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10 March 2004

Rector: "We Need to Encourage Elite Universities"

The Rector of the University of Heidelberg, Prof. Dr. Peter Hommelhoff, criticises the plans of the state higher-education ministers for encouraging elite universities

I.
In the German industry and business landscape, major companies have in the last few years set out to disband the so-called "Deutschland AG". The idea is to unravel the debilitating tangle of covert interconnections lurking behind this name and to strengthen German enterprises for the increasingly keen competition prevailing at a global level. The Conference of the Higher-Education Ministers of the Federal States of Germany is heading in the other direction. If things take the course proposed in the recently published "Network of Excellence" paper, the "Deutschland AG" is obviously all set to rear its head once again in the guise of an "Elite Campus" for Germany. If this really is the response of the federal states to the Government's initiative on the formation of elite universities, then it is dead before it gets off the ground. Instead of putting German universities on their mettle for successful competition with Harvard, Stanford, Oxford and Cambridge, it is doomed to failure from the outset. For the British it would certainly be just as inconceivable to bundle the universities of Cambridge, Oxford and London into a British Network as it would be for the Americans to restyle the Ivy League universities as "United Universities of America". The idea hatched at the Conference of beckoning to "selected sectors" with prospects of being accepted into the Elite Campus is likely to make many university teachers rub their eyes in disbelief. The guilds died out 200 years ago. Are they now to be resurrected in the field of science and scholarship? In the open (academic) market, excellence and elite status is not something conferred by "referees". It is the actors and participants involved in those markets that have the final say. In short, the Elite Campus for Germany is quite definitely the wrong course to pursue.

II.
If Germany's flagships are to play a role in internationally contested waters, it will not be sufficient to clean up the engine-rooms and give them a new lick of paint. The higher-education ministers' decision to put their trust not in the universities but in selected faculties and research areas is based on the assumption that competition does not take place between universities as such. In global terms, this is quite simply not true. Harvard is perceived as a front-runner in the international field and it figures there accordingly. True, the Harvard Medical School, the Harvard Law School, the Kennedy School of Government and other institutions may have an especially competitive attitude in their respective fields and thus contribute to the renown and the standing of their university. But international respect is accorded to Harvard University as a whole.

Individual faculties and research areas simply do not have the clout enabling them to generate the thrust and impetus required to get up there among the leaders. Excellent researchers require an environment that is just as good as they are. They also need a stable platform to operate from: their university. Either that, or some other major platform like the Max Planck Society, the Helmholtz, Leibniz or Fraunhofer communities. It is platforms like these that give the outstanding merits of individual scientists and scholars the credibility and resonance that makes the difference between Nobel Prize laureates and also-rans. It is highly questionable whether the American-based German Nobel Prize laureate for physics, Wolfgang Ketteler, would have obtained this award if he had stayed in Germany. So it is the universities themselves that need to be promoted in this country if we want to catch up with the front-runners in America, Britain and elsewhere.

In addition, concentrating encouragement on faculties and research areas is tantamount to abandoning the university as universitas literarum. In an age where the progress in medicine, biology and other sciences is provoking a whole host of issues that can only be genuinely addressed by involving the humanities, the social sciences and cultural studies in the discussion, this is quite simply anachronistic. For far too long the problems posed by stem cell research, for example, have been treated at an interdisciplinary level divorced from the universities. They need to be taken out of the Arcanum of academies and extraneous integrated networks and thrashed out in the agora of the universities. This is the only way of involving upcoming scientists and scholars — and the students — in the interdisciplinary scientific dialogue and giving them the open-minded perspicacity enabling them to take an active part in that dialogue. By concentrating on individual research areas the Conference is pulverising the universities, reducing them to a random conglomeration of specialised disciplines. In the last resort it spells the end of the university in its present form.

Perspectives and developments of this kind should be a source of eminent alarm to those state governments that have invested heavily in their universities because they are convinced that this is a way of ensuring that they can play a decisive role in school and university policy at the state level. Others have put their money on the revamping of antiquated economic and industrial structures. Commitment to the universities has borne rich fruit in various federal states. These states have achieved competitive advantages that should not be rashly imperilled by concentrating encouragement on individual subjects and research areas.

III.
The point is that, if we take a closer look, we will find that the Conference of the Ministers of Higher Education is in fact entirely oblivious of international competition and has no apparent intention of strengthening German universities so that they have better prospects of success in this contest. This is not expressed very clearly in the "Network of Excellence" paper itself. But it easily recognisable in the statement to the press made by the higher-education minister of Rhineland-Palatinate a short while ago. He calls for more competition in German academia. But the first rule he sets up is that this competition should be fought out between the "right" contestants. And those contestants are not the universities but the different research areas. In other words, the information science department in Kaiserslautern should be measuring itself against its counterpart in Saarbrücken. No mention of Stanford or MIT.

