Although the republic has made great educational progress recently, more must be done to improve quality, ensure equal access and connect students to the world of business. The stakes for reform are high, given the key role the school system must play in facilitating the country’s transition to a more knowledge-oriented economy.

“Turkey has reached a pivotal stage in its development,” Mustafa Aydın, the chairman of Istanbul Aydın University and the Higher Education Business Council at the Foreign Economic Relations Board, told OBG. “To remain globally competitive, the nation must produce a greater number of skilled workers for value-added industries.”


After 10 years of robust economic expansion, Turkey is now susceptible to the middle-income trap, a situation in which emerging economies lose growth momentum as their labour and mass manufacturing cost advantages fade. At the same time, such economies are typically unable to compete internationally in high-margin sectors based on innovation and advanced technology. In Aydın’s view, history shows that overcoming this obstacle requires substantial investments in human capital.

According to education officials interviewed by OBG, historical examples from countries such as South Korea and Singapore suggest that overcoming this obstacle requires substantial investments in human capital. This view is supported by collaborative research that was recently conducted by economists at the University of California, Berkeley, Korea University and the Asian Development Bank, which asserted that high-performing emerging markets are able to reduce the probability of a middle-income slowdown by increasing secondary and tertiary enrolment. Indeed, Turkey has had some success in this area. As indicated by government figures, the number of students enrolled in local higher education institutions in the 18-22 age group doubled between 2000 and 2011. Moreover, from 2000 to 2012, mean years of schooling in the republic rose from 5.5 to 6.5, according to the UN’s “2013 Human Development Report” (HDR).

Areas To Improves

Yet, despite this achievement, three basic weaknesses remain. First, in school attainment, Turkey still lags behind comparably developed countries. According to the 2013 UN HDR, in that year 42.4% of men and 26.7% of women (aged 25 or older) in the republic had at least a secondary diploma. In the same study, Azerbaijan recorded secondary school completion rates of 90% for men and 95.7% for women. To put this in a larger context, the average secondary school completion rate for citizens in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is 74%, according to OECD data.

Second, education officials must transition beyond “pure resource policies” and focus on enhancing quality. In particular, some professionals in the sector believe the academic environment in many Turkish schools is undermined by outdated pedagogical approaches. “There is often a misguided emphasis on test-taking and rote memorisation in local classrooms,” Uğur Gazanker, the CEO of Doğa College, told OBG. “Rather, our students need to develop critical-thinking skills through holistic, problem-based instruction.”

Third, a persistent challenge in Turkey is educational inequality, which is exacerbated by school entrance examinations and the expensive private tutoring that they require. Though gaps in opportunity and achievement have narrowed in recent years, especially between regions, surveys still indicate lower enrolment rates for girls than boys, and lower test scores for students in underserved rural areas. In evaluating Turkey’s scores on the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment, which is the most recently published as of the beginning of 2013, the OECD noted that larger-than-average discrepancies between high and low academic performers suggest that the system “tends to provide higher-quality education for the better-off”.

Helping Hands

Increased spending suggests policymakers are not taking these challenges lightly. In 2011 the Ministry of National Education (MoNE) received a 10.91% share of the national budget, up from 7.15% in 2000. Over the same period, expenditure on the sector as a percentage of GDP rose from 2.6% to 3.8%. “Buoyed by a decade of robust economic growth, the government has considerably increased the amount of public resources devoted to education,” Özdemir İçin, the president of the Turkish Educational Agents Group, told OBG. “Among other things, this allowed the MoNE to build and renovate schools nationwide.”


In what has been described as the largest education project in Turkey’s history, the government has launched an ambitious effort to bring tablet personal computers and liquid crystal display smart boards to some 40,000 schools and 570,000 classrooms. Known as the Movement to Increase Opportunities and Technology (FATİH), the initiative is designed to help pupils begin preparing for technology-based careers at an early age. Moreover, FATİH is expected to create a market of roughly $8bn over the next four years for IT firms, during which time millions of tablets and hundreds of thousands of smart boards will be distributed.

As of mid-2012 FATİH had received expressions of interest from 30 IT companies, including global giants such as Intel, Nokia, Samsung and Sony. However, the tendering process has generated concerns, with some participants telling local media that one of the bid winners acquired an unfair advantage by gaining inside knowledge of the auction before it was announced.

“The FATİH project has been met with scepticism,” Levent Sensezgin, the general manager of Sybase Türkiye, an IT solutions firm, told OBG. “In particular, there are some who believe the tendering process has not been managed effectively.”

