Turkey lacks skills to compete in today’s global economy

Turkey appears woefully unprepared for the technological age, as its citizens grossly under-perform in crucial tech-related skills and more than half fail to complete high school. 

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) most recent Survey of Adult Skills measured proficiency in key information-processing abilities, including literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments in 32 countries. Surveyed from April 2014 to March 2015, Turkish nationals scored significantly lower in these skills than people with the same level of education in other countries. 

The mean literacy and numeracy scores in Turkey are more than 40 points lower than the international average, according to the OECD, while nearly 80 percent of 55 to 65-year-olds and more than 50 percent of 25 to 34-year-olds have not completed secondary education. Some 40 percent of Turkish adults lack basic information and communications technology skills, while 38 percent have no prior experience with computers, or lack basic computer skills.

Turkey has the third lowest average score in literacy and numeracy among the 32 countries surveyed. 

“Adults who are highly proficient in the skills measured by the survey are likely to be able to make the most of the opportunities created by the technological and structural changes modern societies are going through. Those who struggle to use new technologies are at greater risk of losing out,” the report said. 

Mathematician Hüseyin Özkan said proficiency in basic skills had become the most important factor that determined the long-term economic and social development of a country. 

“The welfare of a country can be improved only marginally with a mediocre education system and a labour force with mediocre skills,” he said.

The Turkish government in recent years has repeatedly said that increasing the competitiveness of the country in new technologies and information economy was a priority. But many complain about the poor quality of the education system, particularly in state schools. The Turkish Statistical Institute’s June 2019 figures show that 26 percent of the population is neither in education, nor employment. 

“Without achieving significant improvements in the proficiency levels of the adult population, all economic and administrative measures that aim to increase productivity will have a limited effect,” Özkan said. “The results of the survey show that improving basic skills should absolutely become the number one priority of the educators, education bureaucracy, and the politicians in Turkey.”

According to the OECD, adults at Level 1 literacy can read brief texts on familiar topics and locate a single piece of information identical in form to information requested in a question or directive. In numeracy, adults at Level 1 can perform basic mathematical processes, which involve counting, sorting, basic arithmetic operations and understanding simple percentages.

The survey shows that 46 percent of adults in Turkey attain only Level 1 or below in literacy and 50 percent attain Level 1 or below in numeracy.

At Level 3 literacy, adults can understand and respond to lengthy texts, and can identify, interpret or evaluate one or more pieces of information and make appropriate inferences using texts and rhetorical devices, the OECD says. 

In Turkey, just 12 percent of adults are at Level 3 in literacy, while the average in OECD countries is 35 percent. Just 0.5 percent of adults in Turkey attain the two highest levels of proficiency (Level 4 and 5) in literacy, less than one-twentieth the OECD average of 11 percent.

In numeracy, participating countries have an average of 32 percent at Level 3 in numeracy, which means an ability to have a good sense of number and space, to recognise and work with mathematical relationships, as well as patterns and proportions expressed in verbal or numerical form, and to interpret and perform basic analyses of data and statistics in texts, tables and graphs. In Turkey, only 13 percent of adults are at that level, while the share of adults who attain Level 4 and 5 in numeracy is 2 percent.

Only 1 percent of Turkish adults are proficient at level 3, the highest proficiency level, in problem solving in technology-rich environments, whereas the OECD average is 5 percent. 

Since it came to power in 2002, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has concentrated efforts in increasing the percentage of the population with tertiary education and has achieved its target to have at least one university in every province in the country. In 2010, Turkey had 95 state and 54 private universities. As of 2019, the number of state universities has increased to 129, while the number of private universities has risen to 73. The number of students in four-year university programmes is 4.4 million, according to the latest official figures.

But the results of the OECD survey cast doubt on whether Turkey’s investment in tertiary education has paid off in terms of creating the human capital that can meet the demands of a changing labour market. 

A way of measuring the contribution of higher education to the labour market is to compare the results of higher and lower educated adults. “Higher educational attainment is much less closely associated with high proficiency in Greece, Lithuania and Turkey,” the report said. There are relatively small differences in proficiency between higher and lower educated adults.

Another indicator is the difference between information-processing skills of younger and older adults. 

“Unlike the profile found in most countries, in Lithuania, Slovenia and Turkey, there seems to be very little improvement in proficiency between the ages 16 and 30,” the report said. “Various factors could explain this pattern, from entry rates into tertiary education, to quality of education, to the extent to which earlier years in the labour market are conducive to the development of proficiency in information-processing skills.”

Meanwhile, gender-related differences in proficiency in information-processing skills are among the largest in Turkey among all the countries and economies surveyed, particularly among older adults, the OECD results indicate. 

Gökhan Gelişen, an academic at Istanbul’s Bahçeşehir University, is among the authors of a 2017 article that points out that the OECD survey is the only reliable source on adult skills in Turkey. 

Gelişen said that though the survey depicts a gloomy picture for Turkey, it also provides important insight about what is needed to make the economy more competitive in the future. Turkey should immediately take measures to improve the skills of the adult population and overall society, he said. 

“The only way to improve those results is to examine the ongoing debates and the practices in countries with better results and rapidly implement the required policies,” Gelişen said.