Germany faces first research funding cut in 16 years

After more than doubling its spending since the financial crisis, Germany’s long budget boom is set to come to an end

April 9, 2019
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Downward plunge: in percentage terms, the budget of the Ministry of Education and Research will lose more than any other major German ministry

Germany’s federal research and education budget is set to be cut for the first time in 16 years, ending a boom period of increased spending and potentially leaving many academics on temporary contracts out of a job.

While swathes of European countries cut back on university funding after the financial crisis of 2008, Germany took the opposite path: the budget of the Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) has grown from €8.5 billion (£7.3 million) in 2007 to €18.3 billion this year.

Yet amid gloomy forecasts from the finance ministry over a slowing economy, and an aversion to taking on government debt, the BMBF budget is set to shrink nearly 3 per cent next year.

“We had a silver – not a golden – period over the last decade,” said Peter-André Alt, president of the German Rectors’ Conference. “Now it seems to be coming to an end.”

In percentage terms, the BMBF will lose more than any other major German ministry, despite a proposed rise in the overall federal budget of 1.7 per cent. “We are losing the most,” said Professor Alt.

And after a big cut next year, the BMBF budget is then set to dwindle slightly every year until 2023, despite small steady increases in overall expenditure.

Some commentators have accused the education and research minister, Anja Karliczek, of being silent in the face of cuts to her department. But the budget numbers are still subject to negotiation, and the minister has hit back, arguing that she is making the case for significant research investment, particularly in artificial intelligence.

The plans will make certain time-limited income streams for German universities – so-called “pacts” to cope with a surge in student numbers and to improve teaching – permanent, meaning that universities can make at least some of the temporary positions they funded permanent, Professor Alt explained.

But, given the budget cut, an as yet unclear number of these temporary academics will not have their contracts renewed, he said, exacerbating already chronic insecurity in the academic labour market.

These pacts were designed to help German universities cope with a surge of students over the past decade – the biggest increase since the Second World War – that was in part due to a cut in the length of Germany’s high school diploma in 2013, leading to a one-off double cohort, Professor Alt said.

But universities do not expect numbers to drop off, as they have taken on new fields once taught outside universities, such as bioinformatics. “We will be facing this wave [of students] again,” Professor Alt said.

Networks of research centres, like Max Planck institutes, have also benefited from steady 3 per cent annual rises in their funding from the BMBF, but this deal could now be “under serious pressure”, according to Professor Alt. These networks are now “fighting for the status quo”, he said.

However, universities and some research organisations like Max Planck are funded by their states as well as the federal government – so this latest budget cut could be cushioned – or exacerbated – by decisions at the regional level.

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