Educating Turks

Turkey’s Justice and Development Party has targeted education reform as a priority—to stimulate economic growth as well as to promote conservative Islamic values. But, so far, the party has not cut loose from the authoritarian Republican legacy within the education system as much Turks had expected.

Classroom in the Sarıyer district, Istanbul, May 17, 2006. Yoray Liberman/Getty Images

On a warm evening last June, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stood victorious before thousands of supporters to deliver his third “balcony speech.” He humbly thanked the nation for once again returning his Justice and Development Party (AKP) to parliamentary power. He promised that the next term under AKP leadership would be defined by “consensus” and identified his priorities as further democratic reform and the drafting of a civilian constitution.

Erdoğan’s commitment to consensus would soon be called into question, however, with the case of an opposition politician. Hatip Dicle, of Kurdish origin, won a seat in parliament from the Diyarbakır district in southeastern Turkey, but was barred from taking it up due to a terrorism conviction—that is, a trumped up case stemming from Dicle’s outspoken sympathy for the rights of the Kurdish minority. Erdoğan refused to support an emergency legal change that would have permitted Dicle to enter the national assembly, despite the fact that Erdoğan himself used such a loophole to take up his own parliamentary seat when the AKP swept to power in the 2002 election. Dicle’s seat instead went to a candidate from the AKP.

Since then, Erdoğan and other AKP leaders have become fond of repeating the mantra, “One in every two citizens voted for us.” In the view of many Turks, the thrice-victorious party has acted in ways that have alienated and even angered Turkish opposition parties, Kurdish and other minorities, labor unions, academics, journalists, and others. Erdoğan’s ambivalence toward consensus is increasingly a cause for concern as the AKP embarks on the fundamental reform of an institution at the heart of the Turkish society and state: Turkey’s education system.

Time for Reform

The AKP’s social policies are a key factor in the party’s political success and strength. It introduced an expansive health care program after the 2002 election and proceeded to construct state-of-the-art public health care institutions. The AKP also resuscitated the so-called “Green Card Scheme” initially launched in 1993 to provide free health care to the poor, the unemployed, and the disadvantaged. World Health Organization figures show that between 2002 and 2009, Turkey’s spending on health care rose exponentially to 6.7 percent of GDP. The mortality rate for children under five years old has continued to decline over the last ten years, bringing Turkey very close to the European average. Equally striking is the result of the government’s program to lower maternal mortality: records from 2009 showed a reduction from 70 to just 19 deaths in every 100,000 births over the last decade (1). Challenges remain, but without doubt the AKP’s action on health care is a prime reason for the party’s popularity with voters.

The AKP’s handling of education, however, with its ideological, political, and cultural battle lines, is proving more problematic. Clearly, Erdoğan sees education reform in the context of consolidating the AKP’s political, economic, and cultural power. Education is the social policy arena that attracts AKP politicians and followers of all levels. And it is an area where the AKP has weathered many challenges. It’s worth remembering that AKP reforms in general—and in education in particular—have been the product of difficult negotiations and formal as well as informal engagements with the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the European Court of Human Rights, the United Nations and its various bodies, and other such institutions. Turkey’s Constitutional Court, public prosecutors, and security sector bureaucracy have confronted the AKP on education in ways that have not only hindered the AKP’s reform program but also came to pose an existential threat to the party.

Nevertheless, the AKP is demonstrating a readiness to take on education reform, and with two broad objectives in mind: providing quality education for all, and transforming the structure and philosophy of Turkey’s education system from one that is republican (read: authoritarian), secular, and centralized to one that is democratic, pious, conservative, and decentralized. The first aim is a largely technical task to be handled primarily by the Ministry of National Education (MoNE); the latter is a delicate political and social undertaking that will require the support of Turkey’s legislature, judiciary, and other national and international principals.

Although the AKP started early and began introducing substantial social reform in its first four years in power, it took almost as long to specify policy targets for education. At the end of 2009, the MoNE drafted and submitted its first ever strategic plan, for the years 2010 to 2014 (2). It identified technical and quantitative policy targets that were cited in the Ninth Strategic Plan (2007–13) from the former State Planning Agency as well as AKP campaign statements.

This strategic plan listed key policy priorities as follows:

(1) Compulsory, free, and formal early childhood education;

(2) Higher rates of enrollment, specifically 100 percent in primary school and over 90 percent in secondary school;

(3) Better equipped and technologically advanced learning environments;

(4) Equitable distribution of highly qualified teachers and guidance counselors;

(5) Development and implementation of quality standards for formal education;

(6) Reform of vocational technical education (VTE) in secondary and higher education levels in collaboration with economic factors as well as in response to labor market requirements;

7) Establishment of inclusive education for children with special needs in all levels of formal education;

(8) Expansion of life-long learning opportunities;

(9) Reform of assessment and selection systems for each level of education to facilitate easier access and better placement.

