The three Rs: resources, research and Robin Hood

R&D and philanthropy are at the heart of a Turkish university’s ambitious plans. Matthew Reisz reports

April 5, 2012

Towering ambition: the president of Koç University, Umran Inan, intends for his ‘rising star’ institution to set a new standard for excellence in Turkey and beyond

When it comes to research and development, or R&D, Umran Inan, president of Koç University in Istanbul, says: “I am the messiah of R.”

The leader of the small non-profit private university, established in 1993 by a Turkish industrial dynasty’s charitable foundation, continues: “I give talks everywhere, telling government and industry that, when you interact with universities, please don’t lose sight of the R.

“I could pair you up with faculty in my sleep and solve your D [development] problems of today, but what we really need to work on are your problems for 10 years from now.

“Your R&D division can’t possibly see them, because they are in the box. I am not. We need to pursue the unknown unknowns, and the only place you can do that is in universities, because the bright and curious people, faculty and students, are at the university.

“So if you have any brains, I tell the CEOs, you come and give me a hundred thousand dollars and ask me to do seed research on a very general topic - like energy. Don’t define it too carefully. We announce ‘seed research opportunities in energy’, the entire university puts in proposals and we sit together on a panel with whoever is funding us to pick a few of them.

“You fund ten of these things and nine produce theses on a shelf - but one of them makes you fly.”

Externally funded R&D now represents 16 per cent of the budget at Koç University. The figure for Stanford University is 23 per cent. In this, as in many other ways, Inan’s ambitious plans for what he calls his “rising star” university are deeply influenced by the 36 years he spent at Stanford.

After completing a first degree at the Middle East Technical University, Ankara, in 1973, he moved to California to do a PhD in electrical engineering, became a leading expert in geophysics and returned to Turkey only in 2009, when he was appointed president of Koç.

An early decision was to create an Office of Learning and Teaching, based on the one at Stanford, to “elevate the teaching. Other universities are beginning to copy this.”

Among Koç’s key goals, according to Selçuk Karabati, vice-president for academic affairs, are to “reverse the brain drain” and to “trigger excellence in other Turkish universities”.

Borrowing from the US

Koç is a relatively small institution, with about 4,000 undergraduates and 1,000 postgraduates studying humanities, physical, administrative and social sciences as well as law and medicine. Yet it is also at the centre of wider changes shaking higher education in Turkey, where a booming economy is spurring innovation largely inspired by US models.

The sector consists of often large state universities, where the tuition fees are very low, and private “foundation universities”. Koç was established by the Vehbi Koç Foundation, itself set up by the industrial dynasty that now employs about 15 per cent of the Turkish workforce.

Although the government provides funding to enable aspiring academics to carry out graduate work abroad, particularly in the US, those returning to Turkey to work in public institutions often find themselves frustrated by the bureaucracy, the lack of resources and the low, inflexible salaries.

Koç says it can afford to compete for the best faculty while also providing accommodation and allowing them to spend one day a week on consultancy work (as is common in the US).

Ninety-five per cent of its academic staff have PhDs from universities in North America or Western Europe. Despite his enthusiasm for at least the R of R&D, Inan stresses that promotion decisions are based solely on “academic and scholarly standing. Scholarly production is the only thing, and that’s very proper. Patents don’t produce papers, but papers produce patents.”

Koç University has a compact, out-of-town, red-tiled campus located close to the Black Sea on the northern, European side of Istanbul. It also has a satellite Research Center for Anatolian Civilizations, offering short-term fellowships in art, archaeology and history, on the stylish and famously noisy Istiklal Caddesi pedestrianised street in the heart of the city. This will soon also provide a restaurant and other facilities for alumni.

Some of the approaches championed by Koç are also being adopted in other leading foundation universities. The institution now offers all its courses in English, except for a few units of its law degrees, with an English Language Center giving intensive training to those who do not arrive with the necessary linguistic ability. And it has embraced the US liberal arts curriculum “with a fervour”, in the words of Inan, “which sometimes upsets our own students”.

“But in the long run they benefit - it’s the difference between educating professionals and educating leaders. I can afford to sit back and expose them to a broader knowledge of humanity and get them to appreciate what it is like to be a social being.”

In financial terms, Koç also follows a US model, with high tuition fees accompanied by full and half-scholarships for 60 per cent of the student body. These are largely given for academic performance (although the new Anatolia Scholarships are specifically intended to reach out to schools where pupils find it hard to get into top universities).

This is tracked through the nationwide Student Selection and Placement System. Close to 1.8 million school-leavers now take the two-stage exam and, when the results come through, 600,000 of them submit a preference list for the 250,000 university places available nationwide.

Close to 25 per cent of Koç’s 2011 student intake came from those ranked among the top 5,000 in the country, a proportion that puts it in third place, behind two of Istanbul’s state universities. It has a similar position for publication rates and tops the league in terms of membership and awards of the Turkish Academy of Sciences as well as the Scientific and Technological Research Council Awards.

International flavour

A liberal-arts focus means that most courses are taught by the College of Social Sciences and Humanities. Koç also has a College of Sciences, of Engineering and one devoted to Administrative Sciences and Economics, in effect a business school that, together with its graduate school, is the first in the country to be accredited by EQUIS, the European Quality Improvement System.

The college’s dean, Baris Tan, has high hopes that it will become “the best for teaching and research in the whole region”, which he boldly defines as “everywhere between Vienna and Singapore”. Although virtually all the undergraduates are Turkish, an exchange programme adds an international dimension - about 25 per cent of those in a typical classroom are visiting foreign students.

The final piece in the jigsaw is provided by the School of Medicine. Alongside philanthropic work in the fields of culture and education, the Koç Foundation runs the American Hospital but is not allowed to invest the proceeds in any commercial ventures. This has enabled it to “play Robin Hood”, says the medical dean, Sevket Ruacan, and build a major new teaching hospital, initially with just over 250 beds, and catering largely for the disadvantaged of Istanbul. “Steeples of excellence” will include paediatrics, neurology and oncology and perhaps “emerging infections” such as swine flu, which have a disproportionate impact on countries standing at the crossroads between continents.

The hospital is due for completion at the end of 2013, just when the first cohort of medical students complete their initial campus-based training and need to move on to clinical work.

It will also be the first dedicated children’s hospital in one of the major cities of a country notable for its youthful demographic.

At a time when higher education across much of Europe is characterised by caution and retrenchment, dynamism is breaking out within the Turkish sector.

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