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A German Ivy League Takes Shape

BERLIN--Munich is poised to become Germany's academic powerhouse after the awardees of the country's Excellence Initiative were announced today. The results of the competition, designed to crown a sort of German Ivy League, brought good news to southern Germans. Two of the three big winners are in Munich: the Technical University Munich (TUM) and the Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich (LMU). The third is the Technical University Karlsruhe, in southwest Germany.

Germany is unusual among most western nations in that all of its universities have been designed to be roughly equal in both quality and prestige. While levelling the playing field for students, who mostly choose schools closest to home, the strategy has arguably prevented Germany from producing world-class institutions that can effectively compete with those in other countries. Envisioned in 2004 as a solution to that problem, the Excellence Initiative attracted applications from 74 of the country's 120 publicly funded universities. All vied for a slice of the €1.9 billion ($2.4 billion) that state and federal governments have set aside to boost competition over the next 5 years.

In the end, 22 universities will receive extra funding, either for new graduate school programs (€1 million, or $1.25 million, a year each) or for so-called excellence clusters (worth €6.5 million, or $9.75 million, per year) designed to bring together top researchers from several disciplines. The most prestigious funding awards, however, went to the TU Karlsruhe, TUM, and LMU, which will each receive about €13 million extra a year for their university-wide plans to boost research excellence. Many feel the money is perhaps less important than the bragging rights the award bestows in the competition for top professors and other outside funding.

The results quieted the fears of some critics who predicted that the money would flow based on political calculations--such as making sure winners were spread evenly across the country--instead of academic criteria. Indeed, today's meeting between 26 scientific reviewers and the state and federal science ministers apparently was a tense one, with the politicians complaining that the scientists gave them no voice in the final decision. Although there were scattered winners in Berlin, Hanover, and Kiel, most of the funding will flow to schools in the southern half of the country. Federal science minister Annette Schavan called the vote "a sign of confidence from the politicians" in the scientists' judgement.

University administrators disappointed by today's results can still hold out some hope. Competition for a second round of funding is already underway. Next October, up to seven more universities could join the winners in Munich and Karlsruhe in the initiative's most prestigious category.

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