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July 25, 2012, Wednesday

University entrance exams and falling off roofs

Thanks to the extremely poor performance of this year's participants, Turkey is once again discussing the feasibility of its university entrance examinations. I can't remember a year when the exams didn't make the headlines.

Reasons change. On several occasions it was the “selling of questions” to criminals, who then made fortunes by reselling them. Once it was the incorrect calculation of results. Another time several questions were wrong. Each time the government uses the same statement to close discussions: “We are working on a project that will abolish university entry exams altogether.”

This year the exams became an issue thanks to the incredible failure rate among students; so few students passed the 180 point threshold for admittance to university that almost 200,000 places will be left empty. There are several reasons for this. I have no scientific data to prove this, but it seems the calamity of “social networking” is making our youngsters lazier. The only book most of our youngsters read is Facebook, with a predictable impact on their studies. Thus the number of students who answered every question wrong increased significantly. The new, lower coefficient applied to students' grades also reduced the number of students able to pass the threshold; last year's graduation grades were effectively 3 percentage points higher than this year's.

But the problem is not only a growing number of sub-threshold students. Last year the Higher Education Board (YÖK) increased the overall number of university places by 20 percent. Turkish universities had 937,676 places open to students for the coming academic year's intake -- but this is almost 200,000 more than the number of students who have passed the threshold. With the increase in places there should have been a commensurate lowering of the threshold. No such decrease was made.

I am sure the issue will reach the prime minister -- who, by the way, is becoming the sole person solving problems in this country -- and he will suggest that the entry exam should be abolished altogether. Next we will hear the bureaucrats say that, in line with the will of the prime minister, they are working on a new model.

Let me leave the issue here and give you an interesting statistic.

In the months of June and July 2,000 people in the southeastern cities of Turkey fell from their roofs. There is no anti-Kurdish conspiracy in this, but yes, almost all of those who fell from those roofs were Kurdish. The explanation is the recent heat wave in the region. People with no other options like air conditioning choose to sleep on the rooftops, and for some reason more people fall from their beds when sleeping in the open air. I have no explanation as to why these people do not stop rolling before they reach the edge of their roofs. There are two falls here: one from the bed, and the second from the roof. Thank God we don't have Japanese style terraced rooftops!

Before returning to the university entry exam I should of course make the connection between these two news items clear. I shall do this through a Nasreddin Hodja story: Hodja once fell from the roof and immediately began shouting. People ran to help and started to ask what had happened. Hodja said, “Let somebody who has fallen from a roof come and ask me this question.”

I entered that university entrance examination several times. I know the trauma of regarding my best friends as my rivals. I know the stress of working all year round and then trying to prove your ability in just a couple of hours. I spent sleepless nights before the exam. Yes, every time I entered the exam I scored fine, but then the sleepless nights began again. Only some 10 years after the exams did I stop dreaming about being caught in the helpless situation of entering the exam without a pencil; forgetting my ID card at home; writing my answers down in the wrong order; going to the wrong school building to enter the exam; and so on. I am not unique. Countless Turkish souls have been wounded by the university entrance exam.

If this does not make a Turk schizophrenic enough, there come English learning courses, where most Turks learn only that they are language-learning handicapped.

Let me say it first: These university entrance exams should be abolished altogether. I don't know what the alternative will be -- and neither does the prime minister. It is the task of the bureaucrats to work on a new model, no?

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