Excellence Initiative What Is Next for Universities?

Support for excellent research;
Support for excellent research; | Photo (detail): © gremlin_iStock

The second phase of the competition designed to promote top-level research at German universities will come to an end in 2017. The government has now decided to continue the Excellence Initiative – with a number of changes.

In the end, almost everyone was in favour – only Hamburg abstained when a vote on the future of the Excellence Initiative was held by the Joint Science Conference (GWK) of the federal and state governments in April 2016. For three long months, ministers and state secretaries had been negotiating how to turn the competition to promote top-level research at universities, which has been running since 2006, into a permanent fixture. Actually this was precisely the crux of the matter: because the federal government had been forbidden until 2014 from permanently financing the universities, which are the responsibility of the federal states, the only way to move forward was to jump from one project to the next. The situation only became more straightforward – in some respects – when the “cooperation ban”, as it was known, was abolished by an amendment to Germany’s constitution.

But first things first: to date, the Excellence Initiative has had three lines of funding. The first funded the establishment of graduate schools with structured PhD programmes; the second provided funding for multi-university and interdisciplinary research clusters; and the third financed what were called “future concepts”. The winners of the third line of funding were generally termed “universities of excellence”. For the second phase of the programme, which has been underway since 2012, 45 graduate schools, 43 clusters of excellence and eleven future concepts were approved.

Expert Commission: preserving the dynamism of the competition

The current programme phase runs until the end of 2017. Thus politicians have now hurried to take a decision after nothing much had happened for a long time. “Let’s wait and see what the Imboden Commission says!”, was what politicians replied whenever they were asked about the future of the Excellence Initiative. This group of international scientific experts chaired by the Swiss physicist Dieter Imboden had been given the task of evaluating the competition and making proposals for its future development. It presented its report in January 2016 – marking the start of the marathon negotiations.

Politicians chose to interpret the recommendations very loosely. For example, the experts had advised against permanent funding because this could reduce the competition’s dynamism. Ultimately, a model was in place that is reminiscent of the way in which the non-university Leibniz Institutes are financed: permanent funding is provided, yet every seven years the universities of excellence have to undergo an evaluation and may lose their funding. This nonetheless constitutes a fundamental change as compared with the previous approach: before, the competition would start each new round with all entrants in equal position, whereas now it is assumed that the victors from the most recent round will still be in the running. This was why Hamburg’s senator for science abstained from the vote, claiming that the amendment could result in a “permanent establishment of structures”.

No bonus for past achievements

Politicians also decided not to follow the Commission’s recommendations in one other crucial point: previously, universities had to prove their worth with future concepts whose prospects of success could not really be assessed. The experts had therefore proposed that universities should be measured on the basis of what they had achieved in the past. Solid criteria of excellence should be the key determinants, they believed: for example the amount of acquired funding, their track record in terms of publications, and their top-level professorships. However, the ministers feared that this would lead to a political tug-of-war over the criteria, and also expected that any unconditional bonus would simply “trickle away”. The new line of funding, which is now also officially termed “universities of excellence”, closely resembles the future concepts again, with just a few differences.

Another decision that was taken was that the graduate schools should not receive further funding. This is because of the huge success of the concept. Thanks not only to the graduate schools, but also to the clusters of excellence, a large number of young academics have crowded onto the academic job market – with uncertain prospects. What is more, it is not only individual universities that will be able in future to apply to be one of the intended eight to eleven “universities of excellence”, but also university alliances which can form “centres of excellence”.

Disadvantages feared for small universities

Following the decision, Wolfgang Hermann, president of the Technical University of Munich (TUM), commented that the criteria have been widened in a way that reflects the times and that makes sense in view of the international competition. While Horst Hippler, president of the German Rectors’ Conference (HRK), talked of an “indispensable basis for the funding of excellent research”, he criticized the fact that only universities that had won at least two clusters of excellence in the past would be allowed to compete for the crown of excellence, claiming that this poses a major obstacle for small universities.

Germany plans to continue making available a good 500 million euros each year to fund the Excellence Initiative – though by international standards this is hardly a sizeable sum. As US Stanford University President John Hennessy remarked, this is equivalent to the budget of one of his faculties.