Top German universities fear exclusion from innovation funding

All types of institution must be welcome if new funder is to achieve its true potential, sector groups say

February 9, 2022
Organisers measure a route for a jumping for points competition to illustrate Top German universities fear exclusion from innovation funding
Source: Getty

An attempt by Germany’s young coalition government to put universities at the heart of economic development could be undermined by a bias towards smaller and specialist institutions, sector leaders have warned.

The German Agency for Transfer and Innovation (DATI), which will seek to promote social and technological innovation, has been born out of the governing agreement between the Social Democratic, the Free Democratic (FDP) and the Green parties.

On the campaign trail, the FDP proposed a German Transfer Association, echoing the German Research Association, the country’s central, self-governing science funder, while the Greens promised D.Innova, a flexible agency supporting broad swathes of innovation, modelled on Switzerland’s Innosuisse and Sweden’s Vinnova.

However, reference to the agency’s supporting innovation “especially at” universities of applied sciences and small and medium-sized universities, contained in the scant description of the agency in the coalition agreement, has caused consternation at some institutions.

“If you would exclude us, that would mean leaving the majority of the applied research out of your concept,” said Nicole Saverschek, managing director of the TU9 group of universities of technology, which are generally larger and better funded than universities of applied sciences.

“It’s all a question of what your goal is exactly,” Dr Saverschek said. “Does the government want to support specifically a certain type of institution? Then, of course, they can do that, and they can come up with programmes for a certain type of institution. But if they want to boost applied research, innovation and transfer in Germany as a whole, then they can’t leave out technical universities.”

A paper from Germany’s Centre for Higher Education frames the design of DATI within this and several other trade-offs: economic versus scientific interests; diversity of funding available versus efficiency and clarity; and international competition versus compensation for regional under-development.

Coalition partners will be spending the next two months finding compromises, with no further details expected before the start of April.

Peter-André Alt, president of the German Rectors’ Conference (HRK), said his members wanted a “broad spectrum” of universities to be eligible for funding.

Rather than earmarking funding programmes for universities of applied sciences alone, he said, agency designers should focus on topics and challenges.

Jan Wöpking, managing director of the U15 group of research universities, said there had been informal political discussions about limiting eligibility for DATI funding to universities with fewer than 25,000 students.

“We have a lot of universities in Germany, but we also have fairly large ones”, he said. A U15 analysis found that 61 per cent of students in Germany attend universities that would be excluded by the cap. “That’s quite significant.”

When designing the agency, Dr Wöpking said, politicians should resist the urge to warp partnerships by putting in too many incentives.

“They tend to work better when they’re motivated intrinsically, when the people work together because they benefit from the cooperation,” he said. “You only get that quality when people really want to work together.”

Dr Saverschek said that rather than excluding larger universities, funding call criteria could be tailored to favour a certain type of institution or have rules specifying that different types should be represented in a project team.

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