With large-scale funding from international organizations such as the World Bank, the European Commission, and the United Nations, policy goals were enriched to target vulnerable groups such as girls; Roma children; religious, linguistic and ethnic minorities; children with special needs; and the poor. Outside funding was also obtained to further increase the capacities of classrooms, schools, educators, and administrative departments within the ministry.

Moreover, this strategic plan included a number of policy formulations related to structural and contextual changes.

Education is vital for Turkey’s economic growth. Therefore, first, the AKP will adopt a flexible and modular approach for secondary and higher education so graduates can transition smoothly into labor markets.

Second, the AKP seeks international stature. Turkey’s private and public education institutions aspire to gain international recognition and demonstrate the competitiveness of Turkish and Islamic civilizations against both developed and developing nations.

Third, the AKP wants to end centralized education policy-making and administration in favor of greater involvement by local government bodies and non-governmental organizations. The AKP aims to achieve this through structural reforms that target higher administrative bodies such as the Higher Education Council (Yükseköğretim Kurulu, or YÖK) and its Assessment, Selection and Placement Center (T.C. Ölçme Seçme Yerleştirme Merkezi, or ÖSYM), as well as the MoNE itself.

Finally, the AKP wants to revise the content of formal education to reflect the party’s core values, such as democracy, human rights, and the welfare of Turkey’s youth.

Republican Values and the Turkish State

It is now becoming apparent that the AKP has added a fifth item to its list of basic goals in education: the party wants the Turkish system to inculcate the core values of religious conservatism. Hitherto, AKP policy pronouncements, as well as the planning documents of government bodies it controls, have always affirmed the AKP’s commitment to Atatürkism and Republican principles, which include secularism. Although Erdoğan and most AKP leaders have been active as Islamists in the past, the party rejects characterizations that label it a fundamentalist political organization. But in February, at an annual summit of AKP provincial administrators, Erdoğan expressed his government’s philosophy of education by saying, “We aim to nurture a pious generation.” Such an intention, if actually implemented, will overturn ideological and psychological norms that have long held sway in the Turkish Republic.

The makers of Turkey’s modern education policies designed the education system to be part of a larger, nation-building project following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and Islamic Caliphate. The “pedagogical state” has imparted ideas of citizenship, authority, sovereignty, and nationalism through formal education since the earliest days of the Republic (3). Countless references to militarism were woven into the fabric of everyday life at schools. School curricula, teaching programs, forms of socialization within and outside classrooms, ceremonies, assemblies, and relationships between various stakeholders have been characterized by a vertical hierarchy and strong authoritarian tendencies. Configured as gendered, unequal, and undemocratic arenas, the institutions for formal education were designed to breed disciplined patriots loyal to Republican values.

Militarism’s influence in formal education peaked in the run-up to the military takeover on September 12, 1980. In February of that year, a decree had been passed to add “national defense education” to formal secondary education. Serving and retired military officials were authorized to vet curricula and teaching materials provided for the instruction of young adults in modern warfare. Then, in 1981, the YÖK was established to regulate and police universities—which had become sites of political violence—and academia in general. The advance of the regime led to the weakening of key Republican ideals such as secularism and positivism. Influenced by the philosophy of the Intellectuals’ Hearth, a community of Muslim and Turkish nationalist scholars who believed that the secular Republican education system of 1960s and 1970s actually nurtured an anarchist and unpatriotic youth, Kenan Evren’s junta introduced compulsory courses in religion into formal education, created vocational high schools to train preachers and prayer leaders, and revamped the public body to regulate the sphere of religion, the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı, or DIB).

The junta policies failed on two fronts: the political and the pedagogical. Though great care was given to homogenizing generations of students through methodological, monolingual, secular, and Atatürkist teaching, high schools and universities nonetheless harbored diverse political, ideological, and faith-based factions that responded to larger social and political movements of the time. Right-wing nationalists, Islamic fundamentalists, leftists, Kurdish activists, anarchists, and the ‘deep state’ all mobilized and continued to mobilize in universities, secondary schools, public and private boarding schools, private college prep centers, and private Koranic programs. The new policies also yielded undesirable learning outcomes and failed to provide generations of students with a sound education.

