Turkey’s nightmare: Brain drain

Turkey’s nightmare: Brain drain

It started long before Turkey’s July 15, 2016 military coup attempt. Slowly but steadily, young professionals, entrepreneurs, engineers, academics and new graduates started leaving their home country in search of a better future. Many of the country’s best and brightest do not see any hope of creating better lives and improving their intellectual capacity in their homeland anymore. The reasons are more than political.

When my generation was growing up, state high schools named “Anadolu Liseleri” (Anatolia High Schools) were the best choice for children in smaller towns. They had great teachers, good sports facilities and a very good record of sending their graduates to prestigious universities like Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University or Ankara’s Middle East Technical University (ODTÜ). 

Going to expensive private schools was almost like an insult in Bursa, where I grew up. Public high schools like the Bursa Girls High School or the Bursa Boys High School, or even the Çelebi Mehmet Vocational School, were brand names. Their students got great marks in exams, winning in Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK) competitions or becoming national basketball or volleyball champions. With a little extra effort, you could easily pass the university entrance exam well, even if your parents were public servants.

Now, three decades later, the situation is different. When I talk to my friends, none of them even mention sending their children to public schools anymore. It is as if the schools have disappeared from the universe. Families are sacrificing one child’s education over another just to pay for the former. The yearly cost of the private Robert College is 90,000 Turkish Liras. That is about the cost of a community college in New York. A better-off family living in Istanbul has to create that much wealth for just a single child to get a good education. 

In poorer districts of Istanbul like Esenler or Gaziosmanpaşa, religious-focused imam-hatip high schools are popping up like mushrooms. Girls and boys in these places or in smaller cities have zero chance of getting into a science-focused school or an Anatolian High School. The level playing field, the equality of the poor and the rich that the Republic strived to create in the 1920s – which created presidents who came from poor families like the late Turgut Özal and Süleyman Demirel, and even Recep Tayyip Erdoğan - does not exist anymore. Once you are poor, your destiny is written.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) can brag about the buildings, bridges and roads it has built until the cows come home. But President Erdoğan himself admitted the bitter and brutal fact in Astana last week. Muslim majority countries, or nations like us, are losing their talents to the West and it will continue that way. Just as I was typing this column, another e-mail dropped into my inbox from a young IT engineer who used to work for Yandex in Turkey. He has decided to move to Canada to try to create job opportunities for Turkish companies there. If a young man like this has decided to burn his bridges and move to a different continent to pursue his ambitions, Ankara should sit and think really hard about it.

It is time to admit that this government and its policies have lost their sparkle. Impressive economic growth numbers and stock exchange figures amount to nothing for young graduates and businesspeople who are struggling to get their feet in the door of a big government tender. Nepotism and cronyism is so widespread that it may take a decade to heal the wounds being created by this pseudo-legal system. 

Justice and equality are becoming rare commodities in these lands.