Applied sciences – driving innovation at the local level

This article was published in the April 2020 edition of our newsletter.

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Outside of a modern university dining hall.

When universities of applied sciences were established in Germany in the late 1960s, their initial mandate was to train skilled workers for the booming economy of an industrialised country. This meant that research, unlike at traditional universities, tended to lead more of a niche existence. "However, people began to realise in the 1980s and 1990s that proper science-based teaching also needs to involve research at universities of applied sciences", says Karim Khakzar (partly in German), professor of electrical engineering and president of Fulda University of Applied Sciences.

200 universities with a million students

Nowadays, Germany is home not only to around 100 conventional universities, but also to more than 200 universities of applied sciences (known in German by the abbreviation HAW), at which roughly a million students learn and research. That’s nearly 40 percent of all students. The HAW cover a broad range of subjects. They train business economists and specialists in technology, IT, commercial/economic law, social sciences, nursing care or design, as well as engineers in all fields. Like at traditional universities, bachelor’s and master’s degrees can be obtained there.

Practical research – practical training

As far as research is concerned, the HAW have developed their own profile, with practical relevance being the central focus – as is also the case with the teaching done there. Consequently, these universities are very well connected, both with companies and public institutions, at the local level – they are normally to be found in small and medium-sized towns. "Because smaller companies are often unable to afford their own R&D departments, we have a special role to play here", explains Khakzar. "Together, we drive innovation forward in these regions."

Technical and social innovation

Khakzar is by no means referring only to technical innovation, but also to social innovation. Over the past three years, his university in the east of the state of Hesse has established a healthcare network involving 70 cooperation partners. Within the Fulda Regional Health and Life Quality Innovation Centre (only in German), the university collaborates with hospitals, nursing homes, charitable associations, societies and local municipalities. Researchers and practitioners engage in an exchange with people in the region to explore how their quality of life could be improved. Solutions could involve, for example, diet and exercise programmes, the use of digital tools in nursing care, or the better integration of migrants.

State-funded knowledge transfer

Just like Fulda University of Applied Sciences, the Hochschule Niederrhein University of Applied Sciences also receives funding via the "Innovative Hochschule" (i.e. Innovative University) programme run by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) with a view to developing new models for knowledge transfer. Located on the Dutch border, the university concentrates on textile and surface technologies. Known as Europe’s largest training centre for textile and clothing engineers, the university opened its "Textiles Innovatorium" lab two years ago. Scientists and students there work together with companies to develop ideas and ready them for the market – such as a spinning process for high-tech textiles. At the Institute for Surface Technology (only in German), the university cooperates with the paint, varnish, adhesive and materials industry in a bid to find ways to coat materials in a resource-efficient manner.

Practical knowledge for solving complex problems

"Our research is closely related to the specific challenges faced at the local level", says Karim Khakzar. In his capacity as president of Fulda University of Applied Sciences, he represents the universities of applied sciences within the German Rectors’ Conference (HRK), the association of all public and government-recognised universities in Germany. "The universities of applied sciences not only take on responsibility for the region, however; they also make an important contribution to tackling major global problems such as sustainability, migration and climate change." After all, as Khakzar points out, such complex problems cannot be resolved without empirical knowledge and the involvement of those concerned.

More information:

Innovative Hochschule programme

Through its "Innovative Hochschule" initiative, the BMBF provides funding to allow universities of applied sciences and smaller universities to strengthen their strategic role within the regional innovation system. 29 projects involving 48 universities have been funded since 2017. The objective of the programme is the strategic development and intensification of collaboration with corporations and other societal stakeholders. To this end, the ministry intends to invest up to 550 million euros by 2027.