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Education: The Key to Turkey’s Prosperity

Why does Turkey’s Finance Minister see education reform as his country’s biggest development challenge?

April 30, 2013


I come from a family where my parents were illiterate — literally illiterate.

I mean, they couldn’t even read and write our national language. Both of them passed away years ago. I am the youngest of their nine children. None of my sisters made it beyond primary school. Some of them didn’t even make it to primary school.

However, one generation onward, all of my nieces and nephews are now university graduates or at least high school graduates, but most of them did graduate from university. That tells you something about the transformation that Turkey is going through.

As a government, we are determined to build on raising the access to and quality of education. This is absolutely essential in terms of improving Turkey’s long-term growth prospects and laying the foundations for long-term prosperity.

Nothing will get us more toward where we want to be as a country than handling the education issue correctly. There is, in fact, no bigger economic development task in Turkey that comes even close.

The challenge we face is tremendous. We currently have about 17 million pre-school (1.1 million), primary (5.6 million), lower secondary and secondary school (10.6 million) students. That is more than the populations of many nations in Europe.

Given these staggering numbers, it is absolutely essential that we continue to build new schools, build new universities and hire new teachers.

On the quantity side, we have done phenomenally well. We have built more than 180,000 new classrooms. We have doubled the number of universities in just a decade, hired around 360,000 new teachers and so on.

But we also have to excel on the quality side of education. And there, I’ll be the first to admit, we unfortunately are not doing that great. If you look at PISA exam results, for example, we don’t fare that well in Turkey.

One way of improving the quality of education is to introduce a performance-based culture.

Currently, the big divergence in the education which students receive in Istanbul and, say, Hakkari, which is the furthest southeastern spot in Turkey, is mainly due to differences in teacher training and quality.

Our government is trying to tackle this challenge on many fronts. We are in the process of equipping every single classroom in Turkey, even in the remotest villages, with fiber optic cable, a broadband Internet connection and providing touch screens and big whiteboards.

That is one way to reduce the current gap as quickly as possible, as least in terms of access to educational information. Another is that every student in Turkey from the fourth grade onwards will be given a tablet PC for free.

The overall objective is that we use these technologies to level the playing field as quickly as possible by centrally developing content and making it accessible to every single student.

But we know that technology alone cannot get the job done. So teacher training is a pivotal task, including via peer pressure in terms of performance measurements and in terms of offering incentives to successful teachers, setting an example for others to follow.

We also obviously know the importance of educating both men and women. In this part of the world, in the past, that unfortunately hasn’t been the case yet.

Changing that is key to realizing another vital goals of ours — boosting the labor participation among women.

The participation rate for men in this country is about 70%, which is fine. But when it comes to women, it still hovers at about 30%. That is up from 23% in 2005, the release year of the revised employment series.

If we can move these numbers up decisively, as we are determined to do, we can unlock a tremendous potential for economic growth and create a sustained boost to our GDP.

To get there, it’s all about making the right choices on education.

There are positive signs that we find very encouraging. If you look just at women in Turkey who have a university education, then their labor participation rate is almost at par with the EU average, which is 71.8% percent (EU 27). That is a remarkable achievement.

But I don’t mean to gloss over the much bigger challenge. When you look at the overall situation of women, whether in terms of overall educational attainment or labor force participation, we clearly still have a very poor situation to contend with.

Turkey’s long-term outlook is quite positive, simply because we have favorable demographics. Our working-age population is going to continue to grow until 2030.

But we cannot rely on the demographic dividend alone. That would be far too passive for my taste. It is at least equally important to get the other half of the equation right, which means a significant increase in the labor participation rate of women.

The key to that is better education. If we manage to accomplish that, then I think the economic and social upside in Turkey becomes even more significant.

There are signs of definite progress. A decade ago, we had only 91 girl students attending primary school for every 100 boy students. Now, we have 101.8 girl students per 100 boy students.

We have also raised compulsory education to 12 years. If you add pre-school schooling, that is likely to be somewhere about 13 to 14 years. We think this is absolutely critical. And that is why the education budget has gone up so much.

If you look at the numbers for 2013 onwards, the education budget has increased more than sixfold over the last decade. The overall share of education spending in Turkey’s budget is now almost twice what it was back in 2002, going up from 9.4% to 17%.

This is the core of our investment in the Turkey of the next 30-40 years.

Now, I realize that our education reforms have created some controversy. Suffice it to say that we value the secular characteristic of the state.

At the same time, students, in particular girls, who want to go to the school of their choice with clothing of their choice, then we believe that choice is theirs to make.

But wherever when stand on these issues, it is vital that we keep the overriding goal in firm sight — significantly expanding the level of educational attainment of all Turks currently in school or at university.

This is key when you think in terms of competitiveness and productivity, and realizing our country’s future potential. That goal should unite Turks of all political persuasions.

In all of that, we cannot forget the current reality in this country. If you look at population age 25 years and above, Turks on average only have 6.5 years of schooling. If you look OECD-wide, it is 11.2 years.

That is a significant gap between Turkey and the other OECD nations which we have to overcome.

Improving the quality of our human capital stock is going to be absolutely critical in terms of our ability to compete.

If we are going to compete successfully with the Koreans or other countries that have made great strides forward over just a few decades, then we need to do all we can to invest in human capital stock and enabling people to realize their own full potential.


Raising education access and quality is essential for improving Turkey's long-term growth prospects.

Turkey has 17 million students in school. That's more than the populations of many European nations.

Ten years ago, Turkey had 91 girl students in primary school for every 100 boys. Now, it's 101.8 girls per 100 boys.

The overall share of education spending in Turkey's budget is now almost twice what it was back in 2002.

Improving the quality of our human capital stock is going to be absolutely critical in terms of our ability to compete.