Turkey's expanding tourism offering driving sector growth

Driven by government reforms, increased private sector investment, and one of the largest young populations in Europe, Turkey’s education sector has grown and matured impressively over the past decade. As the country moves forward on a host of education targets, including Vision 2023’s goal to reduce unemployment to 5%, macroeconomic fundamentals including literacy and enrolment have shown improvement. However, stakeholders have highlighted challenges to further improvement, including low enrolment across the secondary and tertiary levels, gender and regional disparities at the primary and secondary levels, and serious capacity constraints in the post-secondary segment.

The government has taken note, successively increasing its annual education budget each year and launching ambitious new projects aimed at increasing research and development (R&D) at post-secondary institutions. As the country focuses on creating the best education opportunities for its backbone demographic, Turkey’s vast young population is poised to capitalise on a growing and increasingly inclusive education system that will improve employability and employment.

Sector Overview

Education in Turkey is highly centralised and overseen by the Ministry of National Education (MoNE) at the primary and secondary levels, and the Council of Higher Education (YÖK) at the tertiary level. Central and provincial governments are responsible for staff and financial management, and education is largely publicly funded, although schools are permitted receive contributions from parents through school-parent associations.

The government has enacted several sweeping reforms in partnership with international institutions over the past decade. The Basic Education Programme of 1997 and the Secondary Project 2006-11, were both launched in partnership with the World Bank, and the Master Implementation Plan, which ran from 2001 to 2005, included UN Children’s Fund projects. The ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AK Party) educational reform programme was a key component of the 2007-13 National Development Plan. It set two key priorities for education modernisation and reform: increasing the responsiveness of education to demand, and enhancing quality. Progress has been steady: literacy rates increased from 91% in 2010 to 95.3% in 2013, and schooling ratios have increased at all levels of education, particularly at the post-secondary level. Today education in Turkey is steered by two key documents: the 10th Development Plan running from 2014 to 2018, which targets improvements to primary education, and the Lifelong Learning Strategy Paper, which was published in 2009 and is geared toward the implementation of the European Employment Strategy.

The Vision 2023 economic development plan also aims to increase cooperation between the public and private sector in education, reduce unemployment to 5%, build up Turkey’s R&D capabilities, and expand the ICT sector, which will require substantial upgrades to the current education system, including more participation from the private sector.

Increased spending in education demonstrates the government’s commitment to improving the sector. In its 2015 budget, the government allocated $38bn to national education, an increase of $2.4bn on the 2014 total. However, challenges and shortfalls persist, most notably in regional disparities and gender inequality at the primary and secondary levels, and participation, attainment and employment in higher education. Turkey still falls short of several key Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) indicators, according to the organisation’s 2015 “Education Policy Outlook” report, but new reforms and increased private sector participation will help address these issues.

Primary & Secondary

In the 2012/13 school year the government introduced a new 4+4+4 schooling system in an effort to improve learning outcomes. Five-year-olds begin school in September, with children enrolled in primary, junior high and secondary school for 12 years, compared to eight years previously. Pre-primary education for children three-to-five years of age is voluntary in Turkey. Government spending and reforms have made an impact on primary education. With the increase in the educational term, there has been a rise in the number of enrolments, with more than 16.2m students listed as attending primary, junior secondary, secondary or vocational and technical secondary schools in 2015.

The MoNE listed 26,972 pre-primary, 27,544 primary, 16,969 junior high and 9061 secondary institutions operating in Turkey as of the 2014/15 school year, for a total of 80,546 recognised institutions in the K-12 segment. Primary school enrolment reached 96.3% in 2014/15, with 96.04% of boys and 96.57% of girls enrolled in primary school, according to MoNE data.

However, at the secondary level these numbers drop to 79.37%, with 79.46% of boys and 79.26% of girls enrolled in upper secondary education. While this represents a falling off from lower education enrolment levels, secondary education enrolment and retention rates have climbed strongly in recent years, up from 70.06%, 70.77% and 69.31% for overall, male and female students, respectively, in the 2012/13 academic year.

Enrolment in upper secondary education is much higher in the western, central and northern provinces, including Ankara, than in the eastern and south-eastern provinces, indicating challenges for outlying regions in the distribution of resources and human capital.

In its 2014 progress report on Turkey’s EU accession, the European Commission noted the general increase in enrolment rates, especially in secondary education, though it said drop-out rates could not be monitored systematically. “Continued work is needed to increase attendance at all levels, especially for girls, as despite improvements, 61% of the working age population in 2013 only had lower secondary education (eight years of schooling),” read the report. “The gender disparity remains considerable in some regions while the gender gap in secondary education continues to decrease.”

