We’re taking a long, hard look at ourselves

Germany is on a mission to punch its weight in the rankings, says Hans Müller-Steinhagen

October 1, 2014
We’re taking a long, hard look at ourselves

University rankings have been around for years. Whatever one’s opinion about the validity of their data and the applicability of their analytical methods, they will not, cannot and should not be ignored.

Most rankings are strongly geared towards the Anglo-Saxon system, but there is growing interest in the German higher education landscape. Although many German universities provide high-quality teaching and cutting-edge research, they are still under-represented in league tables such as the Times Higher Education World University Rankings and hence have lower profiles internationally. This perception conflicts with the need to attract the world’s brightest minds to study, stay and work in Germany to drive our successful, innovation-based economy.

The government has addressed this deficiency by establishing the highly competitive Excellence Initiative, which promotes world-class research and supports selected leading universities to become internationally visible flagships. Technische Universität Dresden is one of the 11 Universities of Excellence that since June 2012 have received substantial extra funding. This gives us the scope to invest in internationally leading research clusters, optimise our internal structures and expand our global network.

This process has forced us to identify our strengths and weaknesses, and benchmark them against leading institutions with similar profiles. Ranking indicators quantitatively reflect several essential aspects of university performance. However, using them sensibly requires in-depth understanding of ranking mechanisms, as well as institutional commitment to providing the necessary resources and establishing relevant performance indicators.

To this end, the German Foreign Ministry is funding a project we proposed: together with Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen, we are analysing the specifics of international rankings as well as their challenges for German universities to help our institutions punch their genuine weight in the tables.

TU Dresden has already learned important lessons from this process. For example, there can be ambiguities relating to the specification of institutional data required on an annual basis by rankings agencies and data companies, a result of different university funding systems and academic career paths.

Clarifying the proper definitions in cooperation with the relevant organisations and paying attention to detail can make a big difference: consider TU Dresden’s performance in the THE rankings this year.

With a solid base in engineering and the natural, life and social sciences, we have a strong record in publication, citations, generating third-party income and educating undergraduates and postgraduates from home and abroad. Yet we still face substantial challenges with respect to our corporate identity and branding strategy, which affect not only our international reputation but also the number of publications attributed to our institutions. This will now be addressed.

The German research landscape historically and strategically involves several actors, including universities and numerous national institutes dedicated to fundamental or applied research. This often results in German performance being underscored internationally, as existing rankings focus on universities and neglect major research potential realised elsewhere.

For TU Dresden, however, this apparent disadvantage turns into an asset: we are at the centre of a rich environment with more than 20 top-class research institutes close by. We have established a formal research alliance, DRESDEN-concept, with these institutes, greatly benefiting from numerous joint professorial appointments (more than 40); research projects (TU Dresden’s share: more than £27 million a year); recruitment and staff development; shared research infrastructure; and the voluntary contribution of numerous extramural researchers to teaching in the university. However, we have to find ways to reflect these joint activities more clearly in our institutional performance indicators, international visibility and the rankings.

The ultimate aim of a university is not to optimise its position in the league tables, but to attract highly qualified students and researchers, providing them with an environment in which they can flourish and deliver new insights for society. Despite their flaws, rankings can support this endeavour by providing data for external and internal benchmarking, thus continually driving improvement.

Hans Müller-Steinhagen, rector, Technische Universität Dresden

Hans Müller-Steinhagen is grateful for the contributions of Susanne Räder and Gianaurelio Cuniberti in preparing this article.

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