Berlin universities draw up city-level research strategy

Germany’s multibillion-euro excellence initiative has encouraged competition, but it has also helped create a close-knit ‘Berlin University Alliance’

October 1, 2018
Women under “I love Berlin” umbrella
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A common approach: Berlin had a particularly ‘happy constellation’ of university leaders who could work together, said Peter Frensch, vice-president of research at the Humboldt University

Berlin’s universities say they are moving towards a city-wide research strategy after taking the unprecedented step of jointly applying for funding from Germany’s multibillion-euro excellence initiative.

Although the strategy has encouraged German universities to compete for prestige and money, in this latest round, four of Berlin’s largest institutions are applying together to be crowned “universities of excellence”.

The Humboldt, Free and Technical universities of Berlin, along with Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, which together teach more than 100,000 students, have since 2016 announced plans to open joint buildings together, cooperated to create a new internet research institute, struck a joint research partnership with the University of Oxford, and now run six joint courses, largely master’s programmes.

They call their partnership the Berlin University Alliance, under the motto: “as much internal competition as necessary, as much cooperation as possible”.

On 27 September, the winners of funding for new “excellence clusters” – part of the next phase of the strategy and backed by €385 million (£343 million) a year – were announced, and Berlin institutions picked up seven of the 57 grants on offer, allowing them to apply together for “excellent university” status next year.

Peter Frensch, vice-president for research at the Humboldt University, said that although the institutions had been collaborating for years, until now they had lacked a “joint research strategy at the Berlin level”.

Other capitals, like Paris or London, could of course take a similar approach, he said, but getting agreement on a common approach was “not easy”. Berlin had a particularly “happy constellation” of university leaders who could work together, he said. On the student side, the institutions were set to double the number of courses students can take elsewhere, he added.

Günter Ziegler, president of the Free University, said that the institutions would coordinate when seeking to develop new research fields. “Getting us together, we can go for really big topics,” he added.

Christian Thomsen, president of the Technical University, explained that budget cuts by the Berlin Senate in the 1990s and 2000s had already pushed the city’s institutions to coordinate their research areas so as not to lose certain subjects.

As well as a joint excellence initiative application, the universities would also coordinate plans to bid for European and national level funds, he said, adding: “It makes sense for projects where a large disciplinary wealth is necessary to be successful.”

Berlin university leaders are adamant that the “alliance” is not a prelude to a merger; instead the focus was on “cooperative structures”, Professor Ziegler said.

“We don’t want to lose our individual identities,” Professor Frensch said.

But across Europe, there has been a surge of universities trying to climb global university rankings by merging, according to a recent report; in Paris, for example, more than a dozen institutions are coming together to create a “mega-university”.

According to Torger Möller, a researcher at the German Centre for Higher Education Research and Science Studies in Berlin and an expert on the excellence initiative, the increasing interdependence of universities was down to the need to create internationally visible research clusters.

But this joining together of heavyweights “can be a problem for smaller universities at the periphery” unable to pool resources with other institutions, he added.

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