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Germany: celebrations, tears and hot debates over “winners” of the first round of the Excellence Initiative

“Only three universities are elite”, titled the online portal of the German news channel Tagesschau on 14 October 2006. The day before, the results of the first selection round of the Excellence Initiative were published. As readers of the ACA Newsletter – Education Europe will recall, this initiative of the Federal Government dates back to a demand of the then-governing Social Democrats in January 2004, to create “top universities and research institutes that can compete with the global premier league.” A total of 1.9 billion Euros has been earmarked for the initiative, running from 2006 to 2011. After a first selection round, €873 million (about 175 million per year) have now been awarded to initiatives at 22 universities for a five-year period in the programme’s three lines of funding:

  • 12.7% to 18 graduate schools,
  • 63.4% to 17 “clusters of excellence” (research and training institutions in specific fields) and
  • 23.9% to three institutional strategies to promote top-level research.

Karlsruhe University of Technology, the University of Munich and Munich University of Technology were awarded funding in all three lines, and are commonly regarded as the winners, the “elite” – although politicians do their utmost to avoid this term, stress the importance of all three action lines and underline that the third funding line refers not to already established elite but to “institutional strategies” to become an internationally recognized “beacon of science”. Ten universities had been shortlisted for this third funding line, which also requires the award of at least one graduate school and at least one cluster of excellence, in January 2006 (see respective edition of the ACA Newsletter – Education Europe).

The final decision was preceded by evaluations by international expert panels. It was taken unanimously by a joint committee of scientists and federal and state research ministers. According to the politicians involved, they followed the decision of the scientists. The debates generated by the decision focus on the regional concentration of the “elite” in the South of Germany and on the apparent underrepresentation of Humanities: two of the three universities selected for all three funding lines are located in Munich/Bavaria, the third in Baden-Württemberg; two of the three are universities of technology. According to German Federal Minister of Education and Science, Annette Schavan, the selection was solely based on academic excellence; considerations linked to geographic spread were not taken into account.

The elite game is not yet over: funding decisions for the second selection round will be made in a year’s time. Draft proposals for a second decision round are currently being reviewed, and shortlisted universities will be invited to submit a full proposal in January 2007. The “losers” of the first round will then be given a second chance.