Campus - 27.09.2021 - 00:00 

Computer science meets entrepreneurship: starting signal for the Master’s programme in Computer Science

This month, the first students are starting the Master’s programme in Computer Science at the HSG, which was developed in the context of the IT education offensive of the Canton of St.Gallen. The students can expect far more than a run-of-the-mill computer science degree course. By student reporter Niels Niemann.

27 September 2021. Computer science studies at the HSG? What was hardly conceivable only a few years ago is already becoming a reality with the Master’s programme in Computer Science (MCS) this semester. The responsibility for this lies with Prof. Dr. Siegfried Handschuh, the Academic Director of the new Master’s programme, and Dr. Jochen Müller, the project leader and now Executive Director of the School of Computer Science, which was set up last year. In an interview, they relate the genesis of the degree course, what makes it unique and their long-term objectives.

Computer science as a new business model

“The idea for the degree course came up six years ago on the basis of an observation,” Handschuh begins to recount. Whether it is Google, Facebook or Microsoft, computer science has not merely been a support technology for a long time, but a business model in its own right with a disruptive potential. Thus many computer scientists suddenly found themselves in the role of a company’s CEO without ever having acquired any entrepreneurial skills. This is precisely where the HSG wants to come in: with computer science studies with an entrepreneurial slant which provide extensive technological competencies but is also able to prepare students for a career as IT entrepreneurs or executives in a technology company.

Support for the implementation of the idea was then provided by the Canton of St.Gallen in 2019. In the context of the IT education offensive, which was intended to counter the skills shortage and promote Eastern Switzerland as a business location, concrete plans for computer science studies at the HSG were drawn up. “A Chinese proverb says: ‘When the water rises, so do the boats.’,” Handschuh continues. “We hope that the degree course will generate precisely such a multiplier effect: educating more qualified specialists, who then pass on their knowledge to the following generation.”

A big step in this direction was taken before the start of the degree course with the establishment of the School of Computer Science. “By now, we’ve been able to attract more than 60 highly qualified computer scientists from all over the world to St.Gallen,” Müller remarks with pride. Accordingly, the student/faculty ratio and the support quality are good for the new students. In addition, the mixture of computer science and HSG DNA is unique. Handschuh emphasises: “Technologically, we’re on a par with other universities but want to create an additional value.”

Students in a pioneering role

The concept appears to be attractive. More than 40 students have applied for the first year of the HSG’s Master’s programme in Computer Science. 26 of them still had to sit the specialist admission test since they did not hold a university degree in computer science but, for instance, an HSG Bachelor’s degree or a degree from a university of applied science. Finally, 30 students were admitted, 24 of whom are now beginning their studies in September. This was almost precisely tantamount to the target number for the first year, Handschuh and Müller note. “In the long term, the target is to welcome 50 to 70 new students to the Master’s programme every year.”

Currently, the small group size will enable faculty members to seek an informal exchange with students and integrate their feedback into the degree course. “I see the students as pioneers who will shape the culture in this field, which is new to the HSG,” emphasises Handschuh. It will ultimately be the students who establish the reputation of the degree course. “We hope that at the end of this Master’s programme, the students will be better than we are,” adds Handschuh with a smile.

Bachelor’s studies to follow next year

From the coming year, the HSG will also offer undergraduate studies in computer science. Since this will be a Bachelor of Science rather than Arts degree, there will also be a separate Assessment Year for the students. The fact that the Master’s Level is being started before the Bachelor’s Level may sound illogical at first but was important from an academic point of view. “Since we want to offer tutorials in every undergraduate course, we depend on educating Master’s students first who will then be able to run them,” Handschuh and Müller add.

In the long term, plans are for about 100 undergraduates a year. Thus in five years’ time, there are meant to be between 500 and 600 computer science students on the campus at the same time, which would amount to no less than 10 to 12 per cent of the university computer science students in Switzerland. “Our biggest aim, though, is to establish computer science at university level in Eastern Switzerland,” emphasises Handschuh and then makes a pronouncement: “Steve Jobs once said: ‘I want to make a dent in the universe’, now let’s start with Eastern Switzerland.”

Image: group picture of the new computer science students in the Integration Week

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