ISTANBUL // One year after the decision to allow women to wear an Islamic headscarf at university nearly led to a ban on the governing party in Turkey, education has once again become a political battleground. This time, the religiously conservative government and its secular opponents are slugging it out over a change of university entrance rules that critics say favour Islamists.
The latest row erupted last week when the High Education Board, or YOK, decided to scrap regulations that made it difficult for graduates of vocational high schools to enter universities. Under the old system, the graduates were given a low coefficient that was used to calculate their overall score after university entrance exams, thereby lowering their chances to get a college education. That coefficient has now been annulled.
Although it may look like an arcane technical move for Turkey's 4,600 vocational high schools at first glance, the YOK decision was pure political dynamite. It has reopened a bitter debate that revolves around the question of whether the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, is trying to change Turkey into an Islamist state by opening the education system for religious radicals, a charge the government denies.
The reason is that among the schools that will profit from the new conditions are around 500 so-called Imam Hatip schools, state vocational schools for the education of imams and other religious offices. The coefficient now annulled by the YOK had been introduced in the late 1990s under pressure of Turkey's strictly secular armed forces in an attempt to keep Imam Hatip graduates, seen as potential Islamists, out of universities and, in extension, out of leading government positions.
By changing that system, the AKP is pursuing its Islamist agenda, the opposition says. "Once again we are facing realities," Deniz Baykal, the leader of the secular Republican People's Party, or CHP, told Turkish media. He said the education system was being used to serve the interests of religious "brotherhoods and communities". Sabih Kanadoglu, a leading legal expert of the secularist camp, predicted the new regulation would "certainly" be brought before Turkey's top administrative court for review.
The government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, and an Imam Hatip graduate, had tried to get rid of the low coefficient by changing the law in 2004, but had been stopped by a veto by Ahmet Necdet Sezer, the president at the time and a hardline secularist opponent of Mr Erdogan's. The prime minister has welcomed the YOK decision, saying the board had corrected a situation that had been a disadvantage for "thousands of graduates of vocational high schools". The education minister, Nimet Cubukcu, said the decision secured "equality of law and opportunity" among high school students.
A move by the Erdogan government to allow headscarves on university campuses last year became an important factor in a trial against the AKP before the country's constitutional court. The court came close to banning the AKP for being a "focal point for anti-secular activities", and critics say Mr Erdogan is still pursuing his Islamist aims, this time with the help of the YOK. The institution was long seen as a stronghold of secularists, but government opponents say the YOK has been stacked with AKP supporters in recent years.
"If one day someone prepares a list for history of those who have betrayed the founding philosophy of this state, let it be known that those who signed the YOK's latest 'coefficient' decision will be top of that list," the columnist, Oktay Eksi, wrote in the Hurriyet newspaper. Imam Hatip schools have the task of training religious officials, who are state employees in Turkey. There are about 140,000 students in Imam Hatip schools currently, less than 10 per cent of all students in vocational high schools.
Some conservative families send their children to Imam Hatip schools for a religious education; about half of students in Imam Hatip schools are girls, although girls cannot become imams. Supporters of the latest YOK decision say it is good for the country to make vocational schools more attractive by giving graduates better chances to have an university education. Since the low coefficient was introduced 10 years ago, the number of young people choosing vocational school has fallen because the schools were seen as an educational dead-end street, leading to a lack of qualified workers, they say.
"No one wanted to send their child to a vocational school," Abdulkadir Konukoglu, chairman of the Sanko industrial group, told the Zaman newspaper. "Now it will be different and better. We will have better chances to find qualified personnel for the real sector." Nurettin Ozdebir, the head of the Ankara chamber of industrialists, told the same newspaper that an entrepreneur will now "at last find the welder and the lathe operator he is looking for".
But not everyone agrees. The Turkish Industrialists' and Businessmen's Association, or Tusiad, a powerful business lobby group, said the YOK decision would not fix the problems in Turkey's industry. "The change concerning the university entrance coefficient will not solve the problems in vocational education and will not help to extend employment and fight unemployment," Tusiad said in a statement.