‘Quality of teaching neglected amid education controversy’

‘Quality of teaching neglected amid education controversy’

ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News
‘Quality of teaching neglected amid education controversy’

Professor Tosun Terzioğlu has just celebrated his 70th birthday at Sabancı University where he continues teaching. Turkey needs to change the university entrance system, he says. DAILY NEWS photos, Emrah GÜREL

Turkey is experiencing a demographic transition that is producing a lower birth rate, a leading scholar has said, noting that the country must focus on increasing the quality of education now if it is to benefit from such a window of opportunity.

Many believe a recent reform bill to extend compulsory education to 12 years is positive, Professor Tosun Terzioğlu said. “But what matters is not the duration of the education, it is the quality,” she told the Hürriyet Daily News in a recent interview.

What are your essential criticisms about the draft bill on education?

First o f all, this draft has not been brought to Parliament by the government. This is the draft of five parliamentarians. I believe this is unprecedented. This is a law that is very important as far as its consequences are concerned. According to the draft, compulsory education will go from the current eight years to 12. Currently, the enrollment rate after eight years remains at 56 percent. The aim is to have this at 100 percent. This would require the construction of new schools, which would cost 40 billion [Turkish Liras]. The draft, therefore, has consequences that pertain not only to the Education Ministry, but to the Finance Ministry as well. In four years’ time, the government will have to add an additional 120,000 teachers, which means that their salary would be a concern of the Finance Ministry. This gives the impression that there has not been enough technical preparation. In fact, the Education Ministry has been trying to change some parts of the draft.

Tell us your views about the substance then.

First, Turkish people have a strong belief in the importance of education. There are no sacrifice families that won’t make to have their children get the best education – and that includes all families without any class difference. This is very important.

Second, the Turkish economy has come to the point where it is today thanks to manpower. Yet we live in such an age that having a large, non-educated yet very hardworking workforce no longer has any importance. Production is now automated. A well-educated workforce is a big asset for a country. Turkey has a golden opportunity until 2040. Turkey’s rising birth rate is slowing down. The current rate, which is around 2 percent, will be a little above 1 percent. Turkey has a young population and if they are well-educated, they will have a big potential. Turkey’s population will grow old after 2040. In almost all European countries, there is an aging population and that creates a social weight. The strategy of these rich countries is to have an economy based on information. They have the knowhow, while they conduct production in other countries. It will be the same with Turkey after 2040. So we are in a demographic transition process; we need to adequately use this golden opportunity. This happens once in a country’s lifetime. We like to talk about the Japanese miracle or the German miracle. There is no miracle; one generation worked hard to make sure the next generation live [in a welfare state], and they grabbed hold of that opportunity during transition phases.


Therefore it is very important to increase the quality of education. Following the implementation of eight years of uninterrupted education, the rate of enrollment dropped in the first year but then it started to increase rapidly. Until six years ago, the enrollment rate for elementary school between girls and boys differed tremendously, with the boys at 94 percent and the girls at 86 percent. The gap has now been bridged and the enrollment rate is above 98 percent. That is because the government and NGOs undertook a serious campaign. This is a big success. After the compulsory eight years, the enrollment rate drops to 56 percent. Now, everyone believes that extending compulsory education to 12 years is very positive yet what matters is not the duration of the education, but the quality. In Turkey some schools are on a par with those in Finland while others lag behind ones in Mexico.

Still, what’s wrong with extending the duration of compulsory education?

We can’t say, let’s first enroll everybody in schools no matter what, it’s not that important what we teach them. We want to raise people that can compete in the world. The enrollment rate will increase of course, but this is not enough; the quality of education needs to rise as well. We always forget about the quality of education. It gets lost among statistics. There is nothing in the draft about the quality of education.

The debates focused on the age to start school as well as preschool education. What are your views on these issues?

There have been positive amendments. There was an attempt to start school at the age of 5. Now it is flexible. It is 6 but the child can start at 5 or 7 as well. I am against imposing such obligations. Some children are ready to go to school when they are 5 while some others are ready when they are 7.
So you say that the families should have a say in their children’s education.

Yes. Our statistics are bad on preschool enrollment but there has been serious improvement during the past five years. It is now around 60 percent but is still below the EU average. I am definitely for increasing the rate of pre-schooling to 100 percent. But I am against making it compulsory. It should be encouraged. You should not take a kid by force from her family.

There is also the debate on vocational schools.

It is said that the vocational school system collapsed because compulsory education was increased to eight years. It is true that the vocational school system has collapsed but this is not because of eight-year compulsory education. The real reason is the coefficient system [the application of different coefficients for students on university entrance exams] by the High Education Board (YÖK). But this has now been canceled. Looking at general trends in the world, separating the kids at 10, saying “you should go to a normal school and you should go to a vocational school” is now an anachronism. On the contrary, the focus should be cohesion. School is very important as a social environment.

But how does one solve the issue of vocational training? This is the constant complaint of industrialists.

I am personally against vocational training. My belief is that students can acquire certain certificates through elective courses. At any rate, sending kids to vocational schools should take place as late as possible and should be flexible. Children can change schools when they want. Industrialists should have a say in the curriculum of these vocational schools. But right now, there is ambiguity about the issue of vocational training.

What you basically say it that there won’t be a setback in the gains that have been made so far, as claimed by the opponents of the bill, but that there should have been other priorities.

Increasing the quality of education and increasing pre-school enrollment through encouragement – these are my priorities. Just by saying that “we extended the duration of compulsory education” does not mean everything will go well. We need to change the university entrance system. As long as we don’t change the current system, which is based on solving tests rather than based on information acquired in school, we may as well extend compulsory education to 120 years, but it won’t matter.

Debates have focused on the fact that the draft foresees the opening of mid-level imam-hatip religious vocational schools. Why is this such a controversial issue?

Because we have an obsession with religion in Turkey. Maybe most of us are afraid nominally of what we see as our own religion. We have prejudices. We are still stuck with the issues that the intellectuals of developed countries solved in the 19th century. … Being pious is personal. A person can be pious but also a very good scientific person. A person can be an atheist but a very good mathematician. Looking at the history of science, you see that there is no connection between the two. Yet in our case, we think on the one end that there is the religion and, on the other, the positive sciences.

Who is Tosun Terzioğlu?

Professor Tosun Terzioğlu was a member of the academic staff of the Department of Mathematics at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University between 1968 and 1994.

He served as the president of the Scientific and Technical Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK) between 1992 and 1997. Terzioğlu was also the founding president of Istanbul’s Sabancı University; since 2009, he has been professor emeritus at the school’s Faculty of Engineering and Natural Sciences.

The scholar is the author of over 50 mathematical articles and three books and has acted as editor and member of the board of publishers for numerous publications. He has organized several international mathematical conferences and symposiums. Terzioğlu is an active member of various foundations like AÇEV, the Hrant Dink Foundation, as well as the Turkish Mathematical Society, an institution he served as president for nearly 20 years.

He is the board member of the Education Reform Initiative. (ERG).