Germany’s Excellence Initiative has not yet created meaningful differentiation

Ten years into the programme, German universities remain focused on traditional markers of success, say Andreas Knie and Dagmar Simon

April 19, 2018
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Germany’s mass universities have their philosophical roots in the late 1960s, when student protesters successfully fought against the higher education system’s encrusted structures that catered only to a small social elite.

Fifty years later, science policy debates are once again examining the social responsibility of universities, especially in light of the “Responsible Research and Innovation” objective of the European Research Area.

To find solutions to so-called grand challenges such as climate change, the ERA is increasingly focusing on interdisciplinary research and close cooperation between scientific and other social actors. Universities are under pressure to make a relevant contribution – but how?

German higher education has a longstanding tradition of equality, with future career development bearing little relation to alma mater. Until very recently, all universities were considered to be solid institutions that differed little in terms of their research, teaching and general performance. The only distinction was between traditional institutions and the newer universities of applied sciences, which had a stronger practical orientation and were not entitled to award doctorates.

Since the turn of the millennium, however, the federal government has begun to question the idea that all German universities should put equal emphases on teaching, research and knowledge transfer. The assumption is that if different universities specialise in different missions and strive to excel in different research areas then the German sector as a whole can make a greater social contribution.

This debate is one important backdrop to Germany’s Excellence Initiative, launched in 2006. This is a federally financed competition in which universities can apply for extra funding – amounting to €4.6 billion (£4 billion) between 2006 and 2018 – in order to set up a research cluster, graduate school or “strategic profile”. The last of those can amount to any number of initiatives, including internationalisation, knowledge and technology transfer, spin-offs, research centres or the promotion of young researchers.

At first glance, 10 years of the initiative appear to have changed the German higher education landscape considerably. Autonomy and competition have increased – and universities have stronger individual profiles, which differ as regards teaching, research and number of postgraduates. Differences in performance indicators, such as funding and bibliometrics, have also become more visible.

But there is also evidence that competition is becoming excessively burdensome to universities, putting presidents under pressure to meet performance targets in all aspects of strategic positioning. Policymakers insist that the best way to reduce this burden is to create still greater differentiation, allowing competition in certain areas and collaboration in others.

Interestingly, an international evaluation commission, the Imboden Commission, found in 2016 that the Excellence Initiative had so far “had no demonstrable effect on horizontal differentiation by scientific discipline”.

A study by the WZB Berlin Social Science Center shows that universities have intensified their internationalisation activities, improved their support for young researchers and expanded their research cooperation. But while the centres and clusters they have set up have the important advantage that they do not significantly affect the faculties, thus avoiding internal university conflicts, their foci are still typically based on the scientific priorities of faculty members.

In recent years, the German Council of Science and Humanities, the most important policy advisory body in the German science system, has repeatedly recommended increasing functional differentiation between German universities. It has also promoted knowledge transfer and science communication, via initiatives such as public debates, targeted policy advice and consultancy for museums, exhibitions and other cultural bodies.

However, these issues have only played a very minor role in the Excellence Initiative. University presidents in Germany have comparatively weak control mechanisms and their attempts at profile sharpening so far have been based solely on the recognition cultures of scientific communities, whose logic centres on reputation rather than institution location.

The reputation hierarchy, including the appointment of professorships, remains focused on the traditional gold standard in science: the publication of articles in high-ranking international refereed journals (which favour basic over applied science). It is for this reason above all that the Excellence Initiative has not yet succeeded in creating institutions with clearly distinguished features.

Andreas Knie is head and Dagmar Simon was the former head and is now a visiting researcher at the Science Policy Studies Research Group at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center.

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