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4 December 2006

Rector Prof. Hommelhoff on the Interplay between Research and the Universities in Germany

At the "Franco-German Academic Dialogues" in the Great Hall of the Old University, Rector Prof. Dr. Peter Hommelhoff focused his attention on the Initiative for Excellence and the Federal Reform Bill

Speaking to an audience from Germany and France assembled in the Great Hall of the Old University for the "Franco-German Academic Dialogues", the Rector of the University of Heidelberg, Prof. Dr. Peter Hommelhoff, enlarged upon the interplay between research and the universities in Germany, focusing his attention on the Initiative for Excellence and the Federal Reform Bill. "One way for Heidelberg in particular to qualify for the invitation to submit detailed proposals might be to concentrate on projects of a markedly interdisciplinary nature, combining the natural sciences and the life sciences on the one hand and the humanities, cultural studies and the social sciences on the other," the Rector suggested. After his introductory remarks, Prof. Dr. Jean-Yves Mérindol, former President of the University of Strasbourg 1 and academic advisor on research matters to the Mayor of Paris, outlined the situation in France. Other speakers from the two countries followed.

Hommelhoff: "Two political decisions in the field of higher education and research have recently had a lasting impact on the interplay between research and the universities in Germany: the launching of the Initiative for Excellence and the Federal Reform Bill.

To estimate the full extent of the effect of the Initiative, we must first embark on a brief review of the German research landscape. Its crucial sectors are business and industry, higher education and non-university research institutions. The segregation of universities and non-university research institutions has a detrimental effect on the international competitiveness and the visibility of German universities. This is further exacerbated by financial and structural conditions that have favoured this development. In the course of educational expansion in the second half of the 20th century, the number of students and professors increased by leaps and bounds. This changed the character of the universities, transforming them from elitist seats of higher education (largely reserved for a privileged sector of society) to rather faceless mass universities.

Things were very different for the non-university research institutions in the same period. They were able to develop more continuously than the universities, whose fiscal constraints encouraged both the outsourcing of research institutions and the responsibility of the Federal sector for many non-university institutions. The relations between the higher-education sector and the non-university sector shifted slowly but surely. While expenditure on research outside the universities increased 110% between 1975 and 1990, the universities registered an increase of only 87% in the same period. Here the figures for Baden-Württemberg are incidentally a great deal more favourable than for the country as a whole. In terms of international competition, the non-university institutions are clearly in a better position than Germany's universities. At the same time, they demonstrate equally clearly that outstanding scientific and scholarly achievement is not simply a matter of funding. Alongside good financial, equipment and staff resources the things flourishing academic research needs most are the freedom and scope to go about its work as it sees fit, in other words effective autonomy. Together with their more favourable financial development, the higher degree of autonomy enjoyed by the non-university research institutions has left its mark and led to clearly identifiable results. The time has now come for higher education, and more specifically the universities, to catch up and to be given the possibility of doing so. Despite their limited resources they are both ready and willing to close the gap.

The opportunity to prove this point has been afforded by the Initiative for Excellence, a systematic, politically motivated undertaking designed to encourage top-flight university research, to strengthen Germany's status as a research location and to make the county internationally competitive in this sector. All in all, 40 Graduate Schools and 30 Clusters of Excellence will be receiving annual funding to the tune of 1 million and 6.5 million euros each, respectively, for a period of 5 years. In addition, ten selected universities will be granted an annual 13.5 million euros each to implement their institutional strategies for the project-related furtherance of top-flight university research. The decisions on the first round of the contest were announced in mid October. They confirmed the fears previously voiced by many academics: they favoured the life sciences, the natural sciences and engineering over and against the humanities, a field in which large-scale, integrative research undertakings have traditionally played a minor role. The reasons are obvious. While the reflections of philosophers certainly benefit from stimulating encounters, what these academics need most of all is time and leisure to marshal their thoughts. It remains to be seen whether this tendency will be reinforced in the second round of the Initiative. One way for Heidelberg in particular to qualify for the invitation to submit detailed proposals might be to concentrate on projects of a markedly interdisciplinary nature, combining the natural sciences and the life sciences on the one hand and the humanities, cultural studies and the social sciences on the other.

