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8 November 2006

"We Need Braves, Not Just Chiefs"

Spiegel forum in the Great Hall of the Old University on the subject of "elite universities" — Funding for excellence or unjust favouritism?

Let no one say that students are too apathetic to take an interest in their future. At Monday evening's Spiegel forum on "elite universities in Germany" the Great Hall of the Old University in Heidelberg was full to bursting, mostly with young people displaying a keen interest in the discussion chaired by Dr. Martin Doerry, deputy editor-in-chief of Spiegel news magazine.

The subject is a divisive one. After all, the 1.9 million euros of extra funding to be distributed in the framework of Germany's Initiative for Excellence are anything but peanuts. The bigger issue implied in this is how Germany's universities can be equipped to master the future challenges facing them. The discussion made it clear once again that this a question of fundamental import. The sub-title of the event "funding for excellence or unjust favouritism" adumbrated the positions represented by the panel speakers and their audience.

Why the University of Heidelberg did not make it into the select category of elite universities in the first round of the Initiative is a question that rector Professor Peter Hommelhoff would himself dearly like to know the answer to, as he said right at the beginning of the proceedings. "But the real crunch will come if we get kicked out in the second round as well," he added.

To ensure that this does not happen, a Senate commission has been formed to revise the "Institutional Strategy" for the future with which Heidelberg was unsuccessful in the first round. There has been a lot of criticism of the way the three elite universities that have achieved elite status were selected. Doerry asked whether the selection procedure had not been as objective as it was cracked up to be and whether there really was controversy in the awarding committee, as has been rumoured since. Wolfgang Gawrisch, a member of the joint commission of the Initiative for Excellence and the awarding committee stoutly denied both these insinuations.

Gawrisch had the ungrateful task of justifying the commission's decision. He did so with considerable verve. "What we need is internationally competitive research," he insisted. "We have to work out our strategies for the future right now. Broad-scale research is no use at all if groundbreaking, innovative research is being done elsewhere, say in Shanghai or Hong Kong."

Marked disagreement came above all from Professor Michael Hartmann, a sociologist at the Technical University of Darmstadt. His main criticism was the very one-sided preference given to the natural sciences. "In the first round of funding, the humanities and the social sciences were almost completely overlooked," he railed, going on to suggest that Germany was on its way to becoming a class society as far as higher education is concerned. He also posed the question of what was to become of the losers in this contest.

Both Hartmann and rector Hommelhoff agreed that the decision of the awarding committee was of major political significance. Hommelhoff emphasised once again that he was adamant in upholding the principle of a full-scale university and that restructuring should not take place at the expense of the humanities. "We need braves, not just chiefs," he asserted.

The two student members of the panel could hardly have been more different in outlook. Dorothea Kaufmann has just finished her BSc degree in molecular biotechnology, a "cluster of excellence" at the University that was awarded extra funding in the first round. "We're welcome all over the world," she said confidently, "but not everyone can be up among the front runners." For her, study conditions in Heidelberg could hardly be better, thanks to collaboration with non-university research institutions, hand-picked students and extremely committed teachers.

Reinhard Lask studies political science and is on the team producing the student newspaper Ruprecht. Conditions like those described by Dorothea Kaufmann are something he can only dream about. "At our department things are anything but excellent," he declared. "The situation is extremely precarious." For him, the Initiative for Excellence is like "flood-lighting the main street and turning the lights out everywhere else."

After 90 minutes of lively discussion one thing was clear. The road to elite status is a long and arduous one and many are doomed to fall by the wayside. The precise substantiation for Heidelberg's unsuccessful showing in the first round of the contest will be arriving at the Rector's office in the next few days. Then comes the repair work — and the nail-biting starts all over again.

Ingeborg Salomon

Please address any inquiries to:
Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317

Irene Thewalt
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 542317

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