Turkey's young people are struggling to turn their educations into work opportunities. University is a privilege, with the vast majority of Turks not making the cut. Half of the country's young today do not finish secondary school. With poverty on the rise, school is not a priority for many Turkish families. Nearly a quarter of Turkey's 74m people are children aged six to 17 years, according to the UN International Labour Organisation (ILO). Not since the beginning of the republic has Turkey's future relied more on its youth.
One in 10 children - 1.85m - work for small businesses, on the street or as seasonal agricultural workers. Attempting to reverse this trend, the government is increasing the amount of money it puts toward education. If their children attend school, poor families receive monthly government grants of $15-20 per child, funded in part by a $250m World Bank programme.
Research done by the research centre for women's studies at local Ege University showed that as of 2007, roughly 8m Turkish women are illiterate. More than 640,000 girls do not attend school in Turkey and only 3% of women receive university educations. In an effort to close the gender gap, the government has increased grants for girls who stay in school.
In 1997, the government increased compulsory primary education from five years to eight to combine the schooling of 10.5m children ages 6 to 14. Falling into three categories, Turkish secondary schools include three-year college preparatory public or private schools and four-year vocational schools that aim to train students for the workforce. Public spending is skewed towards the elite schools, according to ministry of education figures in 2006. The state spends two times more per pupil in the selective Anatolian high schools attended by 8% of students than it does in general high schools attended by 43% of students. The remaining students attend vocational and technical schools (36%) and open education high schools (10%).
Most middle class parents are willing to spend a lot of money to prepare their children for selective high school and university exams, viewing university admission as the key to economic gain. Thousands of 14- and 15-year-old hopefuls spend a year of weekends in expensive private study centres called "dershanes", where they are filled with information necessary to pass tough entrance exams for selective high schools. Spending another year training in these study centres, nearly all third-year high school students attend preparation classes for the university entrance exam. Yet entrance to a university or college is limited to one tenth of the 1.5m students who take the exam each year.
The European Commission released a report in January that found the Turkish education system's biggest deficiency is its low capacity to develop a free market economy. Criticising the report's view of educating individuals according to market needs, Alaaddin Dincer, the president for the Education and Science Workers Trade Union, argued that this approach would commercialise education. He also said that rather than encouraging the private sector to invest in education, the state should fund education with tax revenue from the private sector.
The report called the government's plans to develop vocational education an important step toward labour compatibility. Instead of increasing the number of students in vocational schools, Turkey must increase job opportunities and wages to make way for a modern labour force, said Bahadir Aydagul, deputy coordinator of the Education Reform Initiative at the Istanbul Policy Centre. The 2006 World Bank study found that the labour market pays the same wages on average to vocational and general secondary school graduates, while university graduates are paid twice that of high school graduates.
International studies concur that the low rate (2.6%) of pre-school age children attending school in Turkey - and the lack of a plan to develop pre-schools - contribute to overall problems in education and beyond. The average rate of schooling among 3- to 4-year-olds is 67.8% for OECD countries.
Turkey's education experts are working hard to incorporate more critical thinking in the curriculum. Last year, the ministry of education introduced an "innovation" course in the primary school curriculum in which students present competitive business plans drawing on math, science and English skills. The goal is to foster employment relevance, technology and critical thinking in the next generation.
Elite private universities like Istanbul's Koc University are keeping many students whose families can afford to send them abroad for university on home turf. "Students might pursue some work or educational experience abroad but they are returning to better jobs and salaries than a decade ago. Turkey is experiencing less of a brain drain these days and more "brain circulation," Attila Askar, president of the university told OBG. "This generation needs to be very well educated and if we can increase the work opportunities for them, our future will be very bright."