by Qiao Jihong, Xu Yang
BERLIN, May 29 (Xinhua) -- The German region of Ruhr in North Rhine Westphalia has traditionally been a key industrial region of Europe. However, starting from the 1970s, coal mining in the region was threatened by cheap oil, causing a steep decline in the local economy.
In recent times, authorities have tried to revive the economy of the Ruhr region, as part of what has been described as "an extremely long process" by Axel Schoelmerich, rector of Ruhr University Bochum.
In a recent exclusive interview with Xinhua, Schoelmerich said he saw structural change in the Ruhr area "as an ongoing process."
"We (Ruhr area) are still behind of the rest of Germany in terms of economic productivity. We still have lower economic growth rate," said Schoelmerich, "The process (of transition) isn't over."
Over the last 40 years, the German government has been propping up the declining coal mining industry despite intense criticism.
In 2017 alone, the German government spent 2.6 billion euros (3.01 billion U.S. dollars) on subsidies to promote coal sales, according to a study by German think tank Kiel Institute for the World Economy.
According to the rector, 600,000 jobs in the Ruhr region are at risk of being lost -- a staggeringly high figure for an area with 4 million inhabitants.
The last mine in Germany -- also located in Ruhr -- will operate until the end of this year.
"We cannot let the Ruhr area fall apart completely, so we need to take tax money and invest it into a gradual and slow process of change," Schoelmerich said.
Government subsidies may help achieve a "soft" structural change, but are of course "very costly," he added.
"But good thing for Ruhr is that it [the subsidies] have managed to save and create jobs with relatively low social unrest and managed to build a science-based economy," Schoelmerich said.
The economy in Ruhr has shifted largely from a coal and steel-dominated one to the one with a lot more start-up culture.
"Before, if your father worked in a factory, you would probably also work in the same one. But, nowadays, you could start your own company," which in the rector's opinion signals a huge shift in the region and its mindset.
"If somebody thinks about founding a startup, having universities nearby is very helpful," he added.
Founded in 1962 as the first new comprehensive public university after WWII, Ruhr University Bochum offers degrees in different fields of science, coupled with engineering, which typical traditional German universities do not have.
Some 43,000 students study in the region, and have contributed to improving the educational level and catalyzing the structural transition in the area.
"Back in the 1960s, there were simply no university graduates who were local," Schoelmerich said, adding that now, many local school graduates have access to colleges.
Universities like Ruhr University Bochum not only serve as big employers, but also spark innovation to help talents find scientific solutions to aid the process of economic diversification.
Schoelmerich said his university worked very closely with Bochum city in IT security cooperation. Every year, the university supplies at least 250 graduates with majors in IT security, who help the city develop IT security.
Ruhr University Bochum, together with other two universities in the area, is a member of InitiativKreis Ruhr, an association with 75 firms that aims to create more economic opportunities in the area.
"They made us members because they understood that for the future you need science to be able to compete with the rest of the world," the rector said.
Talking about his university's special connection with small and middle-sized enterprises, Schoelmerich said the university can help companies with digitalization and attracting the right personnel.
"It's promising when you have industry and science graduates work together in the process of economic transition," the rector said.