One development the outcome of the Initiative for Excellence will indubitably accelerate is the diversification of the higher-education landscape. Uniformity in the quality of the universities throughout the country was the declared aim in the 1960s and 1970s. Today that objective has disappeared without a trace. The universities have realised that the establishment and accentuation of individual profiles is an indispensable competitive factor on both the national and the international plane. Thus it is possible to distinguish between universities geared more strongly to research and others concentrating more on teaching. Research universities are notable for their outstandingly well-qualified researchers, the number of publications, top-quality young scientists and scholars and DFG-funded graduate research groups and long-term collaborative research projects. This requires major investments in laboratories, libraries and other academic resources. The high proportion of external funding resulting from this comes not only from the German Research Foundation (DFG) and the EU, but also from projects conducted by the Academies of Sciences and Humanities. As things stand at the moment, 20% of all German universities receive just under 60% of the financial resources supplied by the DFG. These research universities contrast with the universities concentrating on clearly defined instruction (sometimes comparable with the kind provided at schools) and on intensive student care. Other distinctions that can be made are those between regional and supraregional/international universities and between traditionally structured universities and one-subject or part-universities (as in Konstanz or Paderborn).

In response to the statutory requirement for devising structure and development plans, many universities are now doing their best to spell out the range of their activities and their core competencies (notably the technical universities) and thus to accentuate their hitherto rather ill-defined profiles in such a way as to equip themselves, with the resources at their disposal, for inter-university competition at national, European and international levels. The Initiative for Excellence has accelerated this development. Proposals for the third line of funding (institutional strategies) are expected to contain detailed analysis of strengths and weaknesses, as well as the definition of the strategic research fields the university making the proposals intends to invest in in the future.

We can also expect the Federal Reform Bill to have a profound impact on research at German universities. The Bill provides for a clear demarcation between Federal (national) and State (individual Länder) competencies and also the discontinuation of previous joint competencies. The federal system and the weakness of the Federal government(s) in the field of higher-education policy have prevented this issue from figuring appreciably in the strategic considerations of those politicians active at the national level. Accordingly, it has not become an issue of national concern. Conflicting majorities in the two houses of the Federal parliament have stymied extensive reforms in this field and the legislative powers of the Federal government are cripplingly weak, as noted recently by the Federal Constitutional Court in its rulings on "junior professors" and "student fees". The federal structure of higher-education and research policy is also the key cause for the lowly status of education policy in political debates. This can also be seen with regard to the Initiative for Excellence, a plan of action primarily engineered by the Federal government and one that has led to an unexampled response from the universities themselves and from the media nation-wide. In the meantime the unconscionable responses to the Initiative from some of the Federal states have been consigned to oblivion.

The large-scale reform of the Basic Law in 1969 introduced what was called "cooperative federalism in education", making various sectors of higher education the joint responsibility of the Federal and State governments (university buildings, education planning, advancement of research). To all intents and purposes, the Federal Reform Bill restricts the influence of the Federal government to research advancement. In terms of legislation, the Federal government formerly had the right to outline a so-called Framework Law for higher education. Now, its competencies are limited to admissions to higher education and the degrees to be obtained there. All other fields subject to university legislation, like the structure and constitution of universities and university staff, will in future be the preserve of the legislative powers of the individual Länder. The fact that the responsibility for university buildings has also been entrusted solely to the Länder will have a crucial indirect impact on research because this makes funding for new buildings conditional on the financial clout of the individual states. In future, only research buildings and equipment of more than regional significance can hope for joint funding from the Federal and State governments.

Accordingly, the Federal Reform Bill and the Initiative for Excellence lead us to draw one conclusion: both measures favour selected research institutions capable of competing at an international level. The international contest for the best research locations and the cut-throat competition resulting from it have now fully and squarely arrived in Germany.

At the State level there are however still two political issues of crucial importance. One is the status accorded to education — including higher education — by the individual State governments and parliaments. To this extent, education and higher-education policy is jockeying for position and vying with economic, regional and social policy. The other question is how much importance will be granted to education and higher-education policy in the State budgets. Here, as elsewhere, the injunction will be to "put your money where your mouth is". In this respect, Baden-Württemberg has been exemplary. We are justified in hoping that this political strategy will also point the way in future."


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

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