Germany’s ‘extremely elitist’ Excellence Strategy changes tack

Compromise between egalitarian and competitive ideals could usher in bigger university groupings and more interdisciplinary evaluation

April 14, 2022
New route: the latest iteration of Germany’s Excellence Strategy looks set to be more welcoming to smaller universities

Germany’s 16 science ministers have sketched out the bones of a bigger and more inclusive Excellence Strategy that aims to address long-held concerns about over-concentration.

Originally launched in 2005 as the Excellence Initiative, the fourth iteration of the country’s influential programme looks set to be more welcoming to smaller universities and interdisciplinary work.

The inclusivity push comes from three science ministers: Angela Dorn, Bettina Martin and Manja Schüle, with the last two representing states that have yet to win funding from the strategy.

In a blog post on the site of journalist Jan-Martin Wiarda, Ministers Dorn and Schüle said the excellence clusters that make up half of the strategy should be open to more than three partner universities and that more interdisciplinary evaluators should be recruited to ensure such proposals get a fair look.

Their ideas appear to have won favour from other ministers, according to sources with knowledge of the Joint Science Conference (GWK) ministerial meeting on 1 April.

By retaining excellence as its central principle, the compromise creates a path between those holding competitive or egalitarian ideals, said Frank Ziegele, executive director of the Centre for Higher Education thinktank.

“There are certain objectives: we want to be interdisciplinary; we want to be collaborative,” he said.

“If there is excellence in small or medium-sized universities, in collaborations, in interdisciplinary projects, that’s fine,” said Bernhard Eitel, the rector of Heidelberg University, which is part of two excellence clusters and won permanent funding as a “university of excellence”, the other half of the strategy.

As well as being palatable to politicians and previous winners, the compromise has brought hope to universities that missed out previously. Oliver Günther is president of the University of Potsdam, the largest in Brandenburg state, and was involved in the development of the proposals through its science minister, Dr Schüle.

He said that the option to include more partners in a cluster and so create a critical mass “plays into our hands”. Professor Günther, who described the strategy as “extremely elitist”, said it was still “necessary to promote top-class research”.

“You need to have a large group of renowned researchers and scientists on one topic to really be successful,” said Wolfgang Schareck, president of the University of Rostock in the sparsely populated state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, which he said had unsuccessfully applied to every round of the strategy.

He said he was hopeful that a joint interdisciplinary application with the University of Greifswald on coastal development would be more successful than past attempts.

Both institutions can count on slightly better odds in the fiercely competitive programme, as Markus Blume, Bavaria’s science minister and the state’s chair in the GWK, has said ministers have agreed that the number of clusters will rise from 57 to 70 when the next strategy launches in 2023.

While Heidelberg’s Professor Eitel accepted a more open approach to the competition, he said that the resource-concentrating effects of the Excellence Strategy reflect the reality of research. “I think it’s a Fata Morgana, an illusion, to think everybody is equal,” he said.

Professor Ziegele said it was “totally OK” that some states have done well out of the Excellence Strategy and others performed poorly. “This is just the project that takes care of world-class research; it’s not the project that takes care of applied research and transfer,” he said. “A good higher education system is a diversified higher education system.”

Most university funding in Germany comes from state budgets, while institutions compete for a share from the federal pot. Professor Eitel said a lack of excellence success in some states “should be a sign for their governments to invest more in their higher education system”.

The federal government currently provides 75 per cent of the Excellence Strategy’s €533 million (£444 million) annual budget, with the remaining 25 per cent coming from the state hosting a cluster or university of excellence. Each cluster can get up to €10 million a year, with university of excellence status worth up to €15 million a year.

Professor Ziegele said that the financial burden of Covid-19 and the invasion of Ukraine, which prompted Chancellor Olaf Scholz to commit €100 billion in defence spending, would put pressure on government budgets and so affect talks on the Excellence Strategy, which are set to continue until November.

Aside from the strategy, the federal government has promised a new innovation agency and extra funding for teaching and learning. “There are a lot of projects and they are all expensive,” said Professor Ziegele. “It is quite clear that not all of that is affordable any more.”


Print headline: Germany changes tack on ‘elitist’ HE strategy

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