“Technology transfer is immensely important to us.”

An interview with Prof. Arnold van Zyl, president of the Baden-Württemberg Cooperative State University (DHBW)

Professor Arnold van Zyl has been at the helm of the Baden-Wurttemberg Cooperative State University (DHBW) and steering its fortunes since February 2016. There are high expectations regarding further developments for the successful concept of cooperative education degrees, and thanks to a long track record – not just in research but also in the automotive industry – the professor with an engineering degree has an exact understanding of these expectations, especially when it comes to training the next generation. TRANSFER spoke to Arnold van Zyl about the demands placed on modern university education and the increasingly important overlaps between science and academia in relation to trade and industry.

Professor van Zyl, what was once a vocational college has been an official part of the higher academic world since 2009. One change that comes with transforming into a university is that the DHBW now has to fulfill a cooperative research mandate. One of the four action points you named when you entered office was that you would like the DHBW to develop its own image as a research institution. What do you see as the USPs of the DHBW and what makes this image what it is?

Research at the DHBW is based on actual application and transfer, in keeping with the principles of cooperative education – so it’s carried out with partners in business, especially SMEs, local authorities, and social institutions. Collaborative research is carried out through a variety of different projects and types of organizational setups. There’s particular emphasis on “trans-disciplinarity,” in other words, even if projects are about technical issues, the business and social factors are also examined. Collaborative research contributes to knowledge acquisition and adds value for our partners in industry. It also has a strong impact on teaching. This really helps produce well-rounded graduates by adding scientific and research methodology competences.

The job of Transfer GmbH, the limited company of the DHBW, is to transfer research results into practical application in companies. The company has been an alliance between DHBW and Steinbeis since 2013, and a large number of Steinbeis Enterprises have been a successful part of this undertaking. How important is targeted technology transfer for a university with such a strong focus on application, as is the case with the DHBW?

This technology transfer is immensely important for us. We see our research mandate as being more than just generating new knowledge. This knowledge should enter a specific use at our partner companies and offer them possible solutions.

The DHBW is now based in nine locations in Baden-Württemberg and it’s also on three university campuses. Despite being located across the region, you do place particular emphasis on local aspects and on striving to work more and more as a local partner. What impact will this have on your planned innovation and transfer programs?

We have an extremely diverse innovation ecosystem in each of the places where we are based and this provides us with some wonderful options for our transfer activities. We believe there are lots of opportunities to form local know-how clusters and these can be especially well matched to local requirements. We basically see ourselves as local catalysts, who provide tangible knowledge sharing and technology transfer in the local area. This allows us to add value for society in general. Alongside research and teaching, these are some of the key responsibilities of a university. We work closely with our companies and social institutions, so we’re practically destined to do this.

Students numbers at the DHBW have only been going in one direction for years: upward. Cooperative education degrees that combine theory with practice still fulfill the exact expectations companies have of training for up-and-coming graduates today. But regarding the future, what do you believe will be the important sign posts if this concept is to remain competitive?

The successful concept of cooperative education has allowed the DHBW to establish itself as a reliable partner in education. We’ll also need to ensure that we continue to do justice to changing expectations in the future, not just of our students but also of our partner companies, and we’ll need to keep developing in this respect. This will mean further enhancements when it comes to enabling people to work in industry (the so-called employability of DHBW graduates) and we’ll have to continuously scrutinize the curriculum. Exchanging notes regularly with our partner companies and getting them involved in committees is not only good for safeguarding quality, but also when it comes to updating our model, as part of a critical dialog process. As well as comparing notes with the companies, we also now have a network of 140,000 graduates for exchanging knowledge on recent developments and requirements in industry.


Prof. Arnold van Zyl PhD/Univ. of Cape Town studied chemical engineering at the University of Cape Town and obtained his PhD in engineering in 1987. After working as a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research in Stuttgart, he held various positions in research and development in the automotive industry in Stuttgart, Ulm, and Brussels from 1990 to 2000. From 2001 to 2007, he was a European automobile industry representative in San Diego and Brussels. Between 2008 and 2011, van Zyl was the vice president of research, innovation and international affairs at Stellenbosch University, which now counts as one of the best universities on the African continent. In 2012, he was appointed as rector of Chemnitz University of Technology.

Prof. Arnold van Zyl PhD
Baden-Württemberg Cooperative State University (Stuttgart)

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