New German government promises funding boost for universities

‘Traffic light’ coalition brings festive joy with ‘very specific and detailed’ promises to sector that felt neglected by last administration

December 1, 2021
A traffic light with red and yellow signs is pictured in front of the Brandenburg Gate to illustrate New German government promises university funding boost
Source: Getty

Germany’s new government has promised big spending increases for universities and research, describing higher education as “the backbone of the German scientific landscape”.

The “traffic light” coalition – made up of the “red” Social Democrats, the “yellow” Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the Greens – published a political programme that promises to increase funding for universities by 3 per cent each year from 2022 through a “pact”, akin to a similar settlement for research and innovation.

The 177-page agreement also pledges to increase government spending on research and development to 3.5 per cent of gross domestic product by 2025, and to create a “digital university” programme covering teaching, qualifications, infrastructure and cybersecurity.

The Excellence Strategy, a federal and state government funding programme, will expand with a focus on interdisciplinarity, while the German Research Foundation will get its programme budget ramped up until 2030.

“The agreement has a lot of great potential to advance the German science system, to advance German universities, and Germany. There’s a lot of appreciation of science in it; there’s a lot of very interesting, very forward-looking measures,” said Jan Wöpking, managing director of the German U15 group of research universities.

“In general, it’s really good news that the system of higher education is mentioned that often and that it is the focus, and not the non-universities sector, which has benefited in the last years massively,” said Peter-Andre Alt, president of the German Rectors’ Conference, who highlighted that the introduction of an annual grant uplift for higher education institutions gave them a privilege that non-university research institutes had enjoyed since 2006.

The political agreement, the result of more than a month of talks between the three parties, also promises reforms to the “capacity” law, which in effect prescribes student-to-staff ratios, as well as changes to make student financing more flexible. “If there were reforms to come, the importance for higher education institutions cannot be overemphasised,” said Dr Wöpking, referring to the two areas.

Frank Ziegele, executive director of the Centre for Higher Education, a German thinktank, noted that the document’s sections on higher education and research were “very specific and detailed”, showing that the authors “know something about higher education and they know where the pressing issues are”.

However, while the agreement names much, it is light on figures. Dr Wöpking and Professor Alt suggested that a new German agency for knowledge transfer and innovation would get €1 billion (£850 million) a year from mostly existing sources, for example, but nothing is on paper.

“If you add up all these promises, even in the part of higher education and research, it’s not a cheap thing,” Professor Ziegele said. “They could be financed, but this is a matter of priorities. I have some hope that there is a priority, because especially the Free Democratic Party and the Greens both have been very, very strong proponents of many of these proposals.”

Bettina Stark-Watzinger, the former manager of a research institute at the Goethe University Frankfurt and a member of the FDP, has been named education minister. “She knows universities; she knows non-university research. She’s not new to the system,” said Dr Wöpking, adding that it was a good sign that the FDP leader, Christian Lindner, will lead the Finance Ministry. “It might be helpful that she’s from the same party.”

Professor Ziegele added: “If they do all the stuff that they promised, I think in four years’ time we will have taken many, many steps into the right direction.”

ben.upton@timeshighereducation.com

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