The world is moving into a post-industrial age in which manufacturing is becoming ever more complex and competition has become global. To succeed, countries increasingly need a highly skilled and educated workforce. Therefore, raising the level of skills conferred by secondary schools has become an urgent priority for developing and developed countries alike.
For me, the issue of education is no mere academic matter. I was born into a family of nine children. My parents were illiterate and none of my sisters attended school beyond primary level. However, in my family’s next generation, all of my nieces and nephews have a high-school diploma and most have attended university.
Improving Turkey’s education system — a country with more than 16 million primary and secondary-school students, more than the combined population of 20 EU member states — poses considerable fiscal challenges. So the first step is to create a sound macroeconomic basis for reform.
For many years, high public debt and macroeconomic mismanagement forced Turkey to pay a huge interest-rate premium in international financial markets — money that might have otherwise been invested in schools.
However, since assuming office in 2003, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has reduced the fiscal deficit as a share of GDP by nearly 10 percentage points, from 10.8 percent in 2002 to 1 percent last year, and cut the public debt-to-GDP ratio from 74 percent in 2002 to 36.3 percent last year.
As a result, government interest payments as a share of tax revenues fell from 85.7 percent to 15.3 percent over the same period.
These fiscal improvements have freed up funds for sizeable investments in education, without adding to public debt. From 2002 to this year, Turkey doubled the proportion of education spending in the total budget to 18 percent without hurting the country’s fiscal position. Since 2003, this extra money has allowed the government to hire about 410,000 more teachers, add 205,000 classrooms and distribute 1.8 billion textbooks.
However, to compete with the world’s economic powerhouses, like China, Turkey also needed to improve the overall quality of its labor stock.
From the 2002-2003 academic year to last year’s, gross schooling rates (which include students whose age exceeds or falls short of the official age group) increased from 96.5 percent to 107.6 percent in primary education; 80.8 percent to 96.8 percent in secondary education and 35.8 percent to 92.1 percent in higher education.
Pupil-teacher ratios have also fallen. In the 2002-2003 school year, there were 28 students per teacher in primary education and 18 in secondary schools; by last year, this had fallen to 20 and 16 respectively. And in 2012, Turkey raised the minimum period of compulsory education to 12 years. This is an important reform, given that the average schooling of people over 25 is only 6.5 years in Turkey, compared to an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average of more than 11.
Moreover, the government has improved educational opportunities. As part of the FATIH project to help underprivileged students, Turkey has allocated 1.4 billion Turkish lira (US$665 million) this year to equip its schools with broadband Internet and the latest information technology. Other initiatives, such as “Baba beni okula gonder” (“Daddy, please send me to school”) and “haydi kizlar okula” (“girls, let’s go to school”), have improved enrolment gender ratios, from 91.1 girls for every 100 boys in 2002, to 101.8 girls for every 100 boys in 2012. This is likely to improve female labor-force participation in Turkey, which is about 30 percent on average, but 72 percent for those with a university diploma.