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Hamburg’s logistics university

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KLU's campus in HafenCity

KLU’s campus in HafenCity

I had never heard of Kühne Logistics University until a chance encounter with someone who’s a prof there, Dr Sandra Transchel, who kindly offered to give me a tour of the campus. KLU is a small private university with a remarkable history – and a Vancouver connection.

How the university got it start is interesting. It resulted from an initiative of a shipping and transportation magnate, Klaus-Michael Kühne. This is an instance of a long standing tradition in Hamburg, that of merchant capitalists endowing their city. Kühne has devoted part of his fortune to funding local medical research, as well as humanitarian and cultural projects (the company is the main sponsor behind Hamburg’s celebrated Harbourfront Literature Festival).

But as one of the owners of the multinational shipping and logistics company Kühne-Nagel, he felt that the intricacies of global logistics were poorly understood by business graduates and ignored by the local universities. He decided to remedy the situation; this led to the creation, in 2010, of Kühne Logistics University.

The foundation Kühne set up for this purpose had to jump through the many hoops of the German bureaucracy in order to be recognized and accredited. This meant meeting the standards for breadth of education for its bachelors and masters programs. So the final product is a general business management education, coupled with a focus on logistics. It finally cleared its five-year review period, which led to this announcement:

After examination by the German Council of Science, the Senate of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg has decided to grant perpetual state recognition to the private university. With the recognition, the Hamburg Senate confirmed the university’s adequate scientific vision, its convincing international orientation of all courses, its excellent numeric ratio of professors to students as well as its impressive research achievements and high-ranking publications.

How does that translate on the ground? Well, the international focus is certainly there, and all courses are taught in English. By coincidence, a few days later I encountered students excitedly chatting in English on a train. A group of international KLU students, they were on their way to a community project. This group was made up of students from Finland, Mexico and Columbia, and they had only praise for the program. They were exchange students from a few of the 65 KLU partner universities across the world. KLU’s own students also have to complete a semester abroad at one of the partner institutions; it’s not a matter of choice as international experience is considered an essential part of their education.

Dr Sandra Transchel

Dr Sandra Transchel

From a scholarly standpoint, the institution is certainly no slouch. Sandra told me that KLU ranks 3rd in Germany for its research per faculty. As I looked through a list of the research projects, I noticed a number of them that had a strong sustainability component. For instance, among the specialization areas are green transport and shipping, and sustainable logistics. What is found behind these labels are such things as accounting for carbon footprint of shipping, waste minimization, or fair trade supply chains. Some of the faculty’s publications have titles like Supply Chain in Humanitarian Operations; Efficient Waste Management in Construction Logistics; Carbon Impacts of Online Retailing; Climate Change Adaptations for Seaports. Very cool stuff.

Later I met with Alan McKinnon, who specializes in sustainable logistics. I asked him how such topics are integrated into the university’s curriculum. He said that he mostly uses cases studies at the bachelor’s level, but Master’s students all have to work on large group projects on sustainable logistics projects such as city logistics (how deliveries go around and what is their carbon footprint), slow steaming (ships reducing speed to 18 knots from 23, reducing fuel use – but at the expense of longer time at sea). Some students also participate in faculty research.

Dr Alan McKinnon

Dr Alan McKinnon

The strategy followed by the school was to establish credibility through top-notch research. Each faculty member is given 20,000€ earmarked for their research. As well, they receive a bonus for publishing in top-listed journals. Of course, outside funds from scientific agencies are available, as well. McKinnon mentioned to me that much logistics research is relatively cheap – all you need is a computer, access to databases, and time. However, the stakes are high, and substantial funding is available; the EU has created a six trillion Euro research fund for transportation research. Private sponsors also pony up substantial sums, and there is no perception of taint or bias for accepting such grants. For instance, at KLU Procter&Gamble funds two PhD students; Kühne-Nagel and Unilever have provided a grant for transport decarbonization studies.

I asked both Sandra and Alan what it was like working for a small private university. Sandra had shown me the campus; from her fourth floor window, we had a commanding view of the harbour and of the new HafenCity development. The university is located in a brand-new building that was originally designed for offices, and the architect had to be creative to accommodate the need for classrooms. But the building, using super energy-efficient technology, is very comfortable: there is a lot of natural light, and the high-tech ventilation system ensures that the air is never stale. And being in HafenCity has its perks: across from downtown, well served by transit, the showcase development is lively and fun. Hamburg made sure to control rents so that families could find housing, to avoid the worse of the gentrification pitfalls. The location of KLU is part of the attraction for students and staff, clearly.

Aerial view of Hafen City, Hamburg

Aerial view of Hafen City, Hamburg

Sandra has some reservations. Clearly, the pressure to produce top-flight research is taxing, especially when coupled with administrative duties. Sandra told me she wishes she had more time to liaise with local companies. This would lead to practical research projects and practicums for her students, or to fostering partnerships with industry. She agreed with me that this would further improve her students’ experience, but since these activities do not generate academic research they are often set aside. Still, she has no regrets about her move to KLU. She used to work at Penn State, a giant university, so she appreciates the advantages of a small university: less bureaucracy, more flexibility, small classes (35 students at most), even if that comes with the dual pressure of academic research and student recruitment.

Alan told me much the same, though he is at different step in his career; semi-retired, he juggles his classes here with some research at a university in Glasgow. A native Scot, Alan did his master’s at UBC, in business, specializing in logistics. This was a long time ago; Alan said he doesn’t know why UBC abandomed logistics as a field of study, especially given that like Hamburg, Vancouver is an import-export centre, based on the largest port on the Pacific coast of North America.

None of KLU’s partner universities are in Canada. Small classes, more nimble than traditional universities, a strong business program…that also describes Kwantlen. A few years ago, we (some science and business faculty) made a half-hearted attempt at creating a transportation and logistics major for Kwantlen. If we ever were to revive the idea, we could have a natural partner in KLU.


Written by enviropaul

February 26, 2016 at 5:05 pm

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