Feature September 2015
Turkey´s Koç Foundation provides global model for vocational education

Vehbi Koç was a visionary in more ways than one.

Koç, the late founder of Koç Holding Co., the largest conglomerate in Turkey, also was one of the architects of modern philanthropy in his country. He worked over several decades to create a body of law that laid the groundwork for Turkey´s foundations and civil society organizations, and in 1969 founded the Vehbi Koç Foundation (www.vkv.org.tr), one of the largest foundations in Europe based on its assets.

Koç died in 1996 at the age of 95, but his family members are deeply involved in carrying out his legacy. Daughter Semahat Arsel is the chairwoman of the foundation and a member of the board of directors of Koç Holding Co. His son, Rahmi M. Koç, and grandchildren, Mustafa V. Koç, Ömer M. Koç, and İpek Kraç, serve on the foundation´s board of directors.

“The governance principles of the foundation were carefully set by our founder,” said Arsel. “Of course we comply with current trends, needs and recent developments within the fields and develop our activities in order to provide sustainable and reproducible models for the benefit of the country,” she added.

Partnerships for vocational education

One recent initiative typifies the efforts of the foundation – which focuses on education, healthcare and culture – to foster collaboration that benefits the country´s economy as well as its young people.

The Koç Foundation brought together Turkey´s Ministry of Education, Koç Holding Co., 20 Koç Group companies, and about a dozen civil society and international organizations in a unique public-private collaboration focused on vocational education. Known as MLMM, a Turkish acronym, the seven-year, multi-layered program has become a global model for improving the quality of vocational education while increasing the productivity of Turkish companies.

Between 2006 and 2013, 8,114 high school students from each of Turkey´s 81 provinces completed the program, which provided $15 million in scholarships, training, mentoring, and internships. Most of the students came from low-income families and some were at high risk of dropping out of school, according to Erdal Yıldırım, president of the Koç Foundation. Students went through an application process and were selected based on both need and their potential to succeed. Forty-three percent of the participants were girls.

One of the key features of the program was a partnership between the 264 participating schools and one of the 20 Koç companies, which work in sectors such as food, retailing, finance, energy, automotive, tourism and technology. This relationship was seen as key to raising the quality of vocational education and increasing employability of the youth. The companies provided nearly 600 sector-specific coaches to help develop students’ personal and professional skills.

The mentorship program emerged from the Koç companies’ employees, many of whom were vocational school graduates themselves. They were very involved in the initial design of the project, and brought up the idea early on, speculating that potential scholarship students were unlikely to find role models in their own families. According to Yıldırım, the employees wished that they had had someone to advise them when they were students.

“That´s the reason we started it,” Yıldırım said. “As soon as we did, it got very positive feedback from students and the employees who were volunteers.

“The coaches served as a bridge between the schools and workplaces,” added Yıldırım, who holds a master´s degree in philanthropic studies from the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University. Coaches worked to help students recognize their potential, solve problems, manage time, work as part of a team and become active citizens.

Beginning in 2012, the Association of Private Sector Volunteers (www.osgd.org) also provided coaches from more than 40 member companies. According to Yıldırım, the students greatly benefited from their interaction with mentors, but the other side of the coin was equally important. “The employees were very affected and motivated by helping the youngsters,” he said. The association also started its own spinoffs, including 29 labs at which students can work on the latest technology in their discipline.

Eighty percent of the scholarship students completed internships at Koç Group companies, and students who graduated from the program are given priority when they seek jobs at the companies. More than 82% of the participants chose to continue on to higher education after completing the program.

Recognizing a need for professional development for vocational education teachers, the foundation, through the Koç Group companies, also provided training to more than 400 teachers throughout Turkey. The initiative also included a communications campaign to foster awareness about the importance of vocational education, which led to increased enrollment in vocational high schools.

“We have sound data showing that after we launched the project, the overall reputation of vocational education went up considerably, which was an important goal,” said Yıldırım.

Documentation to benefit the field

From the outset, the foundation was interested in documenting the project. “We wanted to give interested institutions enough know-how to use it and start a similar program,” explained Yıldırım. Turkey´s Education Reform Initiative, one of the few think tanks in the country, agreed to take on the role.

“Their support was very crucial. They set an example of how important it is to do a project in the field, and at the same time work with an academic institution to document everything being done,” Yıldırım added.

Although there were a few good vocational schools in Turkey prior to MLMM, most were mediocre at best, with under-prepared students, unmotivated teachers and poor infrastructure. “We can´t say there was a successful model and we scaled up,” noted Yıldırım. “Everything that was done – mentorship, scholarships – were new contributions to the field.”

The components of the project continue today, run by a variety of NGOs and private companies. The Turkish Ministry of Education has incorporated lessons learned from the project into its policies and vocational training strategies, and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has held it up as a model for other countries seeking to reduce unemployment and increase business competitiveness.

Nevertheless, the foundation is realistic about the program´s impact. “I´m not saying we changed everything in seven years. We´re in better shape, but there are still lot of things that need to be done,” noted Yıldırım.

Other recent foundation activities include construction of the Koç University Hospital, a teaching and research institution expected to be completed in 2016, and the Contemporary Art Museum in Istanbul, expected to open its doors in 2017. In 1992, Arsel founded the Semahat Arsel Nursing Education and Research Center and in 1999 established the School of Nursing at Koç University, which was founded by her father. The foundation also is heavily involved in supporting civil society organizations, including the Third Sector Foundation of Turkey.

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