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September 14, 2012, Friday

Russian roulette on education system in Turkey

In a recent statement, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said privately owned preparatory schools (PPSs) for university entrance exams will be banned by next year.

Aside from this statement, however, there has been no detailed, well-thought-out strategy or proposed structure to back such a significant move.

According to the prime minister, PPSs have undercut the mainstream education system at high school level and have come to set the standard in the university examination system. Secondly, he argues, these schools are too expensive for families with fewer resources to access.

However, as Erdoğan implicitly recognizes, PPSs are a reaction in the marketplace to free entrepreneurship, as they fill a real and serious gap in the formal or official education system. In other words, the schools are based on a real need. This suggests that unless a better mechanism is devised and a better education provided in order to satisfy real needs, any intervention, limitation or prohibition of PPSs will result in either an unregistered economy or demand pressure resulting in unfair price margins.

Viewed from this perspective, it would be irrational to fight the schools, which have sprung up in response to a demand, rather than dealing with the root cause. Rather than trying to kill flies, we should do our best to eliminate the breeding ground.

The second problem is that this sector is now worth $1.5 billion, and provides over 100,000 jobs, including 50,000 teaching positions. The sector constitutes legal and legitimate entrepreneurship. They are selling knowledge to those willing to pay for it. This is simple and understandable entrepreneurial freedom in a free market economy. The state should do its best to improve the quality of the official education system and to change the university entrance system, but it cannot prevent people from trading in knowledge. This is not only an unfair control on entrepreneurial freedom but also threatens to harm society in the long run, as knowledge has critically high positive externalities. PPSs are a part of the registered economy, paying several categories of tax and generating significant employment in a crisis-hit world economy.

A third factor is that although the schools represent an uncalculated reaction to the failures of the education system, contrary to what the prime minister has said, in an inefficient and unfair system they are an instrument for improving social justice. This is mainly due to the fact that they are not only voluntary but can also be accessed at affordable rates. Furthermore, because of the tough competition between these schools, bright but financially disadvantaged students are not only exempted from fees but are most of the time supported by the schools with special scholarships at university level. In the absence of these schools, an unfair environment may emerge in which students from rich families are able to attend expensive colleges, hire private tutors and receive education abroad, whereas poor students at official schools are unable to compete.

It is being argued in government circles that university entrance exams may be abolished, and that the high school grade could become the sole criteria in the process of recruitment. However, in such an underachieving and underdeveloped system, with the passage of time the credibility of high school grades would be eroded, and therefore prestigious universities may choose to perform their own exams. The gap between demand for university placements and placements available would create a requirement for such exams. It seems, therefore, that in the foreseeable future, under any circumstances, some kind of exam system is unavoidable. The message is that whether legal or illegal, preparatory schools for university entrance exams will survive.

Last but not least, this factor, ignored by the government, is a strategic one: PPSs have an important social function in the least developed regions of southeast Turkey, and in districts of the big metropolitan areas heavily populated by ghettos. It is known that the average number of children in families in these regions is between five and 10, making education expensive. Children often grow up to struggle for employment, and without hope for the future. This can make them vulnerable to being drawn into illegal activities such as terrorism, kidnapping or the opium trade. However, at hundreds and thousands of nonprofit, socially oriented PPSs, disadvantaged children are given a chance to complete their education and enter universities across the country. These PPSs are a variety of public school, in the sense that they are free of charge, but are financially supported not by the government but by millions of local and small merchants and artisans. Rather than being punished or declared illegal, in my belief, providers of these services should be rewarded.