Absenteeism and school drop-out rates are not published officially, but local NGOs have reported high levels of both, according to the European Commission, which recommended in its report that Turkey continues strengthening its monitoring of school attendance and drop-out rates. The OECD reported in 2013 that only 43% of 25-34 year-olds had obtained a high school diploma, much lower than the OECD average of 82%.

Private Schools

Private schools could be one way to enhance educational offerings and create space in the public system. Private international educational institutions operate in Turkey under Article 5 of Law No. 625, and have seen numbers and enrolment rise in recent years. “The private education sector right now is where the private health care sector was in 2002. Today less than 4% of K-12 students are enrolled in private schools. We anticipate the government will continue its reforms in supporting private involvement in education and this will lead the sector to expand and mature significantly as a result,” Övünç Okyay, senior associate at the Carlyle Group, told OBG.

As of the 2014/15 educational year, there were 3490 formal private primary and secondary institutions in Turkey: 1205 primary schools, 1111 junior high schools and 1174 secondary schools, employing a total of 144,917 teaching staff. Private schools at all levels have become increasingly popular, with enrolment rising from just 239,988 in the 2008/09 school year to 675,977 in 2014/15, according to MoNE statistics.


Praised for their international curricula, foreign-language teaching and high learning outcomes, private schools are nonetheless controversial in Turkey. Tuition fees can rise as high as $15,000 annually, and although they have proven enormously popular with wealthier Turks, critics have argued that income disparity prevents equality of opportunity in a public-private model, and that some private schools are teaching conservative religious curricula that risk politicising the education system.

However, the government is increasingly embracing private school expansion: in a 2011 MoNE report prepared for the EU, Turkey 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%. However, while keen to expand the role of the private sector in education, this enthusiasm is not spread evenly across all segments.

Prep Schools

Though there has been an increase in the number of formal private schools in recent years, by far the largest contribution to Turkey’s educational sector are dershanes, preparatory schools that provide supplementary education to students studying for the Level Determination Examinations (SBS), a standardised test taken before entering high school, and the formal University Entrance Exam.

A recent report by the Union of Chamber and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey found that there were 4055 firms offering private tutoring services in Turkey, and more than 1.2m students attending private tutoring courses in 2012. In 2000 there were only 1730 such schools tutoring 174,496 students. It is estimated that there are more than 4000 firms operating private tutoring courses, with more than 1.2m students undertaking studies to help prepare them for university entrance examinations.

These exams had traditionally driven growth in the prep school segment; however, the AK Party recently eliminated the SBS system, with high school admissions now determined by grade point averages.

The government passed a bill seeking to close dershanes in October 2013, with the prime minister at the time, Recep Tayyip Erdo ğan, reaffirming the government’s intention to convert dershanes into private schools. The government argued that dershanes provide unfair advantages to wealthier families, and are not overseen by the MoNE, leading to poor-quality instruction and outcomes at some institutions, while other stakeholders argue these schools are complementary, supportive and necessary.

According to government plans, all dershanes will be closed as of the beginning of the 2015/16 academic year in September 2015, with owners either having the option of converting their establishments to full-service private schools or shutting their doors.


Turkey’s post-secondary sector has shown enormous growth over the past decade and offers untapped potential for private investment, although there is much room for improvement. While schools and enrolment have shown promising growth, capacity constraints are limiting expansion across the board, and addressing these challenges will be critical to sustainable long-term development.

There were 103 state-funded universities as of 2015, according to YÖK, with 82 foundation or private nonprofit colleges and universities. Notable among these are Bo ğaziçi University, the only university to make it to the top 200 of Times Higher Education’s “World University Rankings 2014-15” (at 199th place); the Istanbul Technical University, the only in the country with its own nuclear research reactor; and the Middle East Technical University, a public institution in Ankara with more than 46,000 students.

A little over a third of 15-29-year-olds in Turkey continued their studies after completing lower-secondary education in 2011/12, in contrast with the OECD average of 68%, and although tertiary attainment levels have shown a strong increase in recent years, they are still low compared to other OECD countries. The MoNE reported that 38.5% of the eligible population was enrolled in tertiary education during the 2012/13 school year, with the OECD reporting that tertiary attainment is 19% for 25-34-year-olds in post-secondary degrees and diplomas, compared to the OECD average of 39%. Enrolment rates for 15-19-year-olds more than doubled from 2001 to 2011, from 30% to 64%, though this too sits below the OECD average of 84%.

Capacity constraints are one of the biggest challenges facing post-secondary expansion. Roughly 2m high school students sat the first round of university admission exams in early 2015, with just over 70% achieving a pass mark at the initial stage. While not all of them will move on to university, or be offered places, the rising numbers of students seeking a place at tertiary institutions will put pressure on the public system.

Private or foundation universities and colleges are the most obvious solution to capacity problems. They were prohibited in Turkey until a constitutional amendment in 1981 opened the door to private institutions, provided they were non-profit, adequately endowed and that the standard of teaching and research was no lower than that of public universities.