Nonetheless, even many critics acknowledge that FATİH represents a major step forward in raising awareness about the adoption of technology in schools. “FATİH may still bring several benefits to Turkey, including the message it sends to educators that modern approaches are needed in our teaching and learning environments,” Sensezgin told OBG.

Early Childhood Education

Officials are also advancing plans to enhance access to the early childhood education (ECE) segment, which includes pupils aged three to six. As described in international academic literature on ECE and in cost-benefit analyses conducted by Turkish researchers, providing opportunities to learners in this age group typically has a positive impact on their long-term educational attainment, job prospects and earnings potential.

Under the first strategic plan by the MoNE, the government aims to increase the national preschool enrolment rate for children aged three to four to 70% by 2014, up from 39% in 2011. The ministry has also set a target of universal enrolment in kindergarten for pupils aged five to six by 2014. According to UNICEF, 100% kindergarten enrolment has already been achieved in 32 out of 81 provinces.

As of 2011, there were 28,625 pre-primary schools in Turkey, up more than two-fold from 13,284 in 2003, according to MoNE figures. Between 2003 and 2011, the number of students enrolled in pre-primary schools more than tripled, jumping from 344,741 to 1,169,556, while the number of teachers in the segment rose at a similar pace, increasing from 17,511 to 55,883. Still, rapid expansion has led to some fears that quality will suffer. “There is a risk that the expansion of pre-primary education will come at the expense of quality,” UNICEF noted in a recent article. “The teacher-pupil ratio of around 1:23 needs to be maintained and improved.”

Primary & Secondary

Primary schools have also seen rapid enrolment growth. As of 2010, Turkey’s primary school enrolment rate was 98.4% (up from 95.3% in 2000), meaning that the nation was on target to reach the UN Millennium Development Goal of universal enrolment by 2015. However, inequalities have persisted, with many central and south-eastern provinces recording primary school enrolment rates in the 89-95% range, according to UN data.

As of 2011, there were 10,979,301 students enrolled in local primary schools. Out of 32,108 schools in the segment, the majority – 31,777– are public facilities, which provide education free of charge and have a standard curriculum set by the MoNE that includes coursework in mathematics, science, social studies, music, religious education, foreign languages and Turkish history.

Despite the state’s dominant role in primary education, the number of private schools in the segment has risen from 613 in 2003 to 931 in 2011. Over the same period, the number of students enrolled in private primary schools rose 78% from 160,888 to 286,972.

New Goals

As noted in a 2011 MoNE report prepared for the EU, Turkey has established an official target to boost the proportion of students attending private schools (at all levels of schooling) from 2.75% as of 2011 to 5% by 2014. “The government has encouraged private provision for many years,” Gazanker told OBG. “Of course, this is also a market-driven development, as more families are entering the middle-class segment and thus will be able to afford the somewhat higher costs of tuition.”

The secondary education system, which lasts for four years from grade nine through 12 and includes general, vocational and technical schools, is also seeing greater private sector participation.

According to MoNE figures, in 2011 there were 2,666,066 students enrolled in 4171 general secondary schools nationwide. Out of these schools, 840 were private. By comparison, Turkey had 774 private general secondary schools in 2010 and 709 in 2009.

Vocational and technical secondary schools had a total of 2,090,220 students enrolled in 2011, almost twice as many learners as they admitted in 2003, according to MoNE records. Between 2010 and 2011, the number of private schools in this segment nearly doubled, rising from 24 to 45. However, cultural barriers have inhibited vocational participation. In a 2012 worldwide survey of educational providers, youth and employers that was conducted by the global consultancy McKinsey & Company, 60% of Turkish respondents indicated that vocational training had less social prestige than academic studies. By comparison, only 49% of German respondents indicated the same.


As public education has expanded over the past 10-plus years, it has also undergone repeated reforms. Major structural changes were introduced in 1997 and 2005, and again in 2012, when the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) established a new “4+4+4” education model that splits the system into three four-year segments: primary school, middle school and secondary school. Significantly, under the new model the mandatory enrolment period for pupils has been increased from eight to 12 years.

Some believe these changes might help Turkey catch up with other countries in attainment. As noted in the 2013 UN HDR, whereas the average Turk is expected to participate in 12.9 years of schooling, the average European/Central Asian remains in school for 13.7 years. Still, critics argue that the “hidden” purpose of 4+4+4 is to give religious institutions a larger role in public education. By allowing students to take vocational classes after primary school, the new model may encourage greater enrolment in which combine standard and religious curricula.

Furthermore, others have criticised the new model’s rules on school starting age, which have lowered the minimum age threshold for primary school from 80 to 66 months. This has generated concerns about overcrowding, with some estimating that the reduced age limit may bring a flood of 1.6m new students into the system during the 2012/13 academic year.

