Germany’s teaching excellence ‘creates new hierarchy’

Higher-ranked universities are using extra teaching cash to create elite flagship courses while leaving others underfunded, says study

January 17, 2017
Reichstag building
Source: Getty

Massive investment to improve university teaching is creating new hierarchies in Germany’s traditionally egalitarian higher education system, research suggests.

While Germany has gained much attention for spending billions of pounds on extra research in recent years through its Excellence Initiative, its considerable investment in teaching has largely gone unnoticed.

However, as part of the Pact for Quality in Teaching (Pact) scheme, some €2 billion (£1.7 billion) has been committed to providing extra teaching resources for universities between 2011 and 2020, with funding focused on a select number of institutions.

Universities were given discretion about how they spent extra monies received under the scheme, with some seeking to improve student-to-staff ratios in overcrowded courses and others concentrating their resources on new elite programmes, which might be regarded as flagship courses for their institutions.

The different ways in which institutions spend their cash has contributed to “emerging differences” between German universities and a “more stratified system” of higher education contrary to the country’s egalitarian ethos, explained one of the authors of a new analysis funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.

Lower-ranked German universities tended to spread their Pact funding more thinly across more faculties and courses than higher-ranked German institutions, which focused funding on priority areas, said Roland Bloch, from the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg’s Institute of Sociology, who presented the study’s results at the Society for Research into Higher Education’s annual research conference in Wales last month.

“You are starting to see emerging differences between disciplines taught at different universities,” Dr Bloch told Times Higher Education, adding that he believed elite universities are starting to build up teaching strengths to gain a march on other universities.

“Universities in Germany have not really developed a strong institutional identity [around teaching], but this may change as such stratification continues,” he explained.

While the €2 billion on offer to German universities over nine years was a relatively small amount compared with the overall sums devoted to undergraduate teaching each year, its distribution marked a clear move away from the old egalitarian distribution of teaching funds, Dr Bloch said.

“It will be a long time before we reach the stratification that you see in the American system [around teaching], but we are seeing a difference for the first time in how resources in teaching are distributed,” he said.

This new approach might mean that universities accept that some undergraduate courses remain underfunded while other well-funded programmes receive yet more resources, he said.

“If a university simply says ‘we have so many students in this course, so it needs more resources’, then this strategy is not fulfilling the goals of the Pact,” he explained.

Many lower-ranked universities had also used their Pact money to provide new courses using new methods of teaching with the hope of burnishing their reputation for education excellence, Dr Bloch added. These institutions tended to take on more professors with an view to building up excellence in these areas, he said.

“There is now an increased readiness – as seen with the Excellence Initiative – to recognise the differences [in areas of teaching excellence] that people knew were already there, but make them more explicit,” he said.

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