Major investments and steady qualitative improvements in Turkey's education system are helping to make a young population its greatest strength.

Turkey's demographic profile is the tip of its economic spear. At a time when aging populations are putting a strain on the public budgets of North America and Europe, Turkey's citizenry skews young, with a large and able workforce. According to the Turkish Statistical Agency, half of its 73.7 million citizens are under 28, while its school-age population (5-24) is 25.2 million strong. The World Bank predicts that the share of young people will continue to rise and will peak in 2020.

A large youth population can be a curse—high unemployment and attendant social problems—or a blessing, creating a distinct competitive advantage and fueling a knowledge-based economic impact. Investment in education is typically the weight that tips the scales. It also commands a strong rate of return. The World Bank estimates that a rate of return for investment in primary education is 27%, while investments in secondary and tertiary education are 17% and 19%, respectively.

Turkey has taken heed. In 2011, the targeted expenditure on education will amount to TL34 billion, including the state budget allocated through the National Ministry of Education and private and international funds. This represents approximately 15% of Turkey's national budget, a portion that has been growing slightly but steadily over the last decade.

The impact can be seen across the educational spectrum. Recent heavy investments to universalize kindergartens, for example, resulted in a 22% rise in pre-school enrollments in 2009-10 compared to the previous year. The government's Ninth Development Plan, prepared for the period between 2007 and 2013, extended compulsory elementary education to eight years, greatly increasing the number of students passing from elementary school to secondary school. At the tertiary level, the number of universities has grown nearly two fold in the last five years, thanks in large part to legislation enabling the growth of not-for-profit private institutions, known as foundation universities. In terms of ratio of access, these efforts have yielded clear results.

In the 1998/99 school year, 25.5% of the eligible male population and 17.7% of the eligible female population were enrolled in higher education. In 2008/2009, that ratio increased to 49% and 39% respectively, indicating a particularly marked increase among females. Overall, a proliferation of institutions has resulted in greater access across the social strata and more diversity in curricular offerings. Competition within this increasingly populated educational landscape—particularly at the university level—is boosting quality standards.


Children in Turkey must take eight years of primary education between the ages of 7 and 15. Secondary school lasts four more years, with some high schools having an additional year of preparatory classes in a foreign language.

There are six categories of secondary education institutions—public high schools; “Anatolian" schools, which provide lessons in a foreign language; imam-hatip high schools, which include a mix of religious and secular instruction; science high schools; vocational high schools; and private high schools. There are currently 7,934 secondary schools in Turkey producing approximately 1.5 million graduates annually.

Entrance to university is regulated, somewhat controversially, by a national examination. In 2010, this test was broken into two parts—an initial exam to determine if a student can pursue higher education and a subsequent exam to determine placement in a specific institution. Students who take only the initial exam are able to apply for associate degree programs. Students who take the second exam state their university preferences and are assigned placement based on their scores.

In 2010 1.5 million students took the exam, of which 35% received university or vocational school placement. In 2011, 1.7 million students took the initial exam and went on to take the second exam. “This means that at a national level we still have a great and unmet demand for higher education," explains Prof. Dr. Akile Gürsoy, Rector of Yeni Yüzyıl University, a recently established private institution that is among a host of new universities aiming to help fill that gap. “Young people are motivated and want higher education, but are unable to enter into the system."

While there is significant opposition to the mandatory university placement exam, including from the Minister of Education, it will likely remain as long as demand for higher education continues to grow and make individual interviews unrealistic.

The national examination determines not only whether a student can pursue tertiary education and which university they are eligible for, but also their course of study. Certain fields require specific proficiencies; a student who wishes to pursue engineering, for example, must score high in Turkish, mathematics, and science. Given the determining power of this test, it is no surprise that institutions designed specifically for test preparation have flourished. These schools, called dershane, are privately held and offer classes specifically for the test and the disciplines related to students' desired fields.


There are currently 3.5 million students enrolled in Turkey's 156 universities. These institutions provide either two or four years of education for undergraduate studies and a minimum of two years for graduate programs. Some universities also ask for an additional year of English preparatory study to be completed before the start of studies, unless an exemption examination is passed. There are 103 state-funded universities in Turkey, of which 53 are foundation universities. All fall under the purview of the Higher Education Council, which provides highly centralized governance ranging from curriculum to the appointment of rectors.

The quality of tertiary education in Turkey varies greatly. However, in recent years, Turkish institutions have begun to appear on international qualitative rankings. In 2010, five Turkish universities made the QS World University Ranking's top 500 list: Bilkent University, Sabancı University, Istanbul University, Koç University, and Istanbul Technical University. Bilkent, Turkey's first foundation university, led the charge with a global ranking of 332. Boğaziçi University, the first American higher education institution founded outside the US, is the most competitive, receiving the highest number of applicants via the national university entrance exam and accepting the highest scoring students. Middle East Technical University (METU) in Ankara, also receives a large portion of the highest scoring students, and has the greatest share in national research funding from the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK). It is also the leading university in Turkey in terms of the number of EU Framework Programs.

Turkey is particularly known for its technical universities, currently numbering eight. These universities are periodically visited by the US Accreditation of Engineering and Technology, and their engineering programs are deemed substantially equivalent to comparable US programs.

Turkish universities are also a part of the Erasmus program of the European Commission, which was designed to increase student and academic mobility within the EU, the European Economic Area countries, and EU candidate states. In 2009-2010 approximately 7,000 Turkish students went to university in Europe through the Erasmus program. The annual increase in student mobility in Turkey in 2010 was 9.4%, whereas in Europe this increase was 3.4%.

Turkey is also becoming an education hub for the region, with more and more students from the Middle East, North Africa, and CIS countries coming for undergraduate and graduate education. Turkey currently hosts about 20,000 foreign students.


A burgeoning middle class and rapid growth in the school-aged population have both contributed to the increasing importance of private education in the Turkish system. Private high schools are certainly not a new concept in Turkey. The 148-year-old Robert College, a highly selective secondary school in Istanbul, is the oldest American school still in existence in its original location outside the US. However, legislative changes over the last two decades have seen new entrants to meet growing demand.

Beginning in the 1990s, the Turkish government began planning to increase the ratio of private education at the secondary level to 6% in the short term and to 15% in the long term. The government allocated land to 12 private schools in 1992 and supported 258 people and institutions from 1991 to 1998 to open private schools. In addition, in summer 2004, the government waived taxes on private schools for the following three years.

Founded in 2001, Doğa Koleji clearly reflects growing interest in private secondary education. The chain, which is largely owned by the Turkven investment fund, currently operates 20 schools with a 2010 turnover of TL100 million. It aims to own 80 schools with 100,000 students by 2015.

At the tertiary level, the advent of foundation universities has left a profound mark on the higher education landscape in Turkey. These non-profit private universities were given permission to operate in 1984 under the control of the Higher Education Council. Since that time 53 foundation universities have been created, many joining the league of Turkey's best higher education institutes. Of the 13 new universities accredited in 2010, seven were foundation universities.