Excellence Initiative Beacon in the Academic Landscape

Press conference of the Excellence Initiative; © DFG
Press conference of the Excellence Initiative | Photo (detail): © DFG

The Excellence Initiative launched by Germany’s federal and state governments has thoroughly shaken up the country’s academic system. Now, however, it is entering its second and possibly final phase.

For months on end, university rectors up and down the country were on tenterhooks. Finally, in mid-2012, they learnt which institutions are to receive funding under the Excellence Initiative launched by Germany’s federal and state governments. A total of 2.4 billion euros will be distributed among 45 graduate schools, 43 clusters of excellence and 11 institutions which implement strategies to promote top-level university research, better known as elite “Universities of Excellence”. These will also be the institutions which receive the most money, with 142 million euros each year being invested in these institutional strategies. By comparison, the graduate schools receive between one and 2.5 million euros per year, while the clusters of excellence are funded with between three and eight million euros.

It therefore comes as no surprise that the newly-promoted universities of Cologne, Bremen and Dresden are enormously proud of their achievements. “This is a huge success for us”, says Axel Freimuth, rector of Cologne University. The university was able to score points with two graduate schools and two clusters of excellence. The most money and prestige, however, comes from the institution’s success in the third line of funding, with its institutional strategy entitled Meeting the Challenge of Change and Complexity. Over the next five years, the university will receive around 120,000 euros in Excellence Initiative funding, providing it with an opportunity to shake up encrusted mechanisms and pursue entirely new paths.

Axel Freimuth is convinced that the entire region will profit from this development, not only the university itself: “Looking at the successful projects run by universities in the Rhineland, it is clear that we are on a par with other regions.” RWTH Aachen University has been able to maintain its place in the third line of funding, and is therefore still allowed to call itself an elite university. Then there are the universities of Bonn and Düsseldorf with their impressive new clusters: “This increases the appeal of the region and generates many new local jobs”, explains Axel Freimuth.

Not everyone is celebrating

Not all institutions had occasion to celebrate, however. A number of universities, clusters and graduate schools were unable to follow up on their success in the first phase of the programme. Universities of Excellence Freiburg and Göttingen had to make place for others. Surprisingly, even the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) was demoted. These institutions are likely to find it hard to maintain the positive sentiment that was generated by the Excellence Initiative. After all, many university rectors have talked about a special spirit triggered by the competition, so perhaps a hangover feeling can be expected following demotion.

It was always clear that not all projects would receive funding for a full ten years. Those responsible for the Excellence Initiative at the German Research Foundation (DFG) and the German Council of Science and Humanities (WR) like to compare the competition to a football league system – when some “teams” are promoted, in other words, others have to be demoted. In any case, by no means all universities can profit. Only 44 of over 100 universities receive a slice of the funding pie. DFG president Matthias Kleiner is satisfied with the efforts made by the universities, however: “We received a large number of outstanding applications.” The high standards of the first phase were maintained, he explains.

Important impetus

The Excellence Initiative was launched in 2005 by Germany’s federal and state governments. The objective was to identify and promote “beacons” in the German academic landscape. A total of 1.9 billion euros in funding was provided in the first phase, this amount being topped up to 2.7 billion euros in the second phase. Because money has also been channelled into completion and transition funding of a number of projects, however, 2.4 billion euros are now available for the next five years. What is more, because many universities targeted their applications at the uppermost limit of the possible budget, they now have to manage with less money than originally thought. This means at least that more projects can profit from the funding.

Matthias Kleiner is certain that Germany’s research landscape will benefit hugely from the competition: “We have been able to significantly increase the international visibility of our research”, claims the DFG president. Many university rectors indeed report that they have received congratulatory messages from abroad and are now better placed to recruit researchers from other countries. What they need to do now, however, is maintain this success. After all, the Excellence Initiative will come to an end in 2017, and all that Federal Education Minister Annette Schavan (CDU) has announced so far is that those projects which have now come out on top for the first time in the Excellence Initiative will be provided with a further five years of funding: “Sustained funding is enormously important if we are to build upon the positive effects”, says Matthias Kleiner.

That said, the announcement by Federal Education Minister Schavan puts Kleiner in “very hopeful” mood. He would see it as an advantage if the federal government could increase its involvement in the financing of universities and their research projects: “The federal government should be able to permanently fund projects and institutions at universities”, states Kleiner. For this to happen, however, the constitution would have to be amended and the ban on cooperation would need to be abolished.

Unclear as yet what the future will bring

Critics of the Excellence Initiative, on the other hand, fear that the available funding may simply be redistributed after 2017. Student representatives have long criticized the fact that the money flows primarily into research and that teaching is neglected – and that the efforts involved in the Excellence Initiative are so time-consuming: “In the months prior to the decision, many professors were enormously preoccupied with the applications”, says Erik Marquardt, member of the board of the fzs, the umbrella organization of student associations in Germany. “If funds from the basic financing were to be channelled into expiring projects in 2017, that would be a disaster."