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Germany: does the Excellence Initiative reduce diversity?

This newsletter has repeatedly reported on Germany’s Excellence Initiative, which has so far provided ample funds for Germany’s universities and colleges in order to improve performance and face international competition. One particular aim was to increase the diversity of German higher education, by helping institutions build their unique profile. According to the recent study Angleichung statt Vielfalt (Uniformity instead of diversity), this aim has so far not been attained.

The study, which was produced by a consortium of research organisations, found most institutions used one and the same diversity strategy. The approach is focused entirely on – mostly basic – research, and neglects teaching, technology and knowledge transfer, as well as internationalisation, amongst other things. A typical project funded by the Excellence Initiative consists of the creation of interdisciplinary research clusters of about four departments at one university, linking up with another partner university, two extra-university research centres and about five further bodies of different sorts. This can indeed be a formula for success, the authors find, but if everybody applies it, it will create uniformity instead of diversity. On top of this, it appears that universities fail to prioritise: they follow an ‘all inclusive’ approach, which leads them to do a bit of everything, but not to concentrate on anything in particular.

The authors were also shocked to learn that in setting their research agendas, German professors followed their own research interests and accorded little or no importance to the priorities set by the institutional leadership for the university as a whole. From this they conclude that the “future concepts” funded by the Excellence Initiative could but in reality have only little impact on institutions’ research orientation. It appears that, despite all the ‘New Public Management’-inspired governance reforms of the last decades, the German professor remains a basically uncontrollable and untouchable creature. How such essentially anarchic beings contribute to uniformity, the authors do not find easy to explain.

The study recommends that future rounds and a possible successor scheme to the Excellence Initiative put additional emphasis on the improvement of teaching and learning, internationalisation, gender issues, applied research, as well as technology and knowledge transfer.

WZB - Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung (in German only)