© shutterstock | Matej Kasellic



German universities are good - but they are not good enough in light of increasing digitalization and international competition. Those are the findings of two experts from Heidelberger Druckmaschinen AG, who will also present some improvement suggestions in the interview below.

By Anke Henrich

Rainer Haus is head of organization and personnel development and vocational training at Heidelberger Druckmaschinen. Andreas Blum is head of vocational training at the largest training facility of Heidelberger Druckmaschinen AG in Wiesloch.

Mr. Haus, Heidelberger Druckmaschinen delivers its products to 170 countries, has 11,500 employees and generated turnover of 2.5 billion euros in 2018. The company depends of young engineering talent in order to maintain its top spot in the global market. How quickly can German graduates from different types of higher education institutions be put to work?

Rainer Haus © Heidelberger DruckmaschinenRainer Haus: This depends on the field they are to be active in - which is the responsibility of the company. The company has to find the most qualified employee for every position; the highest qualification on paper is not the sole criterion. We need specialists and generalists, and we need graduates with craft skills as well as graduates with a strong theoretical background. That is why the three forms of universities - cooperative universities, universities of applied sciences, and universities - have different educational missions, and with good reason. However, I have the impression that university education is generally not keeping pace with the rate of change in the economy.

This is certainly not a badge of honor for German universities. Speaking from your corporate experience, what can universities and universities of applied sciences do to improve their international competitiveness and increase their focus on application-relevant aspects?

Andreas Blum: Universities very often pass on knowledge in a very theoretical manner, and they do not interconnect the individual disciplines adequately with one another. Engineers and computer scientists not only need more interdisciplinary collaboration, but they also need a shift in perspective during their studies.

What skills do young engineers need to have today that were not required ten years ago?

Rainer Haus: Today's mechanical and plant engineers adopt a data-driven approach when developing their business models and product ideas. For us at Heidelberger Druckmaschinen, this means that we no longer just sell machines, but rather develop new business models with integrated consulting and other services. We do business directly at the customer's premises. This means that our engineers need to understand not only the technical interfaces, but the customer's entire business processes. The automotive industry, for example, increasingly focuses on mobility concepts instead of just horsepower. Outstanding engineers thus create added value when they are at home in both worlds.

This is a very high standard. Engineering and computer science studies often take students to their limits and they end up dropping out.

Andreas Blum © Heidelberger DruckmaschinenAndreas Blum: We are not saying that universities should increase the level of specialist and methodical knowledge, but that they should rather focus on interconnected thinking. For example, hardware and software specialists, as well as data analysts can only obtain genuinely cross-disciplinary competencies when they can understand the requirements and ways of thinking of the others. Universities could establish learning models in the areas of production and sales in which all disciplines come together to develop solutions during lectures, exercises and case studies. This would also foster social skills such as communication, problem-solving and the ability to accept criticism - which are of high importance today.

But what content should be dropped from the curriculum in favor of something new? Technical knowledge is also constantly expanding.

Rainer Haus: To be honest, graduates can find knowledge on the internet in no time. They only have to know where to look. But the internet will not teach them how to work and think in a cross-disciplinary manner, and that is exactly where humans are better than machines. Given the development of artificial intelligence, this is not an entirely irrelevant aspect. Universities of applied sciences and universities must enable their students to train these skills. Learning methods and concepts need to be developed further, including across institutes. Disruptive thinking would be the order of the day, instead of traditional cramming. After all, you just need to take a look at Asia to see that others are far better at this than we are.

What’s different in Asia?

Rainer Haus: Asians have a clear advantage over us when it comes to providing theoretical knowledge, but they often lack application knowledge. This is a perfect example of how important it is to organize knowledge - acquiring expertise plus the ability to derive actions plus networked thinking.

In Germany, more than 54 percent of young people in a given birth cohort are enrolled in university courses. In 1980, the figure was 22 percent. Some people even say that Germany is facing an "academization mania." Do university graduates really have greater abilities than the good industrial mechanics of the past or the excellent mechatronics engineers of today?

Andreas Blum: I'm not really sure about that. I would say that technicians and engineers have moved closer together. But not upwards. To this day, mechatronics engineers can enjoy a wonderful career in mechanical engineering - thanks to practical experience.


Do you want to find out more on the current situation of engineering training in Germany? The current Impuls study on the topic is available here.




Three ways of becoming an engineer in Germany

Universities primarily educate scientists. Students can select an individual specialty field and benefit from a comparably large degree of freedom when it comes to structuring their studies. Academic degrees are considered the door-openers for future careers and usually ensure higher salaries, not only when starting a professional career.
Universities of applied sciences take a more practical approach and offer smaller learning groups than universities.
Cooperative universities combine traditional vocational training in a company with academic courses. The university of applied sciences and the company work together to closely align the individual learning phases. Studies abroad and international exchange programs are also offered here.