How Germany regained the fast lane

With targeted help from the government, the country’s universities have reasserted their quality and regained their global standing

April 28, 2016
Car driving quickly into European motorway fast lane
Source: iStock

Ask the average Brit what Germany’s famous for, and there are a few likely answers.

Beer, currywurst and Oktoberfest, perhaps; or high-spec cars and autobahns; or winning at penalties; or a singular appreciation for the music of David Hasselhoff. But universities? Probably not. Britain can’t really see beyond its own system, and those of the US and Australia, when it comes to higher education.

It’s a strange blind spot, because not only is Germany much closer – and the largest, richest country in the European Union – but German universities also have such historical significance, for example in the Humboldtian model of research and teaching.

In our cover story, we talk to politicians, university leaders and academic experts about the recent drive to improve both the performance and the perception of Germany’s top universities.

This, after all, is a country that holds academic qualifications in unusually high esteem, with the PhD seen as a vital status symbol in many non-academic walks of German life.

This is certainly true in politics: Angela Merkel is Dr Merkel, a former researcher, and she’s by no means alone. Indeed, one unfortunate side-effect has been a spate of plagiarism allegations against German politicians, illustrating the lengths that some go to in pursuit of the respectability – maybe even electability – that a doctorate confers.

It’s also the case that the German approach to research, and to applied science, has been internationally influential via Max Planck Institutes and Fraunhofer Institutes (the UK has tried to emulate the latter) but that this influence hasn’t always been reflected in its global standing.

- Germany: an alternative route to excellence

Germany is aiming to tackle this through its multibillion-euro Excellence Initiative, funnelling significant extra funding to selected universities, graduate schools and research institutes.

Among the issues assessed in our feature are the success of this approach and its impact on the 11 universities to gain institutional funding in the current round in particular, and their position relative to global competitors.

But we also consider the consequences for Germany’s national system – whether this approach is increasing stratification, and what this might mean for the traditional focus on egalitarianism.

Another aspect worthy of scrutiny is Germany’s approach to tuition fees, which were rolled back a few years ago, precisely when fees in England were tripling to £9,000 a year.

This U-turn is countercultural when viewed in the context of higher education globally, and has been back in the spotlight recently after the US presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders praised Germany for avoiding the marketisation that is increasingly the norm.

The Excellence Initiative isn’t unique in quite the same way; in fact, there have been dozens over the past 10 years in countries around the world, with many setting explicit targets to fill a set number of places in the upper echelons of global university rankings.

But those we spoke to in Germany are convinced that it’s already doing what it set out to do – not only did German universities perform significantly better in last year’s Times Higher Education World University Rankings (albeit following some back-end changes, such as the shift to citation data from Scopus) but the world is talking about them again. They’re even on the cover of this week’s THE.

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