'Education can improve when it becomes priority for voters'
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While many complain about Turkey’s education system, governments and political parties are not held accountable for their education policies, according to a veteran journalist.
“The common attribute of all the education ministers of the past 50 years is that they had nothing to do with education before being named to the position,” Abbas Güçlü, education editor of daily Milliyet, has told the Hürriyet Daily News.
How do you think the foreign currency crisis will affect education?
Turkey ranks fifth in terms of the number of students going abroad. Those who have sent their children abroad will have serious difficulties. In fact, companies in Turkey who are working to send students abroad are not doing well lately. Most students are concentrated in the United States and Europe.
This crisis will seriously drop the number of students going abroad. So this will bode badly for universities abroad, who are also in search of foreign students in order to make ends meet. With low birth rates, they are short of students. This will also hit Turkish Cyprus hard, as university tuition there is in foreign currency. I think the two governments should come together and agree on a fixed currency, otherwise the Turkish Cypriot economy could take a serious blow.
As Turks get poorer, could this also affect the education of their children at home?
The number of students who go to private schools is not that high. For primary and secondary education, the rate was around 2.5 percent. It has reached 7 percent only recently. The ratio is around 8 percent for universities. This is below average for other countries. The number of private schools should increase. Those who have money can go buy a luxury boat or car, so why shouldn’t their children go to private school?
This should be possible especially in countries like Turkey, where insufficient resources are earmarked for education and where the burden on the government is too heavy. Currently, the state has to provide education to 20 million students. If some well-off families were to send their children to private school, the burden on the state will be less and the state could offer better education to low income families.
Why has the number of private schools remained so low?
Even a billionaire wants his children to study free of change. According to the law, state universities cannot impose high tuition fees and currently, the best universities are state universities. We do not have a tradition of foundation universities. The oldest one opened in Ankara in 1982. We do not want to spend money on education, or at least it is not a habit. We have become accustomed to free education. But free education is no longer good.
Yet, there is a tremendous amount of competition to enter good schools.
This year 2,300,000 students took university exams. But there are still empty places. Last year, 350,000 spots were left empty. That is because students do not want to study in these departments. Proper planning has not been done by the state. University graduates are unemployed. Even when you send your children to a private university, they end up unemployed. Parents then ask themselves why they pay so much money if their child will not receive a good education.
What went wrong?
Planning; we just cannot do it. In the first 80 years of the Republic, we have opened 30 universities, whereas 100 new universities were opened in the last 20 years. It is good to have a lot of universities, but a university diploma should provide a job. Now, many think a diploma does not mean much.
In your view, what is the essential input that shows the level of education in Turkey?
We rank last in Europe in terms of PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) results. The number of students in primary schools is bigger than the whole population of Finland. As the population becomes bigger, the quality in education drops. I believe our primary education is in fact better than in America. Turkish students are very successful in American and European universities.
But the problem is, we cannot maintain the same level of quality in all schools. If we have 15 percent of students receiving a very high quality education, the rest receive an education below average. One of the biggest mistakes is we think all of our children should go to universities to become doctors, engineers, lawyers or governors. There are few that go to vocational schools. We need to change this trend. Millions of students come to pile up in front of universities.
In fact, we have opened so many engineering or law faculties that it has become difficult for students to find jobs after graduation.
It seems there is a problem with teachers as well. According to a recent study, most teachers have failed to answer some fundamental questions.
In the early days of the Republic, we were short of teachers. Now, there is a surplus of 800,000 teachers. They are unemployed. In the early days of the Republic, the salaries of teachers were the same as parliamentarians. Now, we have teachers selling lemons at the market. We succeed in resenting even the most idealist teacher. As I have said before, people live in luxury residences but do not want to spend that money on good schools and prefer to send their children to state schools.
Because these kids cannot receive education in state schools, parents spend their money on private teaching institutions. They do not want to pay tuition to the school but instead, spend thousands of liras on private lessons.The Turkish education system will improve only when parents will go to the ballot box prioritizing education. We keep having elections but education is not on the list of people when they go to the ballot box. When politicians see the electorate does not vote according to education policies, they do not rush to solve problems. I keep saying the Turkish education system does not have an economic problem, it has a pedagogical problem.
Can you elaborate?
A common attribute of all education ministers in the past 50 years is they had nothing to do with education before being assigned to the position. That is why there was huge joy when the last appointed one came from the sector. When ministers are not familiar with education, their close team are not from the education sector either. So, some look at education from an economic perspective and others from a sociological or ideological perspective but not from a pedagogical perspective.
Why is it that the society does not take education too seriously?
We are used to outsourcing it to the state. Since governments are not held accountable for their education policies at the ballot box and since politics over the economy or religion brings them more votes, governments have not been taking it too seriously either.
How do you see the performance of the new minister, who was the owner of a group of private schools?
He needs to be supported. I think he is zigzagging. He has to be bolder and the government needs to stand behind him. It is not enough to be from the sector.
Abbas Güçlü was born in Ankara in 1957. Güçlü graduated from the Gazi University Faculty of Technical Education.
He started his career in journalism at daily Milliyet in 1983. Currently, he is a columnist and education editor at daily Milliyet.
He has taught investigative journalism courses at Istanbul and Marmara Universities. As a producer and moderator of the television program “Genç Bakış” (The Young View), he brings university youth together with government executives on his live broadcast. The program has become one of the longest-running ones on television.