A BOOM in private universities in Germany is pressing the state into long overdue reforms.
At least nine private institutes plan to launch shortly. They are all doing what the public universities cannot do: charging student fees, selecting their own students and offering international MA and BA degrees in English or multilingual courses.
"We are seeing the development of private competition for the state universities," said Manfred Erhardt, general secretary of the Stifterverband fur die Deutsche Wissenschaft, a higher education sponsorship body supported by industry.
Many of the private institutes are special ventures by state universities and state education ministries. They are using the private sector to avoid the constraints on public universities to make courses more international and diverse.
The International University of Bremen, for example, is a joint venture between the state government of Bremen, the University of Bremen and the private Rice University of Houston, Texas. It is to be based on land that the state originally promised to Bremen Fachhochschule, a state technical university. It will be financed partly by state funding and student fees, although Bremen's education minister is a Social Democrat and his party strongly opposes student fees in the state sector.
Meanwhile the University of Hamburg hopes to attract some of the best students in the world to its International Center for Graduate Studies, to be launched this autumn. It aims to attract foreign students with high-grade first degrees and will be housed in a special department on the state university campus.
Leading academics from the state sector are backing some of the initiatives. Heide Ziegler, former rector of the University of Stuttgart, is president of the International University of Germany GmbH in Bruchsal, Baden-Wurttemberg. This has the promise of financial support from the state government of Baden-Wurttemberg and from the computer software company SAP, among others.
In response, the neighbouring universities of Stuttgart, Hohenheim and Tubingen launched a counter-initiative, fearing the International University could cream off state funds that would have filtered into their budgets.
It is no coincidence that the private initiatives tend to be clustered in the same regions, said Angela Lindner of the Stifterverband.
"It shows that when one appears, it provokes the state universities to counteract them. This will provoke competition. It will make the state sector finally move forward."
Other private initiatives include Hanse Law School in Bremen and two more in Hamburg.
But there is stiff competition from the state sector after the higher education reform bill was finally forced through parliament last month. It is now subject to a challenge in the constitutional court from opponents who argue that state governments must first approve the law, given their autonomy in cultural affairs.
If this fails and the law is enacted, public universities will get more freedom to select their own students and provide faster-track BA and MA degrees alongside traditional German qualifications.
There is still a possibility that the federal government will introduce student fees in the state sector, despite opposition.
Hubertus Christ, president of the Association of Engineers, warned that none of the nine private ventures had watertight funding plans.
He claimed only those which carve out the strongest niches for themselves were likely to survive.
The precarious financial position of the private University of Witten-Herdecke, situated in the country's industrial Ruhr district, has shown that Germany does not have a strong culture of private sponsorship of universities, he said.