New Broom Private Money Stirs up Dusty German Universities

In a first for Germany, a privately funded institute joins forces with a state-owned university. The move promises innovation but also opens fault lines between private and public interests.
Students at the Hasso-Plattner-Institute on the campus of the University of Potsdam can earn Bachelor's and Master's degrees in IT-Systems-Engineering.

Germany, a country known for its engineering and manufacturing prowess, prides itself on a long tradition of publicly funded universities that offer students higher education at nearly no charge. But a new move by a public university might challenge long-held beliefs.

Interference by private groups has always been kept at bay in Germany, where the influence of companies and private donors is eyed with skepticism and universities’ freedom to teach and research independently is laid down in the constitution.

But the country in recent years has often been the target of criticism for its reluctant embrace of technology and digital content in its public schools and universities – an issue critics blame on its bureaucratic state-run education system. They warn the country risks falling behind in the global battle for future skilled labor and oftentimes, private initiatives are left to pick up the tab and offer innovative schooling.

A decision by the University of Potsdam, an institution at the gates of Berlin, to grant the private Hasso-Plattner-Institute faculty status could now turn the tables.

The HPI, founded in 1998 by SAP co-founder Hasso Plattner, already cooperates with the Postdam University to offer Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in IT-Systems Engineering and Design Thinking free of charge.

The institute is well-known, even beyond German borders, for offering a first-rate education modeled on Silicon Valley success stories and its degree programs are among the four best-ranked computer science programs in the German-speaking countries.

While privately financed institutes at German universities are no curiosity, it will be the first time such a body receives the status of being a full-fledged faculty, allowing the HPI to license its own degree program.

The institute, with a dozen professors and 530 students, is completely funded by the Hasso-Plattner-Foundation. The foundation puts up some €12 million ($12.7 million) in financing each year and the institute itself raises some additional €4 to €5 million euros in annual research funds on its own. Back at the HPI’s founding, Mr. Plattner himself also pledged to invest his personal money for a duration of 20 years and committed to pay some €200 million.

He will likely have to beef up that amount since the institute is planning to expand as part of becoming an autonomous faculty – twice as many professors are expected to teach at the faculty and four new Master’s degrees added.

But the move also raises questions over the university’s independence and lawyers have spent much time on the exact phrasing of cooperation contracts to facilitate the transition.

Hasso Plattner, 72, does not shy away from getting involved in the university's decisions.

Mr. Plattner, born in 1944 and in possession of an estimated net-worth of $11.1 billion, is teaching classes as an honorary professor at the institute and does not shy away from getting involved in the university’s decisions by regularly talking to officials, HPI professors and other employees.

But Mr. Plattner was also a driver for innovation, Christoph Meinel, head of the HPI said. “It has never been the HPI’s mission to become the umpteenth faculty of computer science, but rather to train globally competitive managers in Information Technology,” Mr. Meinel said.

Students taking part in Hasso-Plattner-Institute's "School of Design Thinking," where they are asked to develop innovative concepts for companies and social challenges.

And the concept seems to be working. Emmanuel Müller, professor for Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining, said companies were continuously asking whether future graduates were still available. “The demand for the graduates is huge,” he said.

But while the institute is surrounded by university buildings, its sleek modern architecture, made up of a combination of curved glass construction and brick villas, stands out from its surroundings.

Asked about where they study, HPI students’ answers bear no reference to the University of Potsdam. And some of the colleagues across campus in the public university buildings that teach computer science classes are likely to eye the institute’s well-resourced facilities with some envy. “Indeed, two worlds do collide here, but we have found a good path to co-existence,” HPI head Mr. Meinel said.


Stefani Hergert reports on education for Handelsblatt. To reach the author: [email protected]