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Berlin’s Humboldt University won Excellence Initiative funding for eight graduate schools, four research clusters and for its "future concept."

Berlin’s Humboldt University won Excellence Initiative funding for eight graduate schools, four research clusters and for its "future concept."

Heike Zappe

Germany’s excellence program gets good grades

BERLIN—Germany should award millions of euros in extra funding to its 10 top-performing universities, an international commission recommended today. That is one of the best ways to build on the country’s Excellence Initiative, a decade-long program that was supposed to boost German universities to world-class status. The commission, chaired by physicist Dieter Imboden of the ETH Zurich in Switzerland, presented its long-awaited evaluation of the program today.

The program has had a “very positive” influence on the country’s higher education system, the commission says. Although the initiative hasn't reached its goals yet, “it has set the system on the right path,” Imboden told a press conference here this morning. The report will help politicians shape the program that will take over when current funding ends in 2017.

Since 2006, the federal government has poured €4.6 billion into the Excellence Initiative, an effort to reshape the country’s publicly funded universities. Although Germany has long been home to top research groups and institutes, officials have long worried that Germany lacks universities that can hold their own with top schools around the globe. The initiative was supposed to boost a few schools out of the traditionally egalitarian system to become world-class, attracting top researchers and prestige. It awarded funding in three categories: graduate schools, research clusters, and university-wide “future concepts.”

None of the universities that have benefited from the program so far has reached the top of the world rankings, but Imboden said such transformations take time. His own university, ETH Zurich, took half a century to reach its current world-class status, he noted. Germany's initiative, the commission says, “has made the German university system more dynamic and has become a tangible symbol for the will to improve the international competitiveness of German universities.”

Funding for the current program runs out in 2017, and although the German government has pledged to spend roughly €500 million a year from 2018 through 2027 to continue the initiative, politicians still have to agree on what shape the program will take. There's not much time: To have any chance of launching the competition in time to award money by 2018, state and federal politicians must agree by April on the main program outlines. Chancellor Angela Merkel and the minister-presidents of the German Länder (states) must then sign off on the plan in June. That schedule is too tight, the Imboden commission says, which recommends extending current funding for 2 more years, until 2019, to give politicians and research leaders more time to work out the details.

But federal research and education minister Johanna Wanka told the press conference that she plans to stick to the current schedule. “We want to accomplish our mission” to ensure that the future of the program is secure, she said. Still, Wanka didn't rule out extending funding if it seems clear that more time is needed to set up the details of the next competition.

The commission recommends several changes for what it calls the “Excellence Initiative II.” The new program should have just two funding categories instead of the current three, it says. There is broad agreement that graduate schools are now a standard part of most research universities in Germany—which wasn't the case a decade ago—and that they can be funded by standard programs.

Funding for so-called research clusters should continue, the commission says, but should be more flexible to allow for smaller collaborations or collaborations between departments that aren't in the same region. The panel also recommends that funding for research clusters should include extra money to help host universities build on the profile that the cluster brings.

Instead of “future concepts,” the next program should reward universities for their recent achievements, the report recommends. It suggests that 10 top universities—ranked according to the number of award-winning professors, European Research Council grants, and other accolades—should receive an extra €15 million per year for 10 years.

Politicians should keep in mind that €500 million pales compared with the wealth of top universities such as Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or ETH Zurich, which each spend well over €1 billion per year. “The amount is respectable,” he says. “But if you want to compete with Stanford, it’s a small sum.”