German ‘universities of excellence’ party, and self-promote, hard

The live unveiling of Germany’s Excellence Strategy institutions is greeted by champagne, confetti and a changing of attitudes

July 31, 2019
Excellence Strategy Berlin University Alliance celebration
Source: Felix Noak
Celebrations in Berlin after the results are announced

On a Friday afternoon, university presidents, city mayors, senior managers, academics and students waited nervously on campuses across Germany. Champagne was on ice. Confetti cannon were primed. TV cameras rolled.

In silence they watched on 19 July a live-stream from Bonn of Anja Karliczek, federal minister for education and research, reading out the names of Germany’s 13 “universities of excellence” – a coveted status that comes with extra collective funding of €148 million (£132 million) a year, not to mention priceless bragging rights.

At the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, one of 19 applicants in the running, onlookers wiped sweat from their faces and anxiously patted their legs as Ms Karliczek listed the winners in alphabetical order.

Eventually she reached “K” and announced “…Das Karlsruher Institut für Technologie”. The crowd erupted into a cheer, hands above their heads, as though celebrating a goal for the German football team. Besuited university dignitaries hugged and punched the air.

Since Germany launched its Excellence Strategy in 2005 (then known as the Excellence Initiative), this live unveiling of the results – nicknamed the ExStra-Finale by the education journalist Jan-Martin Wiarda – has become a fixture in the German higher education calendar. The Excellence Strategy, now in its third iteration, aims to “strengthen Germany’s position as an outstanding place for research in the long term and further improve its international competitiveness” (the scheme also funds “clusters of excellence” as well as individual universities).

While the Excellence Strategy’s extra funding is actually quite limited – an additional 2 to 3 per cent on top of normal budgets, estimated Günter Ziegler, president of the Free University of Berlin (FU) – its deeper impact is arguably to have seeded a culture in which self-promotion is encouraged.

Some university Twitter feeds were awash with videos of jubilant, cheering crowds. Press releases happily proclaimed their universities “excellent”. The rectorate of the University of Bonn and the city’s mayor paraded through the city centre on an open-top bus to celebrate their triumph.

In the capital, four institutions – the FU, the Humboldt University of Berlin, the Technical University of Berlin, plus the Charité university hospital – entered together as the Berlin University Alliance. Celebrating their success, 500 guests danced to the music of no fewer than five DJs, with a couple of university vice-presidents and the city’s state secretary for science and research taking to the decks.

We had a lot of fun, and we were celebrating into Saturday morning,” said Professor Ziegler.

He insisted that the party would have gone ahead even if the alliance had been unsuccessful (the event was billed as “champagne or mineral water”). More important are the institutions’ joint plans, he said.

The live results do not come as a complete surprise for everyone, explained Dieter Lenzen, president of the University of Hamburg – he was informed of Hamburg’s success a few hours before the official announcement.

Still, university heads have to prepare to commiserate as well as celebrate. “I’m nearly 72 years old, so I know anything can happen,” he said. “I had two speeches in my pocket” – one for success, one for failure, he explained.

Excellence status allows Hamburg to finally be taken seriously by the city’s elite, Professor Lenzen said. Since it was founded in 1918, the university has been long overlooked by a merchant ruling class that thought trade more important than higher education. “Starting today, I never again want to hear Universität Hamburg is ‘at best average’. That is now proven to be straight-up ‘fake news’,” he said in a statement celebrating the win.

But winners necessitate losers. At the University of Stuttgart, the team who bid for excellence status watched in disappointment as Ms Karliczek failed to read out the institution’s name, lamented rector Wolfram Ressel.

They then headed to a beach-themed party put on for them by students. “In the beginning, the atmosphere was a bit down. But after some beers everybody laughed,” he said. Stuttgart’s bid, though unsuccessful, was nonetheless a unifying exercise that prompted faculty and students to promote the university and jointly plan for the future, he said.

The competition has indeed changed the culture of German universities, said Professor Lenzen, but he added two caveats. Only 50 to 60 universities out of about 400 actually compete, he pointed out. And this new hierarchy has not itself created differences between universities; rather it has merely brought them out into the open, doing away with the previously prevailing fiction that all German universities were comparable, he argued.

In the end there is more balance than change,” said Peter-André Alt, former president of the FU and now head of the German Rectors’ Conference. A handful of German universities have made strides in boosting their reputation internationally – he mentioned the Free University, the Technical University of Munich and LMU Munich – but the country’s system is still one of “distributed excellence”, with no one institution at the peak of international rankings. Public opinion is of the belief that “they should not aim at a comparable situation as the US”, he said.

As the then president of the FU, Professor Alt remembers the months of nervous tension before the previous ExStra-Finale in 2012. After the FU’s win in that round, the party went on until midnight, he recalled: “For an academic party, it’s quite long.”

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Germany’s ExStra-factor winners celebrate with champers and DJs

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