Not since the beginning of the republic has Turkey's future relied more on making education a priority. Turkey's current student body hopes to be the first generation to fulfill founder Atatürk's dream of a path that merges with that of its European neighbours in terms of educational standards. But many of today's graduates are striving to turn their educations into work opportunities.
School is not a priority for many Turkish families who live in poverty. Half of the country's youth does not finish secondary school. According to the United Nations, nearly a quarter of Turkey's 74m people are children aged six to 17 years. If the country is to prepare this enormous population for the future - in or out of the European Union - it will have to pour significant resources into a severely malnourished education system, while increasing school attendance.
State education does not exist for children before primary school. International studies conclude that the low rate of children attending pre-school in Turkey - and the lack of a plan to develop pre-schools - contributes to overall challenges in education and beyond. In European countries and in other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, nearly all 5 and 6-year olds are in some type of state-supported school system compared to only 30% in Turkey, said Ayla Göksel Göçer, assistant director of the Mother-Child Education Foundation (ACEV.)
The average rate of schooling in the three-four age group is 67.8 % for OECD countries, but only 10% in Turkey. Turkish Education Union President Suayip Ozcan pointed out that even with limited grants from the state, the total yearly cost of kindergarten oscillates between YTL400 and 1000. Nevertheless, private pre-schools and kindergardens are becoming a particularly big business.
On any given school day, one in 10 children - 1.85m - will be found working for unregistered businesses, on the street or as seasonal agricultural workers, according to members of the educational community. Attempting to address this issue, the government provides monthly grants to poor families of $15-$20 for each child that stays in school, funded in part by a $250m World Bank programme.
Thanks to a combination of cultural, religious and economic pressures, more than 640,000 girls do not attend school in Turkey and only 3% of women receive university education, Ege University's research centre for women studies (EKAM) found.
In an effort to close the gender gap, the government recently increased grants to poor families that keep their daughters in school. Unicef and Milliyet newspaper teamed up with the ministry of education to get girls to school, particularly in the poorer, rural areas. Door to door visits allowed teachers to talk directly with parents. "Send me to school, Dad" began several years ago and was successful in adding some 70,000 girls to classroom rosters. With help from the World Bank programme, the government has been replacing dilapidated village schools with modern facilities.
That said, public spending is skewed toward Turkey's elite schools. 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, according to 2006 ministry of education figures. The remaining students attend vocational and technical schools (36%), open education high schools (10%) and private schools (3%).
While industrialists are baying for greater vocational training in Turkey, the European Commission released a report in 2007 that qualified the government's plans to develop vocational education an important step toward a convergence in labour standards.
Vocational training, however, is not a cure-all to Turkey's education and employment woes. 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, argued Bahadýr Aydagül, deputy coordinator of the Education Reform Initiative (ERG) at the Istanbul Policy Centre in January 2007.
Still, a good many Turks traditionally score among the world's brightest university graduates. But collectively, the state will have to chart a long-term course to extend basic education and more jobs to all.