Prof. Dr. Margret Wintermantel: German universities and knowledge transfer spur economic development

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.


For several years, the SolarCar team of the Bochum University of Applied Sciences has participated in the World Solar Challenge races in Australia and USA.

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.


Over two million students are registered at German universities.

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.


uqjupdct-KopieThe 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.