Germany’s Excellence Strategy ‘more prestige than substance’

Duisburg-Essen rector says programme funding ‘low by international standards’

January 3, 2017
Hands full of Euros
Source: Alamy

Germany’s Excellence Strategy – a programme aimed at stimulating competition among universities through selective funding – has little substantial impact on the quality of higher education, according to one rector.

Ulrich Radtke, who leads the University of Duisburg-Essen, said the “main challenge” with the programme, which was formerly called the Excellence Initiative, is that funding is “relatively low by international standards”.

“Funding is, if you take into account the size [of the institution], more or less the same for every university in Germany,” he said.

“Universities like ETH Zurich or Cambridge and Oxford have budgets four or five times as high as that of our biggest universities.”

Professor Radtke added that while the Excellence Strategy does attract some third-party funding, the amount is “not that much”, meaning that it has little material impact on the quality of universities.

“In Germany, a normal university with about 30,000 students has a budget of several hundred millions of euros. €10 or €20 million [£8.5 million or £17 million] extra does not change much in the substance of research and teaching,” he said.

“It is more a change in prestige. Prestige is more important in this initiative.”

The University of Duisburg-Essen does not receive funding through the Excellence Strategy, which Professor Radtke said was due to the university's status as a newer institution; the university in its current form was the result of a 2003 merger of the Gerhard Mercator University of Duisburg and the University of Essen.

The Excellence Strategy has two streams of funding: one for Clusters of Excellence for project-based funding in internationally competitive fields of research at universities or university consortia; and another for Universities of Excellence, to strengthen individual institutions in the long term and develop their international standing.

While Professor Radtke welcomed the concept of excellence clusters, he said he has “some problems” with the label “excellence university”.

“Even an excellent university has a range of quality amongst its faculties. That is why I am so critical regarding the label,” he said.

The federal government had planned to award only three or four universities this title, but all 16 German states were interested to get their “fair share” of recognition, he said.

“As a result, the number of ‘excellence universities’ is 11 [and] in the next round possibly increasing to 15. A number that high is difficult to explain in our egalitarian system,” he said.

“Three or four would be justifiable, but who could explain why university number 16 is not part of the club any more?” 

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