In April 2017, Times Higher Education magazine ran an article asking, “Is the traditional research university doomed to extinction in a digital age?” It argued that online learning is leaving students without the critical skills needed to explore their subjects in depth, on their own. It’s a challenge that Ruhr-Universität Bochum in Germany is actively addressing.

One of Europe’s leading research universities, and a partner of the University Alliance Ruhr, it has adapted to the digital age by offering more, not less, face-to-face dialogue. “It is our conviction that universities must always be places where students and teachers meet in person,” says Professor Dr Axel Schölmerich, the principal. “We will never put teaching into any kind of automated system. Our members teach each other and, at the same time, learn from each other.”

Founded in 1962, the university has 20 faculties on one campus, with researchers working on some of the most pressing problems facing the planet, from climate change to internet security. It is also laying foundations for major advances in key ecological and medical technologies as part of the cluster of excellence called RESOLV (Ruhr explores solvation). “We put a lot of money and effort into areas where scientists have to collaborate,” says Professor Schölmerich. “We attract people who feel a certain responsibility, who want to have an impact.”


Students have a say

Key to the institution’s success is the fact that students can participate in research from day one. “I often say that the purpose of a university is to do research from a trans-generational perspective,” says Professor Schölmerich. “Which doesn’t mean the students determine what kind of research the university does. But it does determine the way we do it. Being able to develop your own project is a central component. We’re currently setting up a maker space, so students can develop designs for products and make prototypes.”

This collaborative approach is also encouraged on campus, where the proximity of disciplines means students can work across the traditional boundaries of their subjects. “Knowledge is organised in networks and that’s something we want everyone to understand. You need to be able to draw on the resources of other people to make a difference.”

Recent successes have included breakthroughs in internet security, the result of cryptography specialists working with social scientists to understand the human factors. “The Horst-Görtz Institute is among the most respected facilities for IT in Europe,” says Professor Schölmerich. “We’re very proud of its work.”


Joint ventures

Another remarkable partnership occurred in 2015, when doctors at the University’s Children’s Hospital worked with gene therapists from the University of Modena, Italy. They collaborated to grow genetically modified replacement skin to cover almost the entire body of a seven-year-old boy who was suffering from a devastating genetic disorder. The trial saved the boy’s life, and scientists at Imperial College London hailed it as “a huge achievement”.

Professor Schölmerich believes the character of knowledge has changed in the 21st century. “Everything is instantly accessible; so you have to foster a culture of curiosity.” To that end, talent scouts reach out to schools to attract the scientists – potentially even the Nobel Prizewinners – of the future.

“We have two laboratories for schoolchildren and have had more than 100,000 visit the campus. That’s something we’re incredibly proud of. Lots of these kids don’t come from an academic background – but they leave inspired to come back.”