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Once a technical university…

Christian Maercker

Germany’s universities of applied sciences were designed to serve a very specific purpose—producing the engineering graduates needed to rebuild the country’s economy after the devastation of the second world war.

They were created to provide a practical, ‘no frills’ education and were never intended to match the great traditional universities as centres for research to generate knowledge and innovation. But in a changing world, they have had to compete in the same arena as their more illustrious rivals. And if the experience of my own institution is any guide, the former universities of applied sciences can certainly emerge from this competition as winners.

Annual research income at the Mannheim University of Applied Sciences (MUAS) tripled from €1.5 million to €4.5m between 2007 and 2011, while the number of researchers employed through these external contracts rose from 50 to 150. This growth may have been from a low base but every major enterprise starts somewhere and we believe that we have the systems in place to continue expanding as a research institution.

So how has this been achieved? There are no secrets. It is the same recipe that will create success in most fields—careful planning, enthusiasm and hard work. But first I should explain why there had to be changes at the universities of applied science, which had been so successful in supporting the German economic miracle of the 1950s and 1960s.

The problem was that higher education was changing. By the turn of the century, students graduating with an engineering diploma from an applied sciences university were unable to compete in the job market with those holding a degree from a traditional university. Nor was their qualification sufficient to let them progress to a masters or PhD qualification at any European university, as required under the EU’s Bologna guidelines.

So from 2000 onwards, the diploma study programmes at traditional German universities were reworked to become bachelor and masters degrees. At universities of applied sciences, which originally offered only bachelor degrees, new masters programmes were created. MUAS now offers 10 masters courses in engineering sciences, biotechnology and social sciences, with 70 PhD students working on collaborative projects with the big regional universities of Heidelberg, Karlsruhe and Darmstadt.

Before these changes, research had been a peripheral activity at institutions such as MUAS, without much impact on study programmes and future development. Now it is central to all activities. Success has only been possible through the dedication of the senior academic staff, who have tackled time-consuming, difficult and highly competitive grant applications without major incentives, such as any significant reduction in their teaching load.

Staff also have to manage increasingly complex projects funded by different external sources, within the EU rather than local government or industry. Administering such projects is a particular challenge for small universities, so we set up a research management office, which now employs three people.

As we are unable to establish critical mass in all fields, we collaborate wherever possible, with organisations such as the Mannheim Institute of Medical Technology, a shared institute between MUAS and Heidelberg University, on joint PhD programmes and research projects. This year we have formed part of a confederation of five universities in the south-west of Germany looking at developing synergies in managing projects.

Much of the recent success of MUAS has been the result of one-off projects with a limited lifespan, so to achieve long-term sustainability we have developed new structures within the university. One particular concern was the career progression of young academics. We have integrated important research topics in areas such as renewable energy and medical biotechnology into masters programmes, to prepare them for their future roles in industry or as PhD students.

To ensure the quality of the education provided, it has been necessary to establish research professorships with a reduced teaching load. These posts provide an excellent opportunity for recruiting and motivating professorial staff with international reputations in their own fields. We have also set up shared professorships with other research centres and industry, which have made outstanding contributions to improving our research capability. Support for PhD students is also vital and we have our own foundations to provide stipends and support the running costs of their research projects.

So, like all modern universities, MUAS is no ivory tower engaging a select group of academics with limited contact with the world outside. Rather it stands side by side with the wider society, forming an essential element in the knowledge triangle of research, education and innovation. Everywhere, the higher education market is changing and all universities must evolve to survive.

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Christian Maercker is vice-rector for research and development at the Mannheim University of Applied Sciences, Germany.