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Education in Turkey

Located at the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East, Turkey has long been poised to reclaim its historic status as a significant global power. With the 18th largest economy in the world and a relatively young and growing population of 78.7 million people (2015, World Bank estimate), it is also one of the world’s most powerful Muslim nations. In 2009, geopolitical writer George Friedman’s predicted that it would become the Middle East’s dominant regional country in his best-selling book “The Next 100 Years”[1] However, both domestic and regional conflicts slow down the realization of Turkey’s full economic and political potential, both in terms of its geopolitical stature, and progress in key domestic sectors, including education.

Domestic Instability: Coups and Civil War

In its modern history, Turkey has seen its share of political crises and military coups. Most of these events had a significant impact on education. A successful secular military coup in 1980, for instance, led to a purge of the university sector, and a broad restructuring of the education system.

In 2016, the country experienced yet another military coup attempt. In its wake, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched a widespread rollback of academic and other liberties, systematically purging civic institutions of political opponents and critics. In the higher education sector alone, some 5,000 academics, including deans and professors were almost immediately affected by mass firings. At the elementary and secondary levels, an estimated 28,000 public school teachers lost their positions. The fallout of these events has had ramifications for Turkey’s international relations as well: The parliament of the European Union in late 2016 voted in favor of suspending talks with Turkey on European Union membership, a goal Turkey has been pursuing since 2004.

That Erdogan targeted the education sector is no surprise: Education has long served as a battleground between Turkey’s secular factions, backed by Turkey’s army, and conservative religious factions, which form the bedrock of the ruling Islamist “Justice and Development Party” (AKP). When the AKP first rose to power in 2002, education became a focal point for reform. The changes that ensued have had both positive and negative ramifications. On the plus side, a 2012 extension of mandatory education from grade 8 to grade 12 significantly increased upper-secondary school enrollments, and public spending on education increased substantially, as did higher education enrollments: Between 2002 and 2013, the tertiary gross enrollment jumped from 26 percent to 79 percent, as reported by the World Bank. On the other hand, the reforms have also increased attendance at religious schools, in many cases due to involuntary tracking of students after only four years of formal schooling – a trend that has alarmed observers both within Turkey and internationally.

Other domestic situations also have potential implications for Turkey’s education system. The conflict with the Kurdish minority in southeastern Turkey, which escalated into intermittent civil war since 1978, for instance, could potentially lead to a devolution of the education system, since the right to independently govern education is among the demands of Kurdish nationalists.