Aiming Higher

The university system is also undergoing a transformation. According to the Council for Higher Education (YÖK), the chief regulator for the tertiary sector, from 2006 to 2010 enrolment in higher education institutions rose 50% from 2,342,898 to 3,529,334. As of 2010, the gross enrolment ratio for students aged 18 to 22 in Turkey was 53.4%, above the 48% target that has been set by the government for 2013 under the Ninth Five-Year Plan.

This has been accompanied by an increase in universities. According to YÖK figures, between 2006 and 2011 the number of higher education institutions (excluding postgraduate vocational schools) in Turkey rose 77% from 93 to 165. During the same period, the number of semi-private “foundation universities” more than doubled, rising from 25 to 62. “The emergence of more foundation universities has been a positive development for our school system,” said Mehmet Karaca, Rector of Istanbul Technical University. “This trend has forced state universities to modernise their programmes in order to become more relevant and competitive.”

Foundation universities still have a small market share, however. As of 2010, they enrolled just 5% of tertiary students and only 9% of postgraduate students in Turkey. Moreover, given that all tertiary schools are governed by centralised regulations, some argue that foundation universities face bureaucratic restrictions that inhibit their growth potential.

“There are many different types of universities in Turkey, yet they are all treated in the same manner by the authorities,” Karaca said. “Moving forward, regulators should promote institutional autonomy by giving universities more control over key issues such as curriculum development, budgeting and admissions.”

Globally Known

One foundation school making headlines is Istanbul’s Koç University, which enrols some 4000 undergraduate and 1000 postgraduate students across a range of English-taught programmes, including an executive MBA ranked 64th in the world by the Financial Times. Along with a US liberal arts educational model, Koç features an academic staff mainly composed of US and European PhD holders. Like US-based schools, Koç also charges relatively high fees, although these are partially offset by scholarships and stipends. Globally, Koç was ranked among the top 250 schools in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, a distinction that has helped the institution to attract more international students (see analysis).

Most importantly, Koç has supported Turkey’s national development plan, Vision 2023, by focusing on research and development (R&D), with externally funded R&D accounting for 16% of the school’s budget. By comparison, R&D accounts for 23% of the budget at US-based Stanford University, where Umran İnan, the president of Koç University, spent three decades. “US universities drive innovation in highly profitable sectors such as medicine, energy, advanced automotive manufacturing and information technology,” İnan told OBG. “By partnering with private companies on local R&D projects in these business segments, we aim to fulfil the same function for the Turkish economy.”


Another foundation school meeting national needs is Sabancı University, which was first in the Ministry of Science, Industry and Technology’s 2012 University Entrepreneurship and Innovation Index, a ranking system that includes criteria such as intellectual property production and research commercialisation. Turkey’s first foundation vocational school, Istanbul Aydın University, also measures itself in terms of its societal contribution.

“Vocational schools have a critical role to play in reducing youth unemployment and improving Turkey’s stock of human capital,” Aydın told OBG. Bridging the gaps between students and employers will be crucial in this regard. In the 2012 McKinsey & Company education and employment survey, 56% of employers in Turkey indicated that a “lack of skills” often leads to entry-level vacancies. This put the republic in last place – with employers in India (53%), the US (45%), Mexico (40%), Saudi Arabia (38%) and Germany (32%) reporting more positive assessments. In addition, only 46% of surveyed Turkish youth indicated that tertiary education had “improved their employment opportunities”, illustrating how limited mobility in Turkish society has affected the perceived value of academic qualifications.


Turkey’s progress in promoting attainment augers well for the future. This is also a positive sign for the country’s Vision 2023 development strategy, which foresees unemployment dropping to 5%, and an increase in per capita gross domestic product to $25,000, up from $11,000 in 2011. Clearly, meeting these targets will require the nation to develop – from preschool to higher education – a pool of human capital that can meet the needs of employers in every sector of the economy, and in value-added industries in particular.

Yet, trying to leverage the school system to meet 2023 targets, and to avoid the middle-income trap, is not just a numbers game. Enrolment is up, but ensuring equal regional access – from Istanbul to Diyarbakır – will be more difficult to achieve. This is not lost on the ruling party, which has boosted school investment in underserved areas through initiatives such as the South Eastern Anatolia Project.

Already, the quality of education has shown improvement, driven in part by more innovative curricula. “Education officials can take pride in the gains that have been made over the last several years, but progress is more than just counting the number of students and schools, desks and chairs,” Emre Gönen, the vice-rector of Bilgi University, told OBG. “Now comes the hard part – that is, creating learning environments that foster the technical skills, cultural awareness and creativity graduates need to work in the global economy.”