Private Universities: Better Than the Rest?

Offering a problem-based "studium fundamentale"--a broad higher education including the humanities and natural sciences--the European College of Liberal Arts ( ECLA) at Berlin has just opened its doors. The International University Bremen ( IUB) embarked on its ambitious "transdisciplinary" study concept 1 year ago. With small class sizes and close contact between students and faculty, an increasing number of new private universities are attracting students from Germany and elsewhere. Young scientists working at these institutions praise the informal teaching atmosphere and highly motivated students, but also their freedom to conduct independent research and the opportunity for interdisciplinary discussions.

Only 26,000, or about 1.4% of Germany's 1.8 million students, are enrolled in private universities, but they are a growing band. The number of private institutions has tripled over the last 10 years, to 46. While public universities struggle with overcrowding, financial shortages, and reforms, private schools enjoy more freedom: They can select their students, charge tuition fees, are relatively free of federal and state regulations, and pay faculty according to their performance. In many cases, they are even supported by public funds: Bremen's state senate endowed nearby IUB to the tune of ? 118 million.

But private universities do not necessarily outperform their public counterparts: Earlier this year, the German Donors' Association ( Stifterverband) conducted a study of 16 international private universities located in Germany. A jury of 12 experts from private colleges, public universities, and industry looked at the profile and financing of these institutions, as well as the quality of their faculty, students, and management. The jury also wanted to determine how private universities use their advantages over public universities to develop efficient and innovative courses, the idea being that private institutions might offer models for introducing reforms to improve teaching, focus courses, and establish more vocationally orientated curricula at public universities.

In their report, however, the jury assessed the performance of several private colleges as no more than mediocre. Despite charging tuition fees of ? 30,600 for a 2-year MBA course, Hannover-based GISMA Business School was described only as a "nonoriginal copy of an American study concept" with a "narrow study profile."

This assessment reflects the general profile of a number of private universities in Germany. The majority provide only single courses of study in business management, while others specialize in law, informatics, or engineering. Only a minority offers courses in the less career-enhancing social sciences, the humanities and arts, or the costly natural sciences and medicine. A pioneer in this field is Witten-Herdecke University. Established in 1982, Witten-Herdecke covers subjects such as medicine, dentistry, natural sciences, economics, and management, and--like ECLA--has a broad "studium fundamentale" that is compulsory for all students. With its interdisciplinary and vocationally orientated curriculum, Witten-Herdecke has helped to pave the way for reformed courses in medicine at public universities.

Bremen's IUB is also broadening the curricular scope of the private institutions, offering natural sciences, engineering, humanities, and social sciences courses. Currently about 350 students selected from all over the world are studying at IUB. Only one-quarter of these is German, and the primary language of instruction and communication on campus is English. By 2005 the IUB aims to have a total of 1200 enrolled students, with a student-to-faculty ratio of 12-to-1.

So much for teaching. How do public and private institutions compare when it comes to research? The Stifterverband jury reported that quite a few private universities lack research activities, but again, IUB is an exception to the rule. All its faculty members are expected to carry out research, and like all academic scientists they have to be proactive in seeking external funding for this purpose. Although they might get a small start-up fund from the institution, group leaders are dependent on their own ability to raise money to buy equipment and employ staff. "Private universities are much more dependent on project-related, nongovernmental funding than public universities," says David Schwappach, a health economist in the faculty of medicine at Witten-Herdecke. "Research that is not regarded as important and beneficial by a private sponsor has a hard time," he adds. On the other hand, their dependence on external money gives scientists at private universities a far-reaching freedom of research. "We have a free hand to support our own scientific interests and do not have to submit ourselves to a hierarchical research organization as long as we can finance our work," Schwappach says.

To tackle scientific problems that would exceed by far the capabilities of individual public as well as private universities, geoscientists and mathematicians at IUB have recently established an international consortium. Together with global academic research partners they plan to investigate geochemical and biological processes at European ocean margins. The scientists plan to seek funding from the European Union and the United States, but the project will be strongly supported financially by partners from the petroleum industry.

Collaborations with industrial partners are common at other private universities, so does that mean that industry is setting the research agenda? Not necessarily, according to Laurenz Thomsen, professor of geosciences at IUB's school of engineering and science. To ensure impartiality, "It is necessary to clarify beforehand how the results are to be published," he says.

Germany's private universities are typically much smaller than their public counterparts. So inevitably they are home to a narrower range of research activities and fewer colleagues working in the same field. That's not all bad, however--in fact, the result is often an intense interdisciplinary dialogue. "Here we get into discussions with scientists from completely different areas much faster and deeper and profit greatly from different approaches to a scientific problem," says Schwappach.

The private universities' small size also allows extensive interactions among students, researchers, and scientific staff. The highly motivated, fee-paying students at IUB, ECLA, and the University of Witten-Herdecke demand effective and individual teaching, points out Schwappach. "I would say that teaching plays a more important role at private universities and is inevitably taken more seriously by scientists," he suggests. Thomsen agrees: "We are evaluated every semester by our students and have to make a big effort."

Nevertheless, Thomsen is enthusiastic about his "extremely clever" students and enjoys teaching at IUB. In spite of the less secure work contracts and the lack of civil service status for professors, he and quite a few other scientists working at private research universities can well imagine a long-term stay at these institutions. For others this personal decision depends on whether the research activities of private universities will be significantly extended in the future. Schwappach says: "If a scientist wants to conduct real top research that needs a certain amount of manpower and above all an academic culture throughout the whole institution, he or she is presently still in better hands at a public university." Thomsen does not share the same opinion. "It does not matter at all whether you come from a private university, if a collaboration with your partners from universities and industry is established and you work within a network of top scientists," he says.

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