TURKEY: Barrier to religious school graduates lifted

The Board of Higher Education has voted to reform Turkey's university entrance points system to end discrimination against graduates of vocational high schools.

Under the existing system, the value of the points achieved by graduates of vocational high schools, which include religious high schools, is lowered if they seek to study new subjects.

The measure was originally imposed after Turkey's generals forced a coalition government led by an Islamist party out of office in February 1997 and was seen as an attempt to prevent the rising influence of Islamists in the secular Muslim country.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, himself a graduate of a religious high school and whose party supports greater religious freedom, sought to play down the political significance of the move and said the aim was to achieve equality of opportunity.

"This was a problem for all vocational school graduates. I see this decision as a step in the right direction," Erdogan said. "Nobody should try to interpret this decision in other ways."

But opponents saw the move as highly political, fearing it will pave the way for Islamists with a narrow educational background to rise up the career ladder and capture more prominent jobs and influential positions.

Zubeyde Kilich, Chair of Egitim-Sen, the teachers and science workers' union, told the Hurriet Daily News and Economic Review the higher education board had simply fulfilled the government's ideological demands.

"How can the student who studies religion or social science in high school compensate for the lack of information if he decides to study medicine in university? The government should be honest and confess that the move is targeted solely at religious-school students."

But business leaders said the discrimination had led to a fall-off in numbers attending vocational schools and made it harder for firms to find staff with the right technical skills.

Murat Yalchinta, Chair of the Istanbul Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement reported in Today's Zaman: "The number of students enrolling in vocational high schools dropped considerably. This decision will make vocational high schools an attractive option for students again. This will pave the way to find a job more easily in their field of specialisation and meet the basic needs of industrialists."

Opponents said the real effect of the rule change would be to encourage more young people to attend religious high schools. Their argument is backed by OECD research which found that in 1997, when the original points discrimination was implemented, participation in vocational and technical secondary education in Turkey had hit a peak of 49% of total secondary school enrolment - much of it fuelled by rising attendance at religious high schools.

The higher education board seems to have feared the content and quality of the curriculum at vocational schools was inadequate to prepare students for university level study and imposed a negative multiplier on the points for university entrance of all vocational and technical school graduates. Students at those schools were also prevented from moving back into general secondary schools.

Following these rule changes, enrolments in vocational and technical high schools dropped by 14% over the next four years but the proportion enrolled in religious high schools dropped much more dramatically, from 27.5% of total enrolments in vocational and technical schools in 1996-97 to 7% in 2000-01.

Although Erdogan's Islamist-leaning AKP government was thwarted in its attempt to end the ban on headscarves in universities last year - the ban was re-imposed by the constitutional court - the transformation of the political make-up of the board in its favour has continued.

Bulent Serim, the last member appointed by secularist former President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, resigned on 16 July.

According to the Hurriet Daily News and Economic Review, Serim complained the board was now dominated by members whose values were incompatible with the secular nature of the Republic and that support for wearing headscarves at universities had reached unacceptable levels.