Germany’s largest university buys UK college and degree powers

‘AI teaching leader’ IU, majority owned by private equity firm, adds Canadian university to portfolio alongside London banking education provider

June 16, 2023
Robot sculptures climbing up the Hayward Gallery, London to illustrate Germany’s largest university buys UK college and degree powers
Source: Alamy

A for-profit billed as Germany’s largest university, majority owned by a private equity firm, has bought a London banking education provider with UK degree-awarding powers as well as a Canadian university, as it expands an online model that features an AI “teaching and learning assistant”.

The sale of the London Institute of Banking and Finance (LIBF) to IU International University of Applied Sciences was completed on 31 March, but announced this month, just after IU announced it had bought a Canadian online institution, the University of Fredericton.

IU, an online provider, describes itself as Germany’s “largest and fastest-growing university with more than 100,000 students”, and as “the first university worldwide to use ChatGPT-4 technology within its dialogue-based AI-powered teaching and learning assistant Syntea”.

The deal would give IU appeal to “students who are looking for a UK-accredited degree”, and LIBF “has a very good fit for our vision to democratise education” given its strong focus on “career education”, said Sven Schuett, the IU Group chief executive.

Asked whether IU was planning to shift the nature of LIBF’s course provision beyond finance, Dr Schuett said: “We already launched eight new degrees outside the relatively narrow focus of what LIBF has been doing.”

New online courses at LIBF “are focused on data and computer science, artificial intelligence and international business management – critical skills needed in finance and business today”, according to a press release on the sale.

“We will continue to expand along these lines in an organic fashion,” said Dr Schuett. He would not comment on the price IU, majority owned by private equity firm Oakley Capital, paid for LIBF and its degree-awarding powers.

The sale used a model previously employed in the UK to facilitate the sale of charitable higher education institutions: the degree-awarding powers were hived off to a new company, which was sold. Meanwhile, the sale proceeds endowed a separate charity billed as pursuing the original charitable aims.

Dr Schuett said of IU: “We focus everything we do on career education – working adults, online offerings, but also for high-school leavers [on what is called in Germany] dual studies, which has been the model for [UK] degree apprenticeships.”

IU, he added, had “I think the largest corporate network of any university in the world, more than 15,000 corporate partners for whom we select students and educate students. We do so by focusing on personalised education.”

In using AI within that focus, IU was “among the top couple of front-running academic institutions in the world employing AI technology”, Dr Schuett argued.

This could “really revolutionise education and personalise education to get much better outcomes in a much better way…than traditional education ever has been able to deliver”, he said.

IU described Syntea as including features such “a question-answering tool, exam preparation [and] Socratic teaching sessions”.

A “Socratic teaching feature” is in test phase, “inspired by the methods of the philosopher Socrates” and using “a dialogue to impart knowledge and encourage students to think critically”, according to IU’s website.

Dr Schuett said of IU’s future expansion plans: “We aim to be able to offer degrees [eventually] in the major countries or accreditation frameworks.”

There was “so much untapped innovation” in higher education, “which is one of maybe the most structurally conservative sectors across the globe”, he added.

“We see ourselves as trailblazers; not as disrupters in the negative sense, but rather as people who aim to collaborate widely”, and the company is “very open to partnerships” with universities and others, including in the UK, he said.

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Reader's comments (1)

How can we allow the sale of degree awarding powers?