Of all adult citizens aged between twenty-five and thirty-five today, more than 300,000 women are illiterate. Sixty percent of Kurdish-speaking women under twenty-nine hold only primary school diplomas, according to research published in 2009 by the Bahçeşehir University Center for Economic and Social Research (BETAM). In 2008, 58 percent of women and 43 percent of men under twenty-four did not have a secondary school diploma. Episodes of political and economic conflict dampened the prospects of nurturing and maintaining quality education across the country. And consequently, it isn’t surprising that in 2003 the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), in its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, placed Turkey well below the OECD average in  the “quality of schools’ educational resources” category.

In 2002, the AKP inherited an education system that had failed to deliver quality learning outcomes or foster a democratic, fair, equal, and humane relationship with its users. Considering the weight of the burden and the size of the challenge, the AKP started out fairly strongly. Per capita public spending on education rose from 3 to 4 percent between 2006 and 2012 and significant strides have been taken, especially in pre-school and primary education. Since its introduction in 2009, early childhood education has become a pillar of AKP education policies. MoNE recorded a 43.1 percent net increase in pre-school enrollment in 2010 (4). It reported an increased enrollment rate in primary education from 91 percent in 2002 to 98 percent in 2011, and in secondary education from 50 percent in 2002 to 70 percent in 2011. Today, Turkey’s schools, boarding facilities, and classrooms are all better equipped and less crowded than they were in 2005.

Yet, compared to most European and some developing countries, Turkey still underperforms in crucial areas such as literacy and enrollment in secondary and higher education, and it spends less on education than the average spent by member countries of the OECD. Regional, ethnic, linguistic, and gender inequalities continue to pervade Turkey’s education and health care systems. In parts of central and southeastern Turkey, girls’ enrollment rates in primary school fall below 92 percent. In the cities of Kars, Iğdır, Ağrı, and Ardahan in eastern Turkey, more than 50 percent of the youth between the ages of fifteen and nineteen do not hold primary school diplomas, and eight out of ten women in their early twenties did not attend primary school. Children from disadvantaged families, Roma children, and children whose parents are victims of forced migration continue to face barriers to entering the education system. Turkey has not fully and sufficiently delivered quality education for all, despite the work of organizations such as UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) and the World Bank to develop standards, performance criteria, and governance mechanisms in all levels of education, from the classroom and the school to district and central administration. In the PISA test, Turkey is achieving higher scores than a few years ago. However, with 454 average points in mean science performance, it still ranked far lower than the OECD average of 501. Similar trends are observed in Turkey’s literacy and math scores.

A Half-Hearted Farewell?

The AKP registered results for many of its qualitative and quantitative education policy goals in its first two terms in power. But, at least until recently, it has proved to be more cautious in pursuing some of the goals related to changing the philosophy and content of the Republican education system. Such an effort means confronting the judicial and military elites that serve as the Republican system’s protectors. But it may be, too, that the AKP’s farewell to the Republican legacy is only half-hearted, at least where the AKP shows an inclination to use Republican-style authoritarianism to advance its own interests. Observers of Turkish politics such as sociologist Tanıl Bora have noted that Turkey’s Islamists have co-opted Republican references of statehood, sovereignty, and political institutionalism and corporatism.

Until now, the AKP has been very cautious about the issue of religion and education, and rightly so. In March 2008, Chief Prosecutor Abdurrahman Yalçınkaya drafted a 162-page indictment against the party, claiming that its philosophy and actions were anti-secular and therefore unconstitutional. The indictment contained nearly eighty references to İmam Hatip Liseleri, or IHL, the system of vocational high schools for Muslim preachers, to argue that AKP support for IHLs demonstrates the party’s anti-secular character. In fact, IHLs were launched in 1924 to train future generations of religious leaders whose loyalty to the state would be assured by government oversight and patronage. IHLs have been a source of political tension in the past between conservative governments that sought to expand their size and influence, and secular military and civilian elites who sought to contain them (5). This tug of war naturally migrated into the AKP era; most of AKP’s leadership, notably Erdoğan himself, are graduates of IHLs.

Yet, given that its core constituency includes families and students who rely on IHLs for education and jobs, the AKP has become more intent on defending equal opportunities for IHLs. The party has removed some of the barriers that IHL students and graduates faced, such as the practice of calculating the university entrance exam scores of IHL and other vocational technical high school graduates by a lower coefficient to dampen their prospects of securing a better/higher placement in a reputable Turkish university. However, the AKP did not abolish the YÖK, a Republican institution that has in the past pioneered and administered discriminatory practices against IHL graduates and headscarved women.

On another religious issue, the AKP is proving reluctant to end Republican-era faith-based discrimination in education. Community associations representing Turkey’s sizeable Alevi minority, whose faith is an offshoot of Shiite Islam, have regularly petitioned the government to end the constitutional requirement to teach religion—that is, the mainstream Sunni brand—in state schools.

