Excellence - but those missing out don't see it that way

Germany's elite programme has some Länder up in arms. Frances Mechan-Schmidt reports

March 1, 2012

Tension is mounting in the German academic world as the Exzellenzinitiative ("Excellence Initiative"), launched in 2006 by the federal government, moves into its second and final phase.

The programme, aimed at stimulating competition among the country's universities with a view to upgrading the overall quality of tertiary education, has changed the face of academic life in the country, winning it many plaudits - but also a few critical notices.

It all started in 2005 under the auspices of Gerhard Schroder's Social Democrat government when Edelgard Bulmahn, at that time the federal minister of education and research, decided to instigate a programme dedicated to the pursuit of excellence and to ensuring that German universities could rival the elite Oxbridge and Ivy League institutions of the anglophone world.

The federal government announced that it would shoulder 75 per cent of the costs so that the project could get under way, with the remaining 25 per cent provided by the states where the universities involved were located.

But this met with fierce opposition from some states, particularly regional conservative governments that feared that the centre-left administration was using the Excellence Initiative as a way to muscle in on education policy, a highly prized traditional responsibility of Germany's 16 Länder.

However, despite right-wing reservations the initiative went ahead, endowing selected universities with extra funding to enable them to attract and support top researchers and renowned scholars.

A total of €1.9 billion has been allocated to the academic winners over the programme's initial five-year period from 2006 to 2011.

From a list of nearly 300 candidate universities, an independent panel of judges narrowed down the list of applicants to a quarter of its original size.

The final decisions were taken by the German Science Council (Wissenschaftsrat) and the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, or DFG). Funding was provided in three tranches:

• Cash for 39 graduate schools to train highly gifted PhD students as well as offering them first-class research facilities and opportunities

• Money to support 37 "Clusters of Excellence", designed to promote Germany's international reputation as a centre of high-profile scientific and academic research

• Last but not least, nine higher education institutions were declared "elite universities" in recognition of their long-term strategies to promote top-level research.

The nine elite universities have come to symbolise the programme, not least because they all had to meet tough standards in order to qualify for funds: namely, having at least one cluster of excellence and one graduate school, as well as presenting a convincing comprehensive strategy for the future development of their research elite.

At present, the institutions - the Technical University of Munich, the Rhenish-Westphalian Technical University Aachen, Ludwig Maximilians University Munich, the Free University of Berlin and the universities of Constance, Heidelberg, Göttingen, Karlsruhe and Freiburg - carry the prestigious title "elite university".

So has the programme succeeded in its main aim - to make Germany attractive to its top academics and researchers in order to convince them to stay in the country?

Christian Jehle, who oversees the implementation of the Excellence Initiative at the University of Freiburg, has no doubts.

"Of course, the [programme] promotes research, first and foremost," he notes. Yet the extra funding has been responsible for many beneficial side-effects, too, he adds.

"For example, students choose to come to Freiburg because of the excellent research facilities we can offer them," he points out.

The university can also afford to host a wide range of prestigious events involving world-class scientists and academics.

"There's no doubt that without that excellence rating we simply wouldn't be able to do these things," he concludes.

From inflexibility to innovation

Matthias Kleiner, president of the DFG, goes further.

"In the past, German universities were regarded as notoriously inflexible," he says. "Now, through the Excellence Initiative, we've proved that we can be extremely innovative."

Kleiner is proud of the range and breadth of innovative research being implemented at universities throughout Germany and covering all branches of science.

"This programme has raised Germany's profile in the global context with regards to science and research," he adds.

The wider benefits, he feels, will be even more valuable in the long term.

"The Excellence Initiative is a unique driving force within the whole country," Kleiner says, "creating thousands of high-level jobs, training the specialists and experts of tomorrow and contributing to innovation in business and industry."

Yet not everyone is a wholehearted admirer of the initiative. Many academics in central and northern Germany, for instance, feel that the programme is skewed towards institutions in prosperous, high-tech Länder such as Bavaria and Baden-Wurttemberg, where many universities select their students on the basis of their school grades.

Since the reunification of Germany just over 20 years ago, East German universities have been working hard to make up lost ground. Take the University of Jena, for instance, which cooperates on research programmes with the Schott and Zeiss firms, both based nearby.

"Industry and the university are closely linked when it comes to research projects," says Klaus Dicke, rector of Jena.

Yet only 2.3 per cent of the Excellence Initiative's funding has found its way to universities in eastern Germany. This is symptomatic of the plight of the region as a whole, as young people continue to leave in droves and many schools close down, with dire consequences for local universities.

Nor are all students entirely happy at the amount of manpower and resources that universities allocate to applying for funds from the programme.

"It's time the state of Saxony started subsidising its universities instead of hoping for funds from the Excellence Initiative", the Student Association at the Technical University of Dresden said last year.

But the reasons why research in the East continues to lag behind the West are more complex than the programme's lack of support for the region.

"East German universities place a lot of importance on teaching", explains Peer Pasternack, director of research at the Institute for University Research at Halle-Wittenberg University, "to train staff and attract foreign students."

In addition, many young academics take up jobs in the east but tend to leave if offered posts elsewhere.

This lack of continuity, says Pasternack, has been detrimental to tertiary development in the former communist region.

However, the Technical University of Dresden looks set to become an "elite university" now that its draft proposal to the Excellence Initiative has been selected for the final round.

"We've made great strides over the past five years," says Hans Müller-Steinhagen, the rector of Dresden.

Regardless of the criticisms, the programme is poised to enter its second and final five-year phase, which will run until 2017. Funding this time around will top €2.7 billion (£2.3 billion).

Projects were submitted for preliminary review last March, with a total of 143 proposals making it to the deadline on 1 September. Of these, 84 are projects already being funded through the programme, while the remaining 59 are projects that came through the preliminary review. Seven institutions are being added to the nine existing elite universities.

By the end of February the proposals had been reviewed once again, with the final decisions regarding the allocation of funds to be announced by June. The winners can look forward to a further five years of funding.

And after that? Annette Schavan, the federal education minister in Angela Merkel's centre-right coalition government, has hinted at tentative plans to set up federal universities - institutions funded by the government on a national scale.

Predictably, this has generated howls of protest from opposition parties, which want more funding for all universities rather than favoured national status for some. It is clear that passions continue to run high when it comes to the Excellence Initiative and the federal government's role in Germany's academy.

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