In the 89 years since its founding, modern Turkey has made significant progress in developing a national education system. The state continues to play a central role in that development, and currently provides over 90% of funding for formal education activities in the country. The national budget for education has been increasing over the last decade. Between 2001 and 2011, the budget grew eight-fold, increasing from TL5.41bn (€2.3bn) to TL45.61bn (€19.38bn), according to the Ministry of Education (MEB). During that period, the percentage of GDP devoted to the sector increased from 2.6% to 3.8%. Likewise, the Council for Higher Education (YÖK) and university allocations have risen in step, growing from TL1.36bn (€580m) to TL11.50bn (€4.89bn) during the same period.

SYSTEM: The state currently mandates that children attend primary school for eight years, between the ages of 7 and 15, but the passage of a new education law in mid-May 2012 will extend the school system to 12 years across three levels. Pre-primary education for children aged 3-5 is also available but not compulsory in all areas. Options for pre-primary education include independent kindergartens or nursery classes integrated with primary education. In the current system, primary school is followed by four years of secondary education, but the new law has reinstated four years of middle school after primary provision. Some secondary schools have a year of preparatory language courses, known as “prep year”. With the growing importance of foreign languages in the job market, the prep year has become increasingly popular.

At the high school level, there are vocational and general education options offered by the state. The former offer training in specific trades and are intended to prepare graduates for employment. The latter is provided by three types of institutions: public, private and special focus. Public schools provide the majority of education and are funded by the state. Private schools are funded by private companies or foundations and may accept funds from overseas. Special-focus high schools, such as science, social science and Anatolian high schools, are public and provide an alternative to private institutions. Requiring entrance exams for admission, these schools offer instruction in foreign languages and, in some cases, have a curricular focus on specific disciplines.

Following secondary school, the majority of students apply to one of the country’s 174 universities and technical schools, according to the MEB. The 1981 Higher Education Law (No. 2547) centralised direction under YÖK. The higher education board is made up of 21 members, seven of whom are presidential appointees, while a further seven are chosen by the Council of Ministers and the rest selected by the Inter-University Council, a group consisting of the rector and an elected faculty member from each university.

GROWING PRIVATE SECTOR: Although centralisation has been a major theme in the government’s education policies since the 1980s, the state-oriented nature of the system has been evolving in the past few decades, allowing for the private sector to grow.

In primary education, the number of private schools grew from 613 to 898 between the 2003/04 school year and 2010/11 school year, according to statistics from the MEB. Although still only making up about 2.7% of the total number of primary schools, a growing middle class and evolving state policies could see that figure rise in the future.

Currently, the private sector plays a larger role in secondary education. There were 774 private general education high schools during the 2010/11 school year, a 65% increase from 467 in 2003/04. This outpaced population growth in the same period, which was about 9.7%, according to the World Bank.

FUNDING FROM ABROAD: Private schools have attracted the attention of foreign investors. Although regulations prevent many types of direct investment in higher education, regulation is far more liberal for schools offering both primary and secondary education, also known as K-12 schools. This legislation has paved the way for private funds to invest in schools. In December 2011, the Carlyle Group, a Washington, DC-based private equity firm, bought a 48% stake in Bah çeşehir Koleji, a private K-12 school operating across the country (see analysis).

The growth of private education has drawn some criticism, however, especially regarding the issue of inequality in education, which remains one of the major hurdles in Turkey’s education system. The results of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, a worldwide evaluation of 15-year-old students in Western countries, demonstrate this gap. In Turkey, well-performing students generally attend private or Anatolian high schools.

In 2006 one-third of the country’s 15-year-olds scored above the OECD average of 500 in the maths section of PISA. However, nearly half had scores under 420, indicating only the most basic proficiency. This gap was not just limited to maths – science and literature scores saw similar results.

The government has been exploring new ways to raise overall performance. These have included a curriculum overhaul that aims to develop a more student-centred approach. The 2009 test saw a marked improvement over 2006, and with the continuing evolution of policies and increasing accessibility, it is possible that these scores will continue to rise.

Bringing technology to bear in the sector is also an important government initiative. The Movement to Increase Opportunities and Technology (FAT H) is aimed at providing more opportunities for students to interact with technology by, for example, providing PC tablets and smartboards. In February 2012 a pilot involving 52 schools rolled out the programme, which eventually hopes to see textbooks replaced by 12,800 tablets. The government estimates the project will cost a total of around TL3bn (€1.3bn), which would make it the largest single education budget allocation in the country’s history (see IT chapter).

