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Turkey’s Foundation Universities: Model for the Region?

ISTANBUL—As Turkish universities rise in global rankings and seek to draw students from around the world, academics say an important alternative to the public higher educational system has helped raise the quality of Turkish education: foundation universities.

The universities were established by Turkish foundations set up by wealthy businessmen and the educational institutions have swelled strongly in numbers over the last 30 years. They could serve as models for higher education in the Arab world, academics said.

“They play an important role in the scientific, social, cultural and economic development of the region and city they are founded in,” Durmus Gunay, a member of the executive board of the Turkish Council of Higher Education, said in an e-mail.

The efforts of foundation universities are paying off. While rankings are certainly not the only guide to excellence, three foundation universities placed among the top 400 higher learning institutions worldwide this year in Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings.

The nation’s first foundation university was established in 1984. Now, a total of 351,000 students are now attending 72 of them, Gunay said.

While they are educating only 6.4 percent of the total number of university students in Turkey, academics say foundation institutions are vital to the health of the nation’s higher educational landscape, even if most of the nation’s students go to its 104 public universities.

“The more diverse you are, the more competitive it is and people have to watch out and make adjustments accordingly,” said Nihat Berker, president of Sabanci University, a foundation university in eastern Istanbul. “It’s good to bring in different points of view and the foundation universities do that.”

Turkish academics compare foundation universities to institutions such as Stanford and Carnegie Mellon in the United States because wealthy individuals or families similarly created them. Businessman Vehbi Koc, for example, founded Istanbul’s Koc University in 1993. Today, a foundation he started in the late 1960s continues to support the university with $30 million annually, according to the university’s president, Umran Inan.

Most foundation universities have also benefitted from land donations by the state. And while they fall under the Turkish Council of Higher Education, they are regulated by specific legislation, according to an academic paper.

Volkan Atalay, vice-president of the public Middle East Technical University, the highest ranking university in Turkey, said foundation universities can be divided into three categories: Research universities, teaching universities and those that fall in between. While he indicated there are varying levels of quality among them, they generally complement public higher education, which differs from the foundation system.

Boards of trustees select the presidents of foundation universities, while the country’s president appoints the leaders of public universities. Foundation universities are also free from a slow and sometimes restrictive state bureaucracy, academics said and generally can offer faculty higher salaries than the public system. Another notable difference is the cost to students: Unlike free state institutions, they charge tuition.

But almost 40 percent of foundation university students receive some form of scholarship, according to Study in Turkey, an online resource about the nation’s higher education. At Koc University, some students who are paying full price say the education is worth the cost because—in addition to other assets—most classes are taught in English rather than Turkish and the universities offer a style of education less traditional than the public system.

At Koc University, in northern Istanbul, students evaluate their instructors, said Dalya Ertekin, a junior studying business administration. “You can criticize the teacher, the lesson, the topics—all kinds of things,” she said. “In public schools, teachers are very old. And they use their own schedule and do not listen to student opinions.”

“Sometimes, you can be friends with teachers,” she added. “At state universities, it’s much more difficult.”

Through research, study abroad opportunities, strong academic staff, program quality and modern facilities, foundation universities aim to compete with leading universities globally, according to Study in Turkey. “Private or foundation universities are dedicated not only to teaching and conducting research but also educating the brightest minds to become critical thinkers and leaders in the work force of the future,” the website says.

Mohamed Kassem, an Egyptian sophomore at Sabanci University, said he would like his own country, Egypt, to adopt the foundation model, which reflects well on the families investing in education, he says: “They are trying to make the country better by funding the university.”

But he and others question the feasibility of the model at home. “It’s even hard to get taxes from Egyptian wealthy families,” said Mohamed Maarouf, an Egyptian-American and a freshman at Sabanci University. “It’s complex in that sense because of political things—but if it’s possible, of course it’s a great thing.”

Dangers, however, can arise in building an educational system run or created by prosperous families, who can seek to influence curriculum or view education as another source of profit. “Unfortunately, a lot of the foundation universities end up turning into for-profit entities,” said the Koc University president.

Still, there are also benefits of a system where universities have close links to families who are involved in big businesses that ultimately help fund the universities. Sabanci University, for example, was established in the 1990s as a social responsibility project of the Sabanci Group—Turkey’s leading industrial and financial conglomerate with companies operating in 18 countries. Its parent company is Sabanci Holding.

“There is a social familiarity with different Sabanci companies, and you are in the real market—the way they compete, the way they function—and that permeates the whole campus,” said Sabanci University’s president, Berker. “You can also have joint projects with companies from the Holding—joint technical projects, social projects,” Berker said. “So, there is a joint culture that comes, which I think is an advantage.”

Looking toward future work opportunities, students at Sabanci University say they view Sabanci companies as potential employers.

But foundation universities say their goal is not to benefit their founders.

“I can assure you that the reason the foundation university opened is not to feed the companies, but to become an international, global leader in the region and in the world,” said Sondan Durukanoglu Feyiz, vice-president of Sabanci University.


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