Education and human development

Last week I discussed the relative place of Turkey on the United Nation’s Human Development Index (HDI).

The HDI is the geometric mean of average per capita income, mean years of schooling and average expected lifetime at birth. In the 2013 HDI, Turkey ranked as the 69th country in the world. In my last column I discussed the income component of the HDI and recent developments in Turkey on that dimension. This time I want to focus on the education part of the index.

Currently, the average length of schooling for adult Turks is 7.6 years. The expected number of years of schooling for pupils who have just started their education is 14.4 years. Based on these statistics, Turkey ranks 86th in the education component of the HDI. Note that Turkey’s overall ranking is 69th. In other words, Turkey’s performance on education is worse than countries at a similar stage of development. However, I also want to point out the substantial difference between the length of schooling of adults and school-age children. It is a good sign that pupils are expected to have a much longer schooling than their parents.

Let me start with a couple of statistics. During the administrations of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey has substantially increased the resources devoted to education. In 2000, only 2.5 percent of national income was devoted to education, while that number had increased to 4.3 percent by 2014. It shows that Turkish society and the Turkish government have appreciated the significance of education on human welfare. However, I also note that that ratio is much higher in advanced countries like Norway and South Korea. The countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) spend an average of 6.07 percent of their national income on education Turkey is still the last country in that ranking. Similarly, the level of spending is also much lower in Turkey than in other OECD countries. Expenditure per student is $2,501 per year, while it is $8,868 per year on average in OECD countries.

Having said this relatively good news, let me now discuss the negative aspects of the educational landscape in Turkey. First, the government still devotes disproportionate levels of precious educational money on tertiary education. A total of 3.7 times more money is spent in Turkey on students at the tertiary level than on students in primary education. The same ratio in OECD countries is 1.7 on average. However, concerns about equity and efficiency dictate that pre-primary and primary education deserves more public resources. According to many empirical studies, the social returns of pre-primary and primary education are much higher than tertiary education. Moreover, there are some indications that the average student at a tertiary education institution has wealthier parents than the average child in Turkey. So, from the standpoint of social welfare maximization, more public resources should be allocated to non-tertiary education. Furthermore, the ratio of students who have a pre-primary level education is the smallest in Turkey among the OECD countries.

How about the quality of education? I have been teaching at a university for 10 years. To be frank, I am still surprised to see the relative ignorance and unskillfulness of recent high school graduates. I feel that the Turkish education system does a terrible job at preparing pupils for life. I must admit that a part of that frustration can be explained by my occupational hazard I guess everywhere in the world teachers love to complain about their students. However, relatively objective international assessment tests confirm my feelings. For example, in terms of students’ problem solving aptitude, Turkey is ranked 33rd out of the 42 countries that participate in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests. Turkish pupils perform worse than their counterparts in other countries in math and reading skills as well. I also have to note that that relatively bad performance is valid for all skill levels. In other words, the best Turkish pupils are worse than the best pupils in other countries and average Turkish pupils are worse than average pupils in other OECD countries. On a positive note, the difference between the PISA scores of pupils in different schools in Turkey has narrowed in recent years. Moreover, the average PISA scores of students in the bottom percentiles have increased faster than other students in Turkey.

For a very long time, economists have insisted that improving human capital is the most direct way to social and economic development. Formal education is an important part of human capital investment. In the recent years, countries like Finland and South Korea have shown that societies can advance very fast if enough resources are devoted to education. However, Turkey also showed how increasing resources spent on education can be useless. Turkey has spent billions of dollars (and will spend more) on the distribution of tablet gadgets to students. I have not met a single individual who has anything positive to say about this program. Similarly, the Turkish government has used an enormous amount of financial, political and human capital to shut down private tutoring services. Almost everybody believes that this move has nothing to do with improving education but is part of a general fight with a certain social group in Turkey. There is a Turkish proverb that says “When elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers.” I guess that is what is happening to Turkish students now.