A HEAD START: Of the steps that the government has taken to improve the quality of education and boost attainment levels, its pre-primary education project is one of the largest. Initiated in 2010, the project offers various pre-primary education options for pre-kindergarten students. In the last three years, the government has been slowly adding to the list of provinces where preschool is compulsory. In the 2009/10 school year, it was mandatory in 32 of Turkey’s 81 provinces. In 2010/11, this number grew to 57, and in 2011/12 it rose to 71. There has thus been a steady increase in preschool attendance rates. A decade ago only about 11% of 4- to 5-year-olds attended preschool. In 2010/11, however, that percentage grew substantially, with pre-primary enrolment reaching 35% for the 2-4 age group and 43% for the 4-6 age group.

As student numbers have increased, so too have providers. The number of facilities, including nursery classes in primary schools, has more than doubled since 2003, growing from 13,285 to 27,606, according to the MEB. Likewise, the number of preschool teachers has risen, increasing from 17,511 to 48,330.

To accommodate this growing demand, the government is diverting resources from other departments to ensure public preschools keep up. In February 2012, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo ğan announced that the state would give 181 military recruitment buildings to the MEB to be converted to public preschools. During the 2010/11 school year, there were 4209 preschools (not including nursery classes at primary schools), 1570 of which were public, and the remaining 2639 – or just over 60% – were private. Assuming all of the military recruitment buildings are used, the move would translate into an increase of over 10% in public preschool facilities.

STRUCTURAL CHANGES: In addition to driving the growth of pre-primary education, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) introduced legislation in early 2012 that would alter the education system significantly. Passed in mid-May, major amendments include an increase from eight to 12 years of compulsory schooling for all citizens. This represents a shift back to the structure of the system before 1997, when the government combined primary and middle-school education into eight years of mandatory primary school. The AKP’s proposal aims to reintroduce middle schools to the education system, changing its current structure to what is known as a “4+4+4” model.

However, the law has drawn criticism from stakeholders, who fear that some of the law’s provisions may exacerbate the current challenges in the education system. A number of academic, political and business leaders spoke out about the bill in the lead up to its passage. These critics point out that the options to continue education through distance learning or take a more vocational route at an early age could be detrimental, forcing children into a track too early on in their education and providing ways for more conservative families to prevent their daughters from attending school. Meanwhile, proponents of the bill point out that other developing countries allow similar flexibility in their education systems.

A NUMBERS GAME: One of the major drivers of the intense debate on education policy is the competition in the segment, which is especially visible in the higher education system. The tertiary segment is made up of 103 state universities, 63 foundation universities and eight vocational colleges, according to YÖK.

For the majority of the country’s history, universities have been inundated with a sea of applicants applying for comparably few spots at the country’s top schools. In the 1970s and 1980s, university admission rates were as low as 9-15% for those who sat the Student Selection Examination (ÖSS). In subsequent years, the government has pushed to build more universities to create opportunities for students. In 2006-11, 50 new public universities and 36 non-profit foundation universities were founded, according a report published by the OECD. During this period, the number of students accepted rose by 40% at public facilities and 21% at non-profit foundation universities.

These efforts have eased pressure on the system in some ways. In 2010/11 over 1.59m applicants sat the ÖSS, and 874,375, or 55%, got places at university, according to data gathered by the World Bank. These rates are much higher than those of the 1970s and 1980s. In addition, legal changes to the higher education law have loosened restrictions on private universities and their funding sources, which could lead to greater investment in private universities and more competition in the sector. In 2011 Yusuf Ziya Özcan, the head of YÖK, said the state was set to make changes to university regulations that could create more opportunities for private investors to provide capital.

Despite the construction of new institutions, students still overwhelmingly prefer the more prestigious universities of major cities like Istanbul, Ankara and and demand for places at these schools continues to be higher than supply. The combination of such demand for these limited spots and the ÖSS’s role in securing admission to these schools has given rise to a large private tutoring industry. Private tutoring centres, or dershanes, have proliferated, reaching virtually every corner of the country. As of the 2009/10 school year, the number of dershanes was nearly equal to the number of non-vocational high schools (see analysis). Izmir, VOCATIONAL SCHOOLS: Alternative modes of education, such as vocational schools, could offer some relief to the country’s higher education system. To improve their efficacy, however, there are some cultural challenges that the government aims to overcome.

Many families in Turkey assign particular prestige to university degrees, as opposed to vocational and technical diplomas. “We know we should be focusing on vocational training,” Burak Arıkan, coordinator of the international relations office at Sabancı University, told OBG. “Vocational schools need their image to be improved so students will choose them.” In 2009 less than 10% of 25- to 64-year-olds’ highest level of education is vocational, according to a 2011 report by the OECD, which ranked Turkey 27th out of a total 29 countries surveyed. The effect of the low number of vocational graduates is visible in the job market as well.

