Health & Education

Make the Grade



Make the Grade


Make the Grade

Private schools were first licensed in the early 1980s, but only really started growing in earnest in the 1990s and 2000s as the country developed and the economy grew to […]

Private schools were first licensed in the early 1980s, but only really started growing in earnest in the 1990s and 2000s as the country developed and the economy grew to the trillion-dollar class. Private schools today outnumber state universities, but are mostly located in the main cities, leaving the hinterlands to be served by public schools. Istanbul, for example, boasts 38 private institutions of higher learning, including seven vocational schools, compared to eight state-run universities.

According to an October 2013 report on education in Turkey prepared by the OECD, the country has made impressive gains in tertiary enrolment over the past decade. However, Turkey still lags behind the OECD average in tertiary attainment, with 14% of the adult population having qualified for university education versus an OECD average of 32%, which places Turkey 35th out of 36 countries. The EU-21 has an average rate of tertiary attainment of 28%.


Private K-12 schools such as Doğa Schools have been improving standards at the junior levels in Turkey, increasing the qualifications of the candidate pool for national standardized testing. According to the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the average student score in Turkey was 455 in reading literacy, maths, and science, lower than the OECD average of 497, showing a need for improvement.

Prospective university students in Turkey must first pass highly competitive national examinations—slightly more than one in three pass the exams. In 2013, some 1.92 million students applied for the exams. In order to sit for the two-stage university entrance examination, a student must complete 12-years of schooling and graduate with one of three standard diplomas: regular, vocational, or technical.

Students who do not want to attend university can take the first exam, YGS, and a passing score qualifies them to attend terminal two-year programs for technical or vocational schools awarding associate degrees. The Undergraduate Placement Exam, LYS, is administered in June, and the two weighted scores are combined with the applicant’s high school grade point average to determine the final score.

The exam takes place in June shortly after students have graduated. The score of the LYS (60%) is added to the results of the YGS (40%), and the final grade is combined with the secondary GPA to calculate a final score. The undergraduate LYS examination covers five areas of learning: foreign language, literature and geography, mathematics, natural sciences, and social sciences. Once students pass one or two exams, they begin the process of determining which tertiary institutions or academic departments they might qualify to enter.


Considering that the demand for university places outruns the supply, private universities have served as a safety valve for the system. While only 10% of Turkey’s population enjoys more than $3,600 a month in income, it still means that the country has a significant number of students who can afford to attend university abroad. Universities from Europe, the UK, and the US participate in education fairs in Turkey every year to recruit local students to their programs—indeed, for the very best students they offer generous scholarships.

Turkey has long expressed its determination to harmonize tertiary education in Turkey to EU standards, and, in 2001, signed up to the Bologna Process, which calls for signatory countries to adopt a three-cycle degree structure and introduce the common European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) and Diploma Supplement. Both private and state universities participate in the EU’s Erasmus student exchange program. Most Turkish universities employ the Diploma Supplement and ECTS, but the undergraduate regimen is four years, in contrast to the Bologna standard of three years.


According to the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Institute for Statistics, Turkish education spending as a percentage of GDP is 2.86%, well below the OECD average of 5.5%. Emre Üçkardeşler, a policy analyst at the Education Reform Initiative of Istanbul’s Sabancı University, was quoted in Turkish Policy Journal as saying, “UNESCO recommends that countries with similar economic development levels to Turkey need to spend around 6% of GDP on public education. By that criterion, Turkish figures are even less satisfactory.”

In 2013, male applicants outnumbered female 54.8%-45.2%, significantly more than the demographic gender ratio (1.03, male-female). According to the OECD, 31% of adults in Turkey have earned a high school diploma, significantly lower than the OECD average of 74%, and for Turkish women, the figure is only 26%, which the Organization says calls for the strengthening of women’s participation in higher education.

While it is very common to see women doctors, lawyers, architects, and other professionals in Istanbul and the other big cities, women have had to push for their rights in Turkey, as elsewhere, and still participate in the labor force at only about half the level of countries such as Australia—29% versus 59%. Now that Turkey has dropped its ban on university attendance by women wearing headscarves, school administrators hope to see more women enroll in tertiary education programs.

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