An Identity Crisis

This Fall, Turkish students found something missing in their curriculum: the theory of evolution has been omitted, yet, the concept of Jihad has been added. Though the rationale for this move is up for debate, it is clear that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is attempting to impose a more conservative ideology onto Turkish citizens. The ban has created panic amongst academics and scientists as they see Turkey’s secular nature being further unraveled.

Until a few years ago, Turkey had undergone 70 years of secularism, driven by Turkey’s first president: Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Ataturk’s ideology, otherwise known as Kemalism, sought to align Turkey with Western norms, which entailed the establishment of a modern, secular republic. Though, the religious makeup of Turkey, where 95% of the populace is Muslim, has proven to be a major obstacle to the fulfillment of Kemel’s dreams.

Secularism enjoyed widespread support throughout most of the Republic’s existence. However, support of Secularism dropped at an alarming pace when a portion of the Turkish military attempted a coup to depose Erdogan. The coup failed in part because of the widespread rejection of a military coup as opposed to democratic elections. Despite this, Erdogan has used the coup to distance himself from Kemalism, taking Turkey in a more traditional route pointing back to its Ottoman roots. Furthermore, he has further solidified his hold on power by jailing party leaders of HDP, a [formerly] rising, pro-Kurdish political party, and holding a referendum that bestowed wide-ranging powers upon the presidency.

Even though Erdogan has grown the Turkish economy by nearly 4.5% annually, it is clear that Turkey is still not investing enough in itself. Multiple organizations, from the Federal Reserve to the CIA, have recognized that Turkey’s investment in its people has hit record lows with one metric finding that Turkey’s long-term technological innovation remains below 1976 levels. Further compiling a relatively low Research and Development expenditure, Turkey ranks far below many of its Western peers in terms of its Human Capital. This is further highlighted by the CIA, which cites that nearly 45% of the country’s workforce are in agriculture and industry, as opposed to the services industry. Further constraining Turkey’s growth is the fact that Turkey’s spending on education continues to lag behind the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average, as shown below.

Despite expected increases in education spending, recent reforms, most notably the “4+4+4” reform, have reversed previous efforts to raise enrollments in middle schools and is projected to harm Turkey’s education system. Spearheaded by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, the “4+4+4” reform introduced entrance exams for all secondary schools, except vocational schools. This means more students can enroll religious and vocational schools, turning them into a more central part of Turkey’s education system. In terms of numbers, in 2013 there were 1,112,000 students who took the entrance exam for only 363,000 slots in academic high schools. The students who did not get in would have to choose between vocational and religious schools. To serve as a reminder, vocational education prepares students to have hands-on, practical skills for their field of study, but focus is placed entirely on that field of study. As a result of the “4+4+4” reforms, many Turkish children will be forced to either embark on narrow vocational tracks, attend religious schools, such as the Imam Hatip schools, move to rural areas with few options, or drop out of the education system. This has an outsized impact on female students, who’s few choices are further constrained by the policy.

The negative effects of the “4+4+4” policy has already appeared in Turkey’s test results. For instance, in 2015 the OECD issued the “Programme for International Student Assessment,” otherwise known as the PISA test, to 540,000 15-year olds from 35 OECD nations. In all categories, Turkish students scored far below the OECD average. Concurrently, Turkey’s universities have continuously dropped in international rankings since 2014. None of these statistics bode well for Turkey’s educational progress.

However, Turkey has a lot of potential to develop its human capital. As does every other country, Turkey is working hard to keep up with the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Turkey needs more workers and students who study STEM fields - such as math, computer science, and engineering. Alongside higher wages and a more dynamic economy, STEM education improves students’ creative, analytical, and critical thinking skills, regardless of their education level. This has been recognized by Turkey as 17% of its college graduates having obtained degrees in a STEM field, which is on par with the United States and Australia. Furthermore, STEM graduates comprise nearly 30 percent of workforce – a percentage that is near that found in the US. These statistics bode well for Turkey’s economy and its continued shift to a service-based economy.

Turkey possesses a rapidly-growing population that, if current trends hold, will overtake Germany as the largest population in Europe. Further benefiting it is the large percentage of the population comprised of youths. Though, Turkey faces immense challenges in providing the education and jobs that would allow them to provide a major boast to the Turkish economy as well as fuel greater innovation. This challenge is further compounded by the influx of Syrian refugees that could prove to be a larger strain on government finances than previously predicted. Ultimately, the ability of the Turkish government to promote greater investment into the education system as well as other aspects of human capital will determine if Turkey’s economy will continue to grow or collapse under the weight of its demographic challenges.

Overall, Erdogan’s educational reforms - namely increasing the presence of nationalism and religion in Turkey’s curricula - will not help Turkey take advantage of its young, growing population. Having a secular education system, free of religious or nationalistic influences, is crucial to preparing students for the modern global economy. This isn’t to say religion and secularism can’t coexist - they certainly can. History has proven that Islam has been welcoming to secular ideas; For instance, Muslims made many advances in the mathematics and science that continue to be the foundations of modern educational systems. However, history has also shown when powerful religious leaders prioritize Islamic religious learning over scientific education, their nation suffers educational declines. With Erdogan introducing more and more religious concepts into classrooms, he runs the risk of repeating those mistakes. The stronger emphasis of Islam in government-issued textbooks in addition to the increasing number of students forced into religious schools will result in Turkish students being less prepared for the technology-centric workplace, but also leaving them more vulnerable to radicalization. Turkish lawmakers must ensure Islam remains a supplement, rather than a focal point, of students’ education.