The quality of the higher education system determines, to a large extent, the economic options of a location in the international competition. As a result of the globalisation of the knowledge-based society, the traditional purpose of colleges plays an increasingly important role, namely to educate a maximum of young persons in such a way that they will be able to reverberate, update and complement their knowledge in their lifetimes. Nowadays, professionals in all branches must be capable of handling new information constructively for life; in addition, many people are expected to create new knowledge – or “science” literally. “Knowledge transfer beyond minds” is the key to progress in science and economy.
To that effect, the unique characteristic of colleges is most advantageous, namely the combination of education based on current knowledge with active research at the frontier of new knowledge. It is only by working on open questions in research that students gain the experience and realisation that, in the future, they will have to go outside the envelope and continuously identify and overcome further challenges. The successful mastery of the latter requires the ability to work methodically, which is gained by carrying out research. Early exposure of students to research has been a particular strength of German colleges since Humboldt’s reform. Traditionally, all German colleges present a high level of education quality thanks to the high research component. The German higher education system is dense and varied, counting approximately 2.2 million students, 90 per cent of whom study at the 264 member colleges of the German Rectors’ Conference (HRK). All colleges in the 16 federal states boast top-level research and education, offering a large spectrum of subjects, which allow multiple new combinations if required.
Universities represent the core of the higher education system, for they award doctorates, offer non-professorial academic positions and conduct fundamental as well as applied research. Other German institutions of higher education are devoted to education and the arts – namely Universities of Applied Sciences.
Those universities of applied sciences arose from so-called schools of engineering 40 years ago and are primarily devoted to the practical application of theoretical knowledge. The Universities of Applied Sciences also combine education with research and development, frequently in close cooperation with companies that are established in their vicinity. Their professors have several years of non-academic work experience, which ensures a strong connection with current practical issues. That is why Universities of Applied Sciences play an exceptional role in the transfer of knowledge. Germany’s economic success is in part based on specific achievements by that type of institution of higher education. “Collaborative research centres” are currently boosting the cooperation between universities, Universities of Applied Sciences and companies for the benefit of all participants by enabling young researchers in industry-related collaborative projects to obtain doctorates at the university, even if the bulk of the research is achieved at the Universities of Applied Sciences.
Another strength of the German higher education system comes from the overall open-mindedness of the scientific staff towards the concerns of companies. While the traditional Humboldt principle of education through science may still seem idealistic, the core of the German university concept is very pragmatic: institutions of higher education promote the development of the community provided they have a high degree of autonomy and generate as well as convey new knowledge via application-oriented fundamental research. Under those conditions, a university can cooperate with companies on an equal footing without loss of inner substance, allowing it to transfer its knowledge to the market effectively or to adopt new topics productively.
In that regard, engineering plays a model role, for even universities follow a century-old rule according to which professors must have switched to working in a company before being appointed. Similar requirements are placed on the directors of the institutes of the Fraunhofer Society, which are usually affiliated with a university and predominantly financed by market-oriented research. Fortunately, the majority of students and graduates have a strong interest in cooperation between universities and companies. Wherever such cooperation is successful, their career opportunities increase and, conversely, companies discover skilled personnel early on.
Successful cooperation presupposes personal trust between the people involved as well as an institutional profile that clearly communicates a university’s specific strong points to its partner. In defining and implementing the profile, the college administration in Germany is most often advised by a college council, which typically includes top business executives. Nowadays, no institution can be at the top in all topics and disciplines. Therefore, each college is working on refining its profile. This involves education, on the one hand, whereby individual subjects must be covered completely and competently, and even more so research, on the other hand, whose focal points must increasingly be organised across disciplines in order to meet content-related and social requirements. Open-topic external funding such as through the so-called Initiative for Excellence supports that intrinsic process.
Research focal points make the best starting points for setting up strategic alliances between colleges and the private sector. Currently, many sustainably established, excellent focal points continue to concentrate large and small clusters or networks around them. Project-oriented development plans are being advanced more vigorously and increasingly embedded into target-oriented programmes, which, in the long term, are backed by a “public-private partnership” (PPP). To assure quality, research-related PPP measures are typically organised competitively and submitted to a “peer review” process, which consists of an evaluation through an independent reviewer. The Initiative for Excellence competition, which the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) finances as part of its high-tech strategy, is an excellent example. German colleges are also well equipped and traditionally successful when it comes to EU research promotion.
Financial and legal issues can quickly compromise cooperation. Therefore, the Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology proposes legally flawless model agreements between business and science, which are useful to smaller establishments on either side with regard to intellectual property, for, since the revision of the employee invention law in 2002, colleges, like companies, are the owners of the inventions made by their staffs.
HRK supports the cooperation between science and business by means of expert opinions, recommendations and events, which are also and particularly aimed at college administrations, for, good management is indispensable if economic development is to be further stimulated by science.
The author was born in 1947, studied psychology and journalism at the university of Mainz and obtained a doctorate in 1972. She habilitated in psychology at Heidelberg. Margret Wintermantel has been lecturing at the university of Saarbrücken since 1992, and in 2000, she was appointed president. Since 2006, she has further been president of the German Rectors’ Conference.