Boğaziçi University: A Gem in Higher Education (March 24, 2015)

With its academic infrastructure, its close ties with its past and its traditions, and its unique location, Boğaziçi University has a special place and prestige in Turkey and abroad.  In its March 2015 issue, BUMED Magazine focused on the University’s status in the world.  Aylin Buran, Editorial Director of the magazine, interviewed Vice Provost Professor Taner Bilgiç, whose responsibilities include overseeing BU’s Office of International Relations. We are presenting the interview for Manzara’s readers.

Could you tell us about the current state of the student exchange program at BU?

“BU has close ties with North America, mainly due to its past as Robert College and the traditions it has inherited from it.  We have observed a significant expansion in the University’s international student exchange programs after we joined the Erasmus program in 2004.  Subsequently, visits between European universities and our institution increased, and the student exchange infrastructure and visibility this brought helped expand our relations with the USA and the rest of the world.  Today, we host approximately 600 Exchange/Erasmus students and special students each year and send about 500 Boğaziçi students to our academic partners in 33 countries.  Students usually participate in exchange programs in their junior year.  What this means is that we are sending one in every 4 junior year students abroad through an exchange program.  In some departments this rate is close to 50%. Our target is to attain a 50% rate throughout the university.  Students we send abroad through our exchange programs do not pay tuition fees to the host university but they are expected to personally meet all other expenses such as transportation, housing, health insurance, food, etc.  On the other hand, students in the Erasmus program receive partial financial support of about 300 to 500 Euros per month for such expenses.”

What is the profile of the exchange students coming to BU?

“Our highest exchange capacity is with Germany.  We host 130 students from Germany every year.  This is followed by the US with 100 students per year.  France, the Netherlands and Italy each send 25 to 35 students per year.  Incoming students are mostly undergraduate students in the second or third year of their programs.  They are predominantly students in the Social Sciences and Humanities, but recently the number of students studying Engineering or Natural Sciences has started to increase.

The top three departments preferred by exchange students are Political Science and International Relations, Management, and History.  The number of students coming to these three departments constitute a third of the total number of incoming students.  “Turkish for Foreigners” is the most sought-after course, where high demand exceeds capacity.  Next in popularity come courses on politics.  

The student profile has been changing for the better over the years.  Boğaziçi has been very meticulous and selective in terms of the institutions with which it signs agreements.  Some students come to Turkey just to have some social/cultural experiences.  Recently, this group of students has started opting for other universities in Istanbul.  The students we host at Boğaziçi are increasingly those who come to gain both academic and social/cultural experiences.  Actually, it has turned into a self-improving system.”

Which universities do BU students select abroad?

“We have the capacity to send 1,200 students per year to 33 countries. Every year 1,000 students apply to our exchange programs, and 750 of them are placed in a university abroad.  However, only 500 students actually participate in the program.

Of the 500 BU students who go abroad on an exchange program, 120 to 130 prefer North American universities.  As you can easily guess, New York, Boston and California are the top destinations.  We have a mutual high capacity agreement with the University of California system, which we signed in 2011.  It is one of our most popular agreements.

The first choices of exchange students going to Europe are the Netherlands, France, England, Spain and Italy, in that order.  One of the most important factors in the choice of a university is the availability of courses taught in English. BU does not send a student to a country unless he or she has attended courses in that country’s language for a minimum of 4 semesters.  We believe this is important for our students’ academic success.

On the other hand, interest in the Far East has been rising, too.  The number of students going to universities in Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea, China, and India is increasing.

We do not currently have student exchange agreements with universities in Portugal or Brazil because we do not offer courses in Portuguese at BU. However, we are going to launch Portuguese language courses as of the next academic year and this will be an important step towards increasing our relations with those countries.”

What are the similarities and differences between universities abroad and Boğaziçi?

“We work very smoothly with universities in the United States because our systems are quite parallel.  Lessons are similarly conducted; all courses have midterm exams, papers, projects, and final exams.  Semesters in US institutions are 12 to 13 weeks long, like at BU.  Also, credit transfer between our institutions is relatively easy.  We benefit from the advantage of having inherited the American education system from Robert College.