Private universities will be critical for post-secondary growth in Turkey. According to a British Council report, 96% of the 4186 students polled across 81 provinces think overseas education will help them secure professional jobs, while 86% of students surveyed cited cost as the biggest impediment to studying abroad. Tuition fees at Turkey’s private universities are often higher than those of Western and North American universities, according to the report. Retaining these fees will be important for long-term post-secondary growth.


Employment is another challenge facing post-secondary students and graduates. Turkey has experienced a serious school-industry mismatch in students’ training and skills, with many tertiary graduates remaining out of the job market, according to a 2012 report titled “Education as an Investment in Turkey’s Human Capital: A Work in Progress”, published by the Eurasian Journal of Business and Economics.

Although employment rates for people with secondary and tertiary levels of education are lower than the OECD average, at 62% and 76%, compared to 74% and 83%, respectively, they are similar for those who have not attained secondary education: 51% compared to the OECD average of 55%. Nonetheless, tertiary education still increases the likelihood of employment, with the OECD reporting that the employment rate among 25-64 year-olds with tertiary qualification was 14% higher than for those with only an upper-secondary education. A tertiary education also makes a significant difference to an individual’s wages: adults aged 25-64 with a tertiary education earn 49% more than those with only secondary education, and those without a post-secondary education earn an average of 31% less than their peers with secondary and post-secondary non-tertiary qualifications.

Government Funding

Increased funding for R&D activities is a government priority under Vision 2023, and Turkey’s post-secondary institutions have benefitted as a result. The government provides support in the form of grants and loans for post-secondary students, as well as the Industrial Thesis programme, which provides funding for up to 3.5 years for theses involving technology and environmental adaptation, in partnership with local universities. As of November 2012, 280,460 undergraduate, 1316 masters and 274 PhD students had received YÖK grants, with an additional 463,965 having received loans from the council.

Technology will play an increasingly important role in Turkish education as the government ramps up efforts to expand R&D and grows its ICT sector. In 2010 the government launched the Movement to Increase Opportunities and Technology (FAT İH), one of the largest education projects in Turkey’s history, which aims to bring tablet computers and liquid-crystal display smart-boards to some 40,000 schools and 570,000 classrooms.

FAT İH is designed to help students pursue technology-based careers, and is expected to create an $8bn market for IT firms over the next three years. In 2012 the government allocated TL803m (€282.7m) to the FAT İH project, with an additional TL1.4bn (€492.9m) earmarked for 2013. As of mid-2014, 732,000 tablet computers had been distributed at schools across Turkey, with plans to distribute an additional 350,000 interactive boards by mid-2015.

Foreign Students

Although facing serious capacity constraints across the post-secondary sector, Turkey is nonetheless moving to mature and internationalise its university landscape by capturing a larger share of the global higher education market.

Turkey’s Student Selection and Placement Centre reported a substantial increase in the number of international students in recent years, hitting 43,251 in the 2012/13 academic year, a 38% increase over 31,170 in 2011/12. International student numbers have grown by 179.4% in less than 10 years, with just 15,481 international students reported in the 2005/06 academic year. The government hopes to bump this number to 100,000 by 2023, making Turkey one of the largest global exporters of higher education.

“Internationalisation is a critical and vital aspect for the development of the education sector in Turkey. It extends beyond recruiting international students, however. In fact, international student recruitment is the first step in the much larger plan to turn Turkey into a global hub for education,” Yasemin Kilit Aklar, the international relations coordinator at Istanbul Şehir University ( ŞEHİR), told OBG. ŞEHİR has seen its number of international students, currently totalling more than 400, double each year since the university opened in 2010 with just 26 international students.

However, Hande Baltci, ŞEHİR’s international relations office manager, points to a YÖK cap on foreign student numbers as one challenge facing growth. According to the current YÖK bylaw, the number of international students at a university in Turkey cannot exceed 50% of the number of Turkish students. “This is a significant limitation for the university, and will become more of an issue as time progresses,” Baltci said.


While the government has shown strong commitment to advancing economic development through education reforms, much work remains to be done. Turkey still lags behind its OECD counterparts across a number of significant education indicators, with stakeholders complaining that regional disparities and gender inequality are impeding primary- and secondary-level achievement in the country. While the post-secondary education landscape has shown significant growth over the previous decade, capacity constraints and post-graduate employment continue to pose problems for Turkish students.

However, increased government investment and strong growth in private sector activities will help meet demand, with international students and ambitious technology projects propelling the sector to become a regional leader and global producer of both education services and educated professionals in Turkey.

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The Report: Turkey 2015

Education & Research chapter from The Report: Turkey 2015

The Report: Turkey 2015

The Report

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