Turkish employers report a lack of high-demand skills in the labour pool. In 2008 between 20% and 30% of employers considered workers’ skills a “major” or “very severe” constraint, according to a survey published by the World Bank in 2012. Oftentimes, a technically trained worker can earn more than an academically credentialed counterpart, even when employers assign more prestigious roles to the latter. “If you are a computer numerical control operator here in Tuzla, you can earn twice as much as an engineer… who is above you in rank in the same company,” Arıkan of Sabancı University told OBG. Increasing the number of vocational school graduates could help chip away at youth unemployment by providing young people with skills needed in the job market.

Education is, in some ways, starting to move in a direction that could better accommodate the realities of the job market, however. The growth rate for vocational and technical schools in the last five years has outpaced that of general education secondary schools. The number of vocational secondary schools grew by about 23%, from 4244 to 5174 between the 2006/07 school year and the 2010/11 school year, according to the MEB. General secondary educational institutions, on the other hand, increased from 3690 to 4102 in number, roughly 11%, in the same period.

INTERNATIONALISING EDUCATION: A growing trend in the Turkish education system has been the incorporation of foreign teachers, students and institutions. In 2001 Turkey joined Europe in the ongoing Bologna process, a series of meetings held between ministers responsible for higher education with the goal of creating the European Higher Education Area (EHEA), which was established in 2010.

The move reflects the growing popularity of English and other foreign language education in Turkey. Indeed, English is extremely useful for Turkish students who wish to study abroad, given that the EU, the US and Canada are among the most popular destinations for Turkish students. These students have been able to take advantage of programmes like the EU-sponsored Lifelong Learning Programme 2007-13, which includes the Comenius, Erasmus, Leonardo da Vinci, Grundvig, Transversal and Jean Monnet schemes, allowing them to study or participate in training programmes in the EU. Nearly 250,000 Turkish students have taken part in the programme to date. The European Parliament allocated roughly €7bn for the 2007-13 programme, and is considering a budget of €15.2bn for 2014-20.

The popularity of studying abroad has helped boost demand for private language courses, which are prevalent throughout the country. To better satisfy foreign language needs before students enrol in higher education, the government also announced plans in March 2011 to bring 40,000 foreign teachers to Turkey for language courses, according to Ünal Akyüz, the head of the projects department at the MEB. The government intends to recruit up to 10,000 teachers annually over the next four years to teach side-by-side with Turkish language teachers. The English language curriculum is highly grammar-centric, meaning that despite years of studying English most students finishing public school still have poor speaking skills, Akyüz said.

INCOMING STUDENTS: Just as many Turkish students look for experiences abroad in Europe and North America, many students in neighbouring Middle Eastern and Turkic countries seek education opportunities in Turkey. The government’s foreign policy has been increasingly devoted to developing closer relations with Turkey’s neighbours in the Middle East, Caucasus and Central Asia. This has been helpful in promoting Turkey’s role as an education provider in the region. “They [the government] are focusing on other areas that were not highlighted by previous governments, such as Africa, North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asian Turkic republics,” Arıkan told OBG.

Its participation in the Bologna process has also helped boost the value of Turkish education abroad by ensuring that its standards are in sync with the rest of Europe. The liberalisation of requirements for foreign students has also removed an important barrier. Beginning in 2010/11, YÖK lifted compulsory testing requirements for foreign students, who, instead, may now use national or international tests.

So far, results have been promising. In the 2010/11 school year, there were a total of 26,228 foreign students at Turkish universities and other academic institutions, including military, vocational and technical schools, according to the Student Selection and Placement Centre (ÖSYM). A total of 1880 foreign students graduated in the 2009/10 school year, while the number of new admissions is much higher at 7039 for 2010/11. With the incoming class more than three times larger than the most recent graduating, indications are that the number of international students coming to Turkey for education is indeed on the up.

OUTLOOK: As Turkey’s youth demographic continues to balloon, pressure on the sector is likely to increase. In 2011 those under the age of 15 comprised 30% of the population, making up the nearly 13.5m students in compulsory education. Although public institutions currently provide over 90% of formal education activities, gradual changes in legislation and the position of the MEB are transforming the sector’s structure. As the government encourages growth of the private sector, it is likely that private provision will increase.

However, with the large political role that education plays, these changes are likely to be accompanied by a lively debate between the government, educators and the public. Still, with virtually all stakeholders aiming to revise the system and improve students’ results, continued changes seem likely in the coming years.