On the other hand, higher education systems in Europe are varied and complex.  Many have different teaching systems.  They give more responsibility to students and evaluate their achievement by one single exam at the end of the semester.  Most universities in England give one single exam at the end of the academic year, which overburdens exchange students who go abroad for only one semester.  There are oral exams in France.  In southern European systems, a very large number of students are admitted to universities but most of them are eliminated at the end of the year. In the Netherlands, it is not legal to select and admit students on basis of an examination!  Recently, European countries have been trying to harmonize national education systems through the Bologna process.   However, while doing this they are creating such a bureaucracy that I am not sure where it will end up.  Despite all, spending a semester in a different system is an awesome experience.  The Erasmus project is without doubt one of the European Union’s most successful projects.  It greatly contributes towards unifying Europe and creating harmony between generations.  We are very happy that our students are involved in this project and are part of the generation that will shape the future of not only Turkey but also Europe.

Far Eastern universities are in the process of a breakthrough. Hong Kong and Singapore have allocated significant resources to education.  Chinese universities have advanced rapidly.  India is lagging somewhat behind, but is very dynamic.  Living and learning in these developing economies and systems is a distinctive experience for our students.”

What is your impression about students’ attitudes?

“Since BU accepts individual applications from students through its bilateral exchange program agreements and special student programs, we receive more “free spirited, adventurous” students.  There are some intermediary companies around the world dealing with exchange students.  They take a student to a country, cover all their expenses, find housing, etc.   Some of them bring students to BU as well but they are very few in number.  Most of our incoming exchange students are those who just pack a backpack and come.

Nearly all of the students coming from the US stay at the Superdorm.  On the other hand, most European students rent and share apartments in various parts of the city.  Most of theses students have positive or negative opinions or prejudices about Turkey when they come.  These change during the time they are in Istanbul.  Most of them find our courses very tough, and our grading very strict.  They say Boğaziçi students are reticent about speaking English.  Every year the Office of International Relations gives questionnaires to the incoming exchange students.  Their answer to one particular item is noteworthy:  “the semester I spent at BU met all my expectations.”   45% say “definitely yes” and 40% say “Yes” to that statement.

Similarly, BU students who go abroad are happy with the experience.  For more than half of them, this is their first time abroad.  We can say that it is even more beneficial for those who plan to apply to graduate programs or work abroad after graduation.  We have the capacity to send more students but unfortunately financial restraints do not allow many of our students to participate in the program.   Even though they do not have to pay tuition fees in the US, they need to spend $5,000 to 10,000 and this is difficult.  We have established a scholarship program for exchange students with contributions from our alumni.  We provide funds to those who need financial support.  This scholarship program will raise interest in the exchange program and be of great advantage to our students.”

What is your perception of the importance of international partnerships among universities?

We have a partner portfolio comprising highly qualified universities.  The most reputable higher education institutions are among our partners.  For example, Ivy League schools do not make many exchange agreements, but we have exchange agreements with two – Columbia and Brown.  We host the “Turkey Program” of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School and the “Doing Business in Turkey” program of NYU Stern School of Business.  Boğaziçi University’s Management Club (IK) is successfully running the Harvard College in Asia program. Higher education systems are in transition all over the world.  Both global competition and the ways to access information have been increasing at an unprecedented rate.  All institutions are trying to develop strategies to keep pace with these ongoing changes.  At BU we are very happy with our exchange programs.  Yet questions such as “What can we do differently?” and “Can we develop new models with higher added value for our students, faculty and partners?” are on our agenda at all times. 

We find partnerships focusing on research to be more suitable to the profile of our students and faculty.  We place great importance on partnerships that offer research opportunities to our PhD students, both during their studies and after they graduate.  We support these programs; we are very selective with regard to common degree programs and double major programs at the graduate level.”

Where do you see BU among universities in the world?

I am often asked the same questions in the meetings I attend during the course of my duties. In the field of education, Boğaziçi University is a gem among universities of the world.  With its extraordinarily beautiful campus, its academic and social traditions, its amazing students, academic staff and personnel, the university has captured a harmony that is unprecedented.   

Today there are many institutions that rank universities in the world in accordance with various criteria.  These rankings are often in the news.  There are many who criticize ranking methods that attempt to measure the activities of a university by reducing them down to one single score.  BU’s ranking has been rising in these tables. This year we were placed 139th in the Times Higher Education ranking.  This is due to our increasingly effective research performance and our increasing international visibility.  We should not forget, however, that the measurement methods used in these rankings tend to produce high oscillation and they overemphasize research performance.  You can be placed in the first 100 this year and in the first 200 next year.  This oscillation decreases in the case of the top 25-50 universities.  If you look at the universities in that range, you will see the peers of BU around the world.”