Is the "Network of Excellence" a paper we can afford to ignore because it has been dreamed up by provincials from the backwaters? By no means. The ministers in the Conference bear responsibility not only for Germany's top universities but for all the over 90 universities in an academic landscape that is notable for a generally very good level of achievement, both nationally and internationally. The thousands of young German scientists active at American universities are an eloquent testimony to the quality of German universities as a whole. So it is highly gratifying to see the federal states taking the Federal Government's initiative on elite universities as an occasion to start living up to their responsibilities and thinking hard about the best way to encourage such elites.

And yet — the "Network of Excellence" would indeed degenerate into a provincial farce if it were to completely replace the Government's plans for elite universities. If that were the case, we could forget, for a long time to come, the aim of making Germany an attractive academic location in the European and global competition between the universities. The only serious German contestants would be the non-university research institutions.

So there is only one solution. The Network of Excellence has to be realised alongside, and in connection with, the Government's design for elite universities. Both together, not one against the other. For the ministers' demands are certainly right in one respect. Extra resources for elite universities must not be provided at the expense of the rest of the field. The number of elite universities qualifying for additional funding must be raised to the vicinity of 10. This is a fair reflection of the actual conditions prevailing in Germany in competitive terms.

Of course, this demand is addressed not only to the Federal Government but equally to the states themselves. The Federal Government must not cut back the funding provided for the building of universities any further, but should rather restore it to its former level. And the higher-education ministers must stand up to their finance ministers and ensure that the sometimes lethal cutbacks in the higher education area come to an end. Funding for universities is an investment in the future. Also, the Network of Excellence requires large amounts of additional state funding. In this respect, the subsection on "Financing" in the paper is disappointingly non-committal. Allegiance to participation by the federal states in the postgraduate schools and centres of excellence is mere waffle as long as the states fail to put their money where their mouth is. The Federal Government has earmarked 250 million euros, the federal states must do the same, at least to the tune of 200 million. Admittedly, this would still be way below the annual budget of the Swiss Technical University in Zurich. But it would be a good start in giving all the universities in our academic landscape money to work with. In the past, all Germany's universities have proved one thing: the money invested in them pays dividends. The returns on investments generated by German universities need fear no comparison anywhere in the world.

IV.
From a university viewpoint, the line to be taken in the imminent negotiations between the Federal Goverenment and the federal states is clear. What we must do is to ensure that the elite-oriented design of the government and the broadly based approach of the states are amalgamated into an effective and meaningful overall plan, in the interests of Germany as an academic location. This in its turn must be supplemented by a unified funding concept including inflows and distribution among the different fields of activity.

In terms of such an integrated concept, much of what is contained in the Network of Excellence paper can be readily and harmoniously extended to the Elite Universities design: cooperation between universities and non-university research institutions (to which the excellent universities of applied sciences should be added); encouragement of young scholars and scientists by stepping up the number of doctoral and postgraduate research projects, notably in collaboration with research schools of non-university research institutions; the selection of excellent universities, Faculties and research areas by the German Research Council, which for this purpose needs to draw more strongly on foreign scholars and scientists for its selection committees; and above all sustainability of funding for periods of five years and longer. Funding for elites cannot take place in spurts that fizzle out in a couple of years. It has to be assured at the long-term level.

Independently of such liaison work with the Federal Government, the states can indicate off their own bat that they really mean it when they say that broadly conceived encouragement for elite universities is high on their agenda. The central point here is the law on capacities. This law has allowed German universities to degenerate into faceless mass institutions and inflicted huge impediments on them in the international competitive arena. If, as the states so rightly say, competition should be extended to the area of teaching, then this can only be done by radically altering the law on capacities. This would ensure that small "classes" could be a workable proposition not only in Harvard and Oxford but also in Heidelberg and in the University of Applied Sciences in Pforzheim. In this context of improvement for teaching — and only in this context — we would then need to think hard about university- and course-related fees for students and discuss this step in the political arena.

V.
Both for the universities and for the academic landscape in general, the Federal Government's initiative has initiated a fair-weather period. We can only hope that the disputes between the Federal Government and the states will not make the sun go back in again and leave this impetus to peter out. The universities will be happy to support an overall design that promises a broadly conceived and systematic promotion of elites in Germany. This is what makes it so important for them to be included in the elaboration of such a design. The days of the Prussian politician Althoff and his lonely decisions for the "benefit" of the universities are over. Accordingly, the ministries should not retire behind closed doors to carry out their negotiations but should help to develop this overall design in open discourse. The acceptance on the part of the universities will be all the greater for it.

Please address any inquiries to
Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317
michael.schwarz@rektorat.uni-heidelberg.de
http://www.uni-heidelberg.de/presse/index.html


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