Over the past ten years, Germany’s “excellence initiative” has pumped €1.9 billion to leading universities, helping bolster outstanding scientific research – a move that has helped develop elite credentials in key fields and increase the international visibility of German universities.
But many have been slow to embrace interdisciplinary studies and innovative curricula adapted to 21st-century careers, says Christian Thomsen, president of the Technische Universität Berlin (TU Berlin).
“The specific education at TU Berlin is good – there is not too much to improve,” says Thomsen, who was elected president earlier this year. “But the course system is still quite traditional. Students should be coming out with exposure to other topics not in their direct field of study – because that gives you the breadth you need later in your professional life. A mono-education is no longer sufficient for success in professional life.”
Thomsen, a professor of physics and former dean of the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences, began rethinking the university’s approach to science education during in his time as dean. In 2009, he introduced a new interdisciplinary degree on a limited basis called “natural sciences in the information society,” including coursework in maths, chemistry, physics and computer science. Interestingly, Thomsen says, 50 per cent of the interdisciplinary degree students are women – an unusually high percentage given that only 30 per cent of students at TU Berlin are women – and a great plus for boosting the number of women studying maths and science.
In 2012, Thomsen introduced an orientation year in the STEM fields – science, technology engineering and maths. The option gives first year undergraduates the chance broaden their horizons by studying at TU Berlin without choosing a particular degree subject. In 2012, 70 students enrolled in the STEM orientation year. One year later, the enrollment shot up to 170, and this year it hit 320.
Now Thomsen aims to broaden the concept of interdisciplinary study beyond the STEM fields to include economics and humanities. From autumn 2015, first years will be given the option of taking a year of “orientation study” allowing them to defer the choice of subject and dabble in courses across the university, much as American universities do. “So you can take courses in civil engineering, physics or philosophy,” says Thomsen, who believes that many new students have little idea what they want to do in life, and that experimentation will help students discover where they can best excel.
“For those who are undecided or don’t know exactly what they want to do, this one year of orientation accelerates or improves the basis for decision of what to study – and that saves time in the end.” Thomsen expects as many as 1,000 students, or 20 per cent of the incoming class of 2015, will enroll in the new programme
Thomsen knows how productive such a year of “free study” can be. As a first-year student at the University of Tübingen in 1978, he stumbled on a rare but similar option in the world of German education, allowing him to experiment and explore different fields. He had initially dismissed physics as a career option in high school, but during his flexible year of study at Tübingen, he rediscovered a passion for it.
“This is what I want to import or develop for TU Berlin on a larger scale,” says Thomsen. “I think it can be done.”
While flexibility may sound like more freedom, it also forces more choices on students – choices that increase personal responsibility, says Thomsen, “Because you are not told what to do, you have to choose yourself what to do.”
Another top priority is to increase support for student entrepreneurs at TU Berlin. Start-ups founded by university graduates in Berlin and the surrounding region of Brandenburg now generate some €1.7 billion in revenues and employ 17,000, according to a recent survey –demonstrating their economic impact. Some 90 per cent of those entrepreneurs are former TU Berlin students, says Thomsen, who aims to include a course on how to found a company in the orientation year study programme starting in 2015. TU Berlin currently offers a master’s degree in entrepreneurship.
“People tend to think of courses on entrepreneurship as advanced studies,” says Thomsen. “I think you should learn about it in the first year at the university – that will increase awareness. It’s the same point about making people responsible – in this case for their own product and own ideas. We’ll teach them how to make a business plan and obtain money from outside sources – and support them from the first year onward.”
The challenge for TU Berlin and its nine-year-old Centre for Entrepreneurship is expanding the budget for start-up activities. “We don’t have explicit funding for this task because until now, the government has not really considered universities as a place to seed start-ups,” Thomsen says. “We will try to negotiate that with the state of Berlin – and obtain extra funding.”
TU Berlin’s Centre for Entrepreneurship offers incubator space for some 20 start-ups and employs a staff of 25 professionals. Since 2012, it has created 42 start-ups. Thomsen hopes to double the space available to young companies and make sure they are more visible to potential investors – including tech-savvy US venture capitalists. “If we have more on display and a larger number of startup companies, then it’s more attractive for investors to take the time to fly across the ocean,” he says.
Thomsen who received a Ph.D. in physics from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, admires the performance-driven culture at American universities and hopes to inject a dose of it into TU Berlin’s culture. “I was impressed at Brown by the openness and welcome for foreign students. You were not judged on the basis of where you came from, but on how you performed in class,” he says. “Acceptance was based on what you achieved.”
Another aspect of American university education that Thomsen would like to import is a more personal atmosphere on campus. “It’s the feeling that the university cares for you. I did not have that in Tübingen,” he says, noting German education is more anonymous. “It’s more difficult, because TU Berlin is larger, but I found this caring for individuals and giving them a chance to show who they are in interactions a very positive experience at Brown.“
In 2011, TU Berlin won the distinction of being named one of Germany’s top three entrepreneurial universities. Each of the three received a €3.2 million grant from the German Ministry for Economy and Technology to improve the culture for start-ups.