever expanding demand for post-secondary education. Even though Turkey already boasts some 82 universities, this number will expand even further as the country competes in an increasingly knowledge-based global economy.