The program designed to create a German Ivy League will be extended indefinitely, giving a handful of the country’s top universities a yearly bonus of at least €10 million in extra funding, the German government announced today. “We are opening a new chapter in the development of higher education in Germany,” Research and Education Minister Johanna Wanka told a press conference in Berlin this morning.
Germany’s Excellence Initiative, launched in 2006, was meant to boost research at German universities to world-class status. Whereas research organizations such as the Max Planck Society are widely recognized as funding top research, the country’s chronically underfunded universities have lagged behind, with only a few breaking the top 50 in world rankings. The €4.6 billion spent on the effort so far has paid off, an international commission concluded in January: Although German universities haven't made it to the top of world rankings, the program has made them more dynamic and has encouraged them to build on their strengths, the report concluded. The panel did recommend some tweaks to the funding structure, however.
State and federal politicians had committed last year to extend the program, but had not decided what form it would take. The outline announced this morning by the Joint Science Conference (GWK), which includes federal and state science ministers of research, education, and finance, still needs to receive final approval from Chancellor Angela Merkel and the leaders of the German state, or Länder, in June, but they are expected to sign off on the plan.
The redesign, which will cost €533 million a year, has two funding categories. Starting in 2017, groups of researchers, either at a single university or from different schools, can apply to become an Excellence Cluster; between 45 and 50 such clusters will receive between €3 million and €10 million per year, and their university hosts will receive an extra €1 million. After those awards are made, universities that host at least two clusters can apply to be designated an Excellence University. Between eight and 11 will be chosen to receive between €10 million and €15 million per year in extra funding starting in 2019. Instead of holding periodic open competitions for the excellence designation, the government will evaluate the winning universities after 7 years to determine whether they should keep their status.
The initiative's current funding was scheduled to end in 2017, but Wanka said today that it will be extended until 2019 to allow a phase-in of the new program.
Dieter Imboden, who headed the international commission that evaluated the initiative, says he is pleased with the decision announced today. The final design reflects the commission’s recommendations “to a surprising extent,” he says. One suggestion that was not adopted, however, was to award universities an excellence designation based on their past achievements alone, instead of promises made in a time-consuming application process. “That was maybe a step too far” for politicians, Imboden says. “But [the commission] had an impact. Maybe in a few years the next step will be taken.”