Family cure for sick man of Europe

November 8, 1996

A university which relies on government sources for less than 10 per cent of its funding is something of a novelty in Europe. To find one in Turkey comes as a surprise.

There are parallels between the foundation of Bilkent University in Ankara in 1984, and the setting up of Oxford and Cambridge universities as self-funding institutions by enterprising and dedicated academics in the 13th century.

But medieval analogies end there: Bilkent is no finishing school for the indolent rich. Its academic credentials and research are deliberately regularly measured against international standards.

The Dogramaci family, founders of Bilkent, made their wealth as owners of oil-rich land in Iraq when Mesopotamia was under Ottoman suzerainty. Bilkent is the culmination of their determination to provide higher education for the youth of Turkey.

The family recognised that if the new Republic was never again to be the Sick Man of Europe after the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, it would be a well-educated youth who would drive forward the secular and dynamic state created by Ataturk.

Preparations for Bilkent University had begun in 1967, with the family's purchase of a large tract of land to the west of Ankara, and the setting up of family trusts and foundations. The name "Bilkent" exemplifies the founders' aim: an acronym from bilim kenti, Turkish for "city of learning and science".

Ihsan Dogramaci, the first rector, was an established academic before the first undergraduates arrived at Bilkent, and its foundation was approved by parliament, in 1984.

Bilkent's first academics were recruited from overseas, especially the United States, and many, in a reverse brain drain, were Turkish expatriate academics. English was to be the medium of instruction. Today, undergraduates whose level of English is insufficient, are first required to enrol in the school of English language.

Ali Dogramaci was a professor in the US before returning to Ankara to succeed his father as rector of Bilkent. He has infectious enthusiasm for the institution.

The campus houses faculties of humanities and letters, economics and administrative sciences, pure and applied science, and the school of art, design and architecture. The university is unashamedly based on the US model, with overtones of the British system.

There are some 10,000 undergraduates and graduate students. In addition this year there are overseas students from 22 countries, mainly from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union.

Bilkent is a non-profit making institution, supported by direct endowments from its original foundation, together with profits from commercial ventures it has set up, including manufacturing industries and hotels.

These sources provide 60 per cent of its income. Some 30 per cent of income comes from fees, and the state makes up only the remaining 10 per cent.

This gives Bilkent an enviable degree of independence; a factor that could prove important now Turkey has its first Islamicist government since the secular republic was set up by Ataturk in the 1920s. Half the Turkish population is under 25 and more than a million school leavers apply for university entrance annually. Turkey has mandatory national service, normally of two years.

Students are exempt until undergraduate studies are completed. If they go on to graduate school they further postpone military service - for some a strong incentive to continue in higher education.

Fifty per cent of the top 100 students in the two-stage examination select Bilkent as their first choice. Means are no handicap to entrance if the right abilities are shown. About 1,000 students each year are eligible for tuition subsidy from the foundations.

"We operate the scholarship system in such a way that it is not known whether kids come from rich or poor families. The entrance examination is very tough, family background is not taken into account - performance is all," says the rector.

"There is certainly no stigma attached to those who come on scholarship - they tend in fact to be the cleverest students and are respected as such."

In national rankings of universities by academic staff publications listed in the ISI Citation Indexes, Bilkent is frequently placed first in the number of published papers per faculty member, in international as well as local journals.

As in Britain, publication is demanded from academics, and is used as a performance indicator.

An academic institution cannot be about science alone, says Dr Dogramaci. "That way we would be sending philistines out into the world. As soon as was practical, we developed the department of music, and we are especially proud of our concert hall, one of the best in Turkey."

The collapse of the Soviet Union made it possible for its talented musicians to study overseas, and the numbers in the music faculty dramatically increased.

"Our interest in our students does not end with them finishing their education," says the rector.

"Our career development and placement centre was established by my father early in the university's development. It helps final-year students to acquire the skills necessary to apply successfully for a job, and arranges interviews with major international corporations.

"The number of highly educated and well motivated graduates coming from Turkey on to western employment markets should not be underestimated."

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