Germany defends system of ‘distributed excellence’

Nation opts for strength in depth across the country instead of topping global rankings, argues sector head

November 4, 2020
germany berlin research science precariat
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The head of Germany’s top university body has said the country’s institutions are unlikely to ever ascend to the very top of world rankings, and instead defended a system of “distributed excellence” that avoids concentrating resources into a handful of universities.

“We have no Harvard, no Oxford, no Cambridge in Germany,” Peter-Andre Alt, president of the German Rectors’ Conference, told delegates at Times Higher Education’s Germany Academic Salon, an online event on 4 November.

Despite increasing national investment in research, and attempts to foster clusters of leading research through special funding schemes, the country’s universities have typically not broken into the top 20 of global rankings.

But this was the consequence of a system that spreads research out across the country, and conducts much of its research in non-university institutes such as those of the Max Planck Society, said Professor Alt – suggesting that Germany has little intention of trying to beat countries such as the US and the UK at the top of the rankings game.

In contrast, Germany’s “relatively scattered” system of more than 80 research universities and close to 120 universities of applied science guaranteed strength in depth, rather than a handful of very highly ranked universities, he told delegates.

“This is one reason why German universities are not at the forefront of the rankings, but beyond that are relatively strong,” he said.

The country has tried to create somewhat more concentrated pockets of research prowess through its Excellence Strategy, which since 2005 has awarded extra money and prestige to individual universities and clusters of institutions. And backers of a new law in the southern state of Bavaria hope that changes will give universities more autonomy, bringing sharper differentiation between them.

But Professor Alt, a former president of the Free University of Berlin, argued that a long history of strong universities spread across the country, plus a federal system that meant that the country’s 16 states competed with each other to host good institutions, meant German “distributed excellence” was here to stay.

“Compared with other European countries, we have a good distribution of [universities and research institutes],” he said.

“There are some weak parts, but in the end I think if we talk about the best 10 German universities…you will see they are spread all over the country,” he said. “There are certain focal points, in Munich, Berlin, Heidelberg, but there is quite a good distribution.”

Another change in the system was that universities, once isolated from centres such as Max Planck, were now working much more closely with their non-university counterparts. “Twenty years ago, they were separate communities. Now they are joining forces,” he said.

The event was supported by THE’s partner, Huawei Germany.

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