Their grass is always greener!

July 01, 2012, Sunday/ 15:22:00

Turkey's education system is, apparently, bursting at the seams: Despite the mushroom-like growth of private schools and universities; despite cram courses designed to force feed the little goslings with preparation for high school entry -- the Level Determination Examination (SBS) -- as well as the new Undergraduate Placement Examination (LYS) for access to university; despite being designed so that they might produce the educational equivalent of foie gras as opposed to the inferior liver pâté, students are increasingly looking elsewhere -- at least for higher education.

Each year, about 1.5 million students sit the LYS in the hope of getting into a university in Turkey. But with only 30 percent of candidates actually obtaining a place -- and even then not necessarily in the course of their choice -- the number of Turkish students choosing to pursue their higher education ambitions abroad is rising.

According to Basil Davies (Today's Zaman, June 24: “Brain drain remains a concern as overseas education gets popular”): “In 2010/11 alone, there were over 22,383 Turkish students enrolled in formal education overseas (this figure excludes summer schools and short language programs). … The ministry's 2010/11 report identifies the US, UK, Germany and Azerbaijan as favorite destinations.” I'll come back to these preferences later.

Summer holidays are on the horizon (unless you are working for an English language course, in which case the sweat is on!). In the UK, students will be having an anxious time until their A level results come out at the beginning of August that will decide the fate of their university education choices. In Turkey, the lucky 30 percent will know their destiny. The rest will try abroad.

As for the UK and the US

The whole education establishment in the UK and the US is in upheaval right now. While in Turkey much argument has surrounded the changes to the length of compulsory education (12 years now) and questions are asked about the standards of pupils and teachers, it has to be said that compared to other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, Turkey is moving forwards rather than backwards. The exam system itself may be open to challenge, and as I have argued in these pages before, pressure to teach/learn to test (and the temptation for organized cheating) raise serious questions about archaic rote-learning practices.

Lest you be turning your academic gaze Westward, however, one or two points need to be made. No economy -- advanced, developed or developing -- has successfully solved the question of expenditure to standard/result ratio. None. Some, however, are doing better than others. Figures of education expenditure/gross domestic product (GDP) ratios within the OECD tell some of the story: Figures for Turkey come in at around 4 percent, where the OECD average is now 5.3 percent of GDP.

“Turkish government spending on education as a percentage of GDP is significantly behind any of the OECD countries and it has been stagnant for a long time. … Education spending peaked in 1992 when it amounted to the 20% of the government budget. From then onwards, there have been ups and downs but on average 11-12% of the total budget has used for educational investments. This number has been on average 14%. In relation to GDP, educational expenditures increased slightly in 1998 but remained the same thereafter. Over this period, the average education spending as fraction of GDP has been 4%. .... .” (“Education and income inequality in Turkey: Does schooling matter?” by Anil Duman, Ph.D., Financial Theory and Practice, Volume 32, Issue 3, Institute of Public Finance, 2008)

While the UK and the US may look more impressive on the surface, they belie serious underlying problems. So much so that both countries are undertaking a major overhaul of their education delivery and testing systems.

More worrying for Turkish students wanting to study abroad, price is going to factor out all but the wealthiest or those able to use schemes like ERASMUS or other scholarships. Fees in the UK are set to treble: 3,000 pounds up to 9,000 pounds for a UK student, 9,000 pounds up to 27,000 pounds for foreign students. Tougher visa restrictions and quotas are also in mind under proposals by the current home secretary, Theresa May, ostensibly to reduce the flow of immigration.

British Education Secretary Michael Gove is a man on a mission: to retrofit the British education system to resemble that which had been in place from the 1950s to the 1970s. Returning to split level exams -- a return to O levels and Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE), a two-tier testing system, as well as rolling out “Academies” and so-called “Free Schools” that are privately owned and managed by parent groups, as well as a wish to restore the almost obsolete grammar schools for brighter over-11s, is setting the UK on a path absolutely contrary to that in other countries outside former British colonies like Singapore!

Universities have long been abandoned to fund themselves, with grants being pared to the bare minimum and axed at the slightest provocation (read: excuse). No surprise then that the lucrative milk-cow of foreign student intake is heading for a serious sucking.

So here's the thing: According to Davies' article, “There is, however, a more positive way of looking at the situation [brain-drain from Turkey]. The strides taken by Turkey's economy in the past 10 years have begun to make it a far more attractive prospect for graduates from overseas. And although some [Turkish] students will not return home after their overseas studies, the ones that choose to are all the more valuable for their time abroad.”

That's nice for those who will be able to afford it. Yes, the grass is always greener on the other side: All the more reason why, then, the Turkish education system needs to find space and support for the 70 percent of high school graduates currently missing out.