German excellence strategy ‘risks creating closed social elite’

Leading sociologist of inequality fears boosting the status of a select few universities could mean a closed educational elite, as in the US or France 

November 11, 2019
Source: Getty
A different league ‘the creation of “excellent” universities will probably increase the exclusivity of the political elite’

Germany, long regarded internationally as the leading model of an egalitarian higher education system, risks creating a far more exclusive and impenetrable political and business elite by funnelling money and status towards a select few “excellent” universities, one of the nation’s most prominent sociologists has warned.

Michael Hartmann, a regular commentator in the German press on inequality and elites, fears that the country’s excellence strategy could lead to a concentration of power in the hands of graduates of a select few institutions, replicating the dominance of the Ivy League in the US or the grandes écoles in France.

“The creation of ‘excellent’ universities will probably increase the exclusivity of the political elite,” the emeritus professor of elite and organisation sociology at the Technical University of Darmstadt told Times Higher Education.

“But more important is another effect. The excellent universities will ensure greater cohesion among the different elites, because unlike today their members will concentrate on a small number of universities.”

Incidents such as the Varsity Blues admissions corruption scandal in the US have sparked debate about “elite” universities’ role in perpetuating inequality across generations.

In the wake of amorphous, anti-establishment protests by gilets jaunes protesters, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, pledged in April to scrap his own alma mater, the École Nationale d’Administration (ENA), a long-standing springboard to political and corporate power in France that largely educates the children of the wealthy.

For now, Germany lacks the “elite” universities to be found in the US, France, Japan and the UK, Professor Hartmann argues.

Surveying the alma maters of German business chiefs, he has found that even regional universities without high profiles are better represented than self-proclaimed elite business schools. “In Germany, top managers have been studying at various universities up to now, not at special elite universities,” he told THE.

“All German universities have traditionally been elite institutions,” he explained. “There was no internal differentiation.”

In addition, Germany’s federal system meant a broad distribution of funding across the country, he added.

But since 2005, the German federal government has been running competitions between universities for “excellence” status, designed to improve their international research standing. In July, 10 universities and one consortium were granted “excellence” status in the latest round of the programme – together winning €148 million (£127.6 million) in extra funding annually.

These sums are still relatively small compared with overall budgets. But the wider impact is arguably a growing status gulf.

“The students at the excellent universities consider their universities to be better than the others and, when they later occupy top positions, will therefore consider graduates of their universities to be better and will prefer them [over candidates from other universities when making hiring decisions],” Professor Hartmann said. “Secondly, the public discussion about the excellence initiative has considerably enhanced the image of the victorious universities in the public eye.”

Professor Hartmann’s research has mapped the sheer power of certain universities’ graduates in several countries. More than half the CEOs of France’s biggest 100 companies come from just three institutions: ENA, the École Polytechnique and HEC Paris. In the US, nearly one in three corporate chiefs hails from the Ivy League, he has found.

Meanwhile in the UK, more than a third of CEOs studied at the University of Oxford or the University of Cambridge. In Japan, more than half of senior business leaders went to one of the country’s “big five” institutions – Tokyo, Kyoto, Hitotsubashi, Keio or Waseda, Professor Hartmann has discovered.

In the political sphere, four of the past five US presidents have graduated from Harvard or Yale university, while in France, four of the past six presidents are products of ENA. As for the courts, ENA graduates comprise 90 per cent of French court presidents, while US Supreme Court justices come almost exclusively from Harvard or Yale law schools, Professor Hartmann has pointed out.

Along with other critics, he argues that the US “legacy” system (whereby universities disproportionately admit the children of alumni), combined with high tuition fees and living costs, means that “elite” US universities are “largely” closed to the general population.

The Ivy League accepts more children from the top 1 per cent in terms of income than it does from the bottom 60 per cent; meanwhile at ENA, more than 90 per cent of the students come from the upper tenth of the population, measured in terms of professional and social status, Professor Hartmann pointed out in a recent article, “The myth of equal chances”.

Copying the likes of “elite” universities such as Harvard, he argues, is not a suitable solution for Germany, where universities do not have such extreme wealth.

Instead, Germany should stick to the “tried and tested” system of maintaining quality across the board, he believes.


Print headline: Excellence drive may ‘stratify society’

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Reader's comments (4)

Always a difficult question: surely it is better to improve access to 'elite' institutions than to obliterate them. In trying to improve equality of opportunity, take care to build up rather than to drag down...
"...fears that the country’s excellence strategy could lead to a concentration of power in the hands of graduates of a select few institutions, replicating the dominance of the Ivy League in the US or the grandes écoles in France." The above is the (implicit) purpose and aim of the "excellence" strategy in German HE. It will be good for a few individual institutions, academics (especially senior ones) and the educational bureaucracy but detrimental not only to many students but also the entire university system and eventually the German society and economy. The neoliberal ideology (with its competitive and market logic) and transatlantic blinkers (a preference for the US economic model/cultural hegemony; I doubt the excellence strategy has much to do with France and its grandes écoles) are still very strong in Germany it seems. In HE this is an historic irony because it used to be the other way round (the US looking to the German HE system for inspiration).
Barking up the wrong tree? Elitism is inevitable; it's what we do with it that matters. Confucius' core idea was that the gifted among us must devote themselves to serving the rest of us. That's why the IQ threshold for admission to the Chinese bureaucracy has been stuck at 140 for 2,000 years. That's why China is eating our lunch.
In the UK, the situation could be improved by Oxford and Cambridge stopping to take undergrad students entirely, and only focus on research and graduate students