Turkish students forced to take in-person exams against their wishes

Last year, Turkish students flooded social media with the #TurkishStudentLivesMatter hashtag as the government insisted that they take university entrance exams despite the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic. This year, the government again insists that students take exams in person, again putting them at risk of infection.

In response, students have been protesting from balconies and flooding hashtags on social media with messages protesting the ‘face to face exam’ decision of the Education Minister, Ziya Selçuk. On Thursday, the #TurkishStudentLivesMatter hashtag had almost 2 million Tweets, while #ZiyaSelçuk had 353,000.

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Students complain that the Covid-19 pandemic has made it harder to study and attend classes, especially for students from more disadvantaged backgrounds, and that this will make the exams unfair for some students. They also say that the pandemic has led to increased mental illness among young people, and have pointed to a number of recent cases of student suicides.

Thousands of students have been using social media to express their opposition to the exams continuing, and were hoping for an announcement on Thursday from the Health Ministry that the exams would at least be delayed, if not cancelled as they have been in many other countries. However, they were disappointed, and the government vowed to carry on with holding exams in person.

Before the pandemic, an academic paper by Yaşar Kondakçı and Kadir Beycioğlu on social justice in the Turkish education system found that access wasn’t the “core problem”. The scholars said, “The central issue regarding social justice in education in Turkey seems to be related to the quality of education … for disadvantaged groups and the consequences of this education are problems faced by many disadvantaged groups nowadays.”

However, it seems likely that the necessity of moving to online-only education has resulted in serious barriers to access to education as well for disadvantaged groups who lack the financial resources to access online education.

According to another academic paper by Melisa Akbulut, Uğur Şahin, and Ali Can Esen, the National Education Ministry partnered with the state broadcaster Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) to establish three new channels, on which pre-recorded lectures for all grades have been broadcast during the day. For this system called EBA TV, 674 teachers from 93 fields recorded video lectures in the ministry’s studios located in Ankara and İstanbul.

The authors of the paper state that online and television courses have serious weaknesses compared to in-person education.“The non-interactive nature of the offline TV format does not allow students to actively participate, nor does it give teachers the flexibility to allocate an amount of time for questions and answers that is tailored to the level of understanding of students … Given the lack of the official data, it is impossible to estimate the level of student attendance in the EBA TV classes.”

Ahval asked two teachers for their views on whether the exams should be cancelled. Both said yes. Meltem, a teacher at a vocational school in Kayseri, said:

“The pandemic has increased disparities among students. Because not all students were able to access technology equally, many students couldn’t use the internet as they wanted, or follow classes. Apart from this, there were inequalities in practice between public and private schools again during the pandemic period. In addition, parents who had the opportunity went to close the course deficit with private lessons, but families and students with lower incomes didn’t have the same opportunity.”

Meryem, a teacher at a public high school in Izmir, said that most students could not follow online education regularly, and those who did were not benefitting from it as much as they would from in-person classes. She also said they found it hard to concentrate on TV lessons.

“The pandemic affected the students in many ways,” she said, and added:

“All of their social interactions were hit, as well as the interruption of their education. They started spending too much time on screen. They lost their verbal communication skills, their physical activity almost completely disappeared. They started to experience sleep disorders. They lost faith in life. They are left without a target.”

Meryem also noted that the pandemic brought to the fore class inequalities. “While the rich supported the education of their children with private teachers, poor students couldn’t even get their online education regularly.”

So both teachers and students think that forcing students to attend exams in person is a bad idea. Given this fact, it’s not easy to understand why the government wants students to attend exams which could put them and their families at risk of catching the coronavirus. And to make them attend exams in person when most of their education has been distance learning for the last year seems cruel. 

There is a bitterness being instilled in young people by the Turkish government. We already know, from their attitude towards 2013’s Gezi Park protesters, and towards students at Boğaziçi University this year that the Turkish government thinks it knows better than young people what is good for them. Never listening to the demands of young people and forcing them to do and to be things that they don’t want to be is a recipe guaranteed to make the young despise you. 

Maybe that is why 60 percent of 15-25 year olds polled in 2020 said they wanted to emigrate from Turkey to another country.

Maybe that is why a Turkish girl interviewed for the 2019 celebrations for Turkey's national sovereignty said, “I want to study medicine in Germany's Cologne University, then maybe I'll become a German citizen.”