Then, there is the AKP’s curious handling of the headscarf issue. The headscarf ban—on the grounds that it violated Turkish secularism—is one of the darkest legacies of Republican rule. It has cost hundreds of thousands of headscarved women, about 65 percent of Turkey’s female population, their equal opportunity in education and employment. Nonetheless, and despite its political support from pious Muslim women, rather than truly promoting freedom and equality for headscarved women the AKP prefers to pay lip service to the issue—and effectively perpetuate the headscarf ban—out of an apparent concern not to provoke staunch Republican opposition in the military and judiciary.

Similarly, the AKP has failed to practice its pluralistic preaching when it comes to Turkey’s longstanding monolingual policy in national education. Children of Turkey’s Kurdish and other linguistic and/or ethnic minorities have been systematically deprived of equal chances in life through education, a fact that is clearly understood and appreciated by AKP policy makers. As part of its overtures to the Kurds in 2009, the AKP explored the possibility of permitting education in languages other than Turkish. However, the AKP could not or ultimately did not wish to successfully mobilize support from the public or its bloc in parliament for the abandonment of monolingual education.

Finally, the AKP has shown scant commitment thus far to reversing the legacy of Republican control over Turkish universities or implementing governance reforms. Many proponents of democratic change, including NGOs, student unions, academics, and journalists, have advocated the disbanding of YÖK. But the AKP has preferred to keep the Republican-era policing body intact and has packed the YÖK council with acclaimed professors and scientists, albeit many known for their AKP sympathies. The AKP era has seen the continued practice of firing academics and researchers on grounds that they have violated Republican values. The Middle East Technical University, for example, refused to grant a professorship because the scholar was an outspoken critic of Turkey’s policies in the Kurdish conflict.

Religious Motives

Education matters more to the AKP now for two main reasons: it wants to sustain sound economic and human capital growth and fight unemployment, and it seeks to expand the influence of Islamic morality, conservative values, and Turkish culture at home and abroad.

As Turkey strives to keep its economy forging ahead despite persistent global economic and financial crises, Erdoğan has placed a high priority on sustaining the links between better education, stronger human capital, and higher rates of employment. A 2011 poll by the International Republican Institute showed that 75 percent of Turks highlight unemployment as the country’s most pressing problem. Almost 60 percent of those surveyed said they would vote for whoever offers the most convincing solution to joblessness.

Last October, Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan outlined the AKP’s plans to reduce unemployment to below 10 percent by synergizing education with business and labor markets. One of the best performers in Erdoğan’s 2007–11 cabinet, former labor and social security minister Ömer Dinçer, became minister of education, while Emin Zararsız, former head of the social security organization, became his deputy. These cabinet picks testify to Erdoğan’s plans to sustain labor market productivity and economic growth as well as combat unemployment through education.

Speaking to his party members in late December 2011, after the national budget was approved in the parliament, Erdoğan boasted of generous investments in education. He singled out the Increasing Opportunities and Improving Technologies Movement (Fırsatları Artırma ve Teknolojiyi İyileştirme Hareketi, or FATIH) project, which he pioneered and helped launch, as the single most crucial service that his government will give to children and young adults in Turkey. Through FATIH, every child will have a tablet or laptop computer and 620,000 classrooms will be equipped with smartboards within five years. Erdoğan sees this colossal investment in technical equipment and e-content in education perhaps not just as an opportunity to “spend” his government toward more popularity, but also as a civilizational leap through which Turkey’s children will compete with more advantaged kids elsewhere. Critics see FATIH as a nonsensically large investment with no real potential to increase the quality of education and the public procurement process within FATIH has already been tainted by rumors of cronyism.

Clearly, not all AKP moves have been well received, in part thanks to AKP’s lack of commitment to consensus building, and a suspicion that the party has ulterior religious motives for many of its reform initiatives. A second policy reform undertaken after last year’s election victory is a radical shakeup of education bureaucracy. On the surface, it is intended to promote stronger links between education and employment, but again, critics say that this reform will fill the ranks of the MoNE with AKP partisans who share the party leadership’s underlying philosophy for education, namely raising a pious generation.

Under Executive Order No. 652, adopted in August, MoNE is being restructured. Some departments in the ministry headquarters in Ankara have been closed, while others have been merged to form general directorates in a leaner central administration. High-ranking officials, including heads of provincial administrations, were released from public service without any notice or explanation. A new personnel regime came into effect where qualified persons, from within or outside of the former pool of MoNE staff, are to be hired on a contract basis. The AKP has been mooting administrative reform since winning power in 2002; but its abrupt adoption of Executive Order No. 652 has angered unions representing public servants and educators; has caused contempt and disenchantment among MoNE bureaucrats; and has annoyed AKP critics on the political left who lament the use of executive orders to significantly alter the principles of public service.

Another reform proposal that has created a storm of reaction due to suspicions of ulterior religious motives is the AKP’s initiative to extend the number of years of compulsory education to twelve—–with the creation of a ‘4+4+4’ system of equal parts primary, middle, and secondary schooling. The AKP argues that the proposal will render the entire education system more flexible, that it will facilitate more parental involvement in education, and will strengthen vocational technical education in secondary and higher education and improve the prospects for VTE graduates moving into the labor market. Critics of the draft bill, however, believe that the ‘4+4+4’ structure is intended to open IHL religious education for middle-school-aged students and thus reverse a ban on that practice imposed during Republican rule. An overwhelming majority of NGOs, foundations, secular institutions of education, children’s rights groups, universities, educators, and opposition parties have raised serious questions about this AKP plan. They fear that a three-tiered system that introduces children as young as eleven to vocational and technical courses raises risks for boys and girls and that the option of homeschooling in the second tier may encourage parents to pull girls and children with disabilities from schools very early on. Critics also predict that the system change will prove a chaotic management challenge at a time when the MoNE is already undergoing major administrative reform. Recently, AKP members of parliament physically attacked opposition MPs during a debate on the proposal, indicating the divisiveness on the issue. Opposition politicians believe that the AKP will act unilaterally and force the proposal through the parliament no matter what.

Countless critics viewed Erdoğan’s statement about nurturing “a pious generation” as evidence of the march of Islamism inside the Turkish state under the AKP. There have been other signs as well. The AKP has removed the obligation for schools to hold public ceremonies to commemorate Republican holidays, and for students to recite Mustafa Kamel Atatürk’s “Address to the Youth.” Over the past few months, the Directorate of Religious Affairs has worked with public schools to organize package pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina for students and their families. And Turkish anthropologist Sibel Özbudun suggests that the AKP is even encouraging religious-based theories of evolution as an alternative to Darwinism.  Conservatives, both intellectuals and public figures, have been quick to lend Erdoğan support in this evolving culture war. One columnist for Zaman wrote a spirited essay on how Turkey’s youth will discover Allah’s might through education. Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç defends Erdoğan’s “pious” statement as consistent with the AKP’s conservative and democratic identity; such a defense of democracy was conspicuously absent a few weeks earlier, when Arınç declared that ending monolingual education was off the agenda.

AKP Report Card

Education is a key battleground in the struggle for Turkey’s soul—and for the future prospects of the AKP. Besides the expected resistance from opposition parties and the judicial and military establishments, dozens of interest groups and initiatives have sprung up over the past two years to curb the tide of AKP policies and style. When the AKP acts in an authoritarian manner—such as resorting to law enforcement to stifle critical voices or fistfights to stifle parliamentary opposition—it will annoy its conservative base as well as mainstream public opinion. But, if the AKP fails to deliver meaningful improvement in education, then it will surely suffer a fall from grace.


1 Yet Turkey remained below the regional average since WHO classifies Turkey under the region, Europe World Health Organization (WHO) Turkey,

2 Turkey has lacked a tradition of strategic planning. Traditionally, policy planning was done by the State Planning Agency (Devlet Planlama Teşkilatı, DPT), now a part of Ministry of Development, which was tasked to draw up five-year development plans. The AKP inherited the Eighth Development Plan (2001-2005) in 2002, and by extension, the mandate to fulfill education targets of the Eighth Plan. The AKP presumably added its own education policy goals, which could be pieced together by studying the public statements of the party leadership, MoNE decrees, orders and announcements. In May 2006, a decree authorized public institutions, particularly ministries, to draw up their respective strategic plans and to establish departments and mechanisms to track their progress of and manage strategic goals.

3 See The Pedagogical State: Education and the Politics of National Culture in Post-1980 Turkey, by Sam Kaplan, Stanford University Press, 2006.

4 Source: Education Monitoring Report, Education Reform Initiative, Istanbul, 2010. The figure for pre-school enrollment is for the four- to six-year-old age group. The enrollment is about 30 percent for three- to six-year-old children in 2010-2011.

5 See İmam Hatip Liseleri: Efsaneler ve Gerçekler, by Ruşen Çakır, İrfan Bozan and Balkan Talu, TESEV Publications, 2004.

Ebru İlhan is a former analyst at the Education Reform Initiative of Sabanci University’s Istanbul Policy Center. She has been an assistant program manager for the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation in Istanbul.