Universities – Elitist but nevertheless fair?

The Excellence Initiative pursued by Germany’s federal government has acted as a catalyst in stimulating and accelerating the process of differentiation in the German university landscape. Critics fear increasing polarization between “elite” and “mass-market” institutions. Marius R. Busemeyer, however, sees opportunities arising from this development – and explains why and under what conditions the process of differentiation may, in the long term, improve the efficiency, as well as the fairness of the German education and employment system.

by Marius R. Busemeyer; in: MaxPlanckResearch 2/2008

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Germany’s higher education sector is currently undergoing a period of radical change, the likes of which has not been seen since the 1970s. At that time, the reforms were aimed explicitly at providing educationally deprived strata of society with equal opportunities and improved access to universities. The reforms were also accompanied and supported by a massive expansion of public-sector higher education. Today, at a time when the coffers are empty and the higher education system is chronically underfinanced, the focus is on the efficient distribution of public funds. It is not the state that is likely to rectify the problem of under-funding, but the input of private-sector money, for example by increasing the number of private universities and levying tuition fees.

The Excellence Initiative is one more example of the paradigm shift in Germany’s policy on universities. The federal and state governments have now concluded two rounds of tendering in which universities were invited to bid for funding, with the chosen winners sharing a total of almost 1.9 billion euros, channeled into three lines of funding over a six-year period. This is the first time Germany has seen an about-face in government policy away from the concept of equality among universities and toward an excellence-oriented stratification of the higher education landscape, with the “elite” universities coming out on top.

There has been praise for the Excellence Initiative from both scientific and political circles, notably from individual deans of potential elite universities, among them former Heidelberg dean Peter Hommelhoff, and from the former President of the German Research Council, now Secretary General of the European Research Council, Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker. However, there has also been much criticism. As anyone familiar with the university system in the US will be aware, just under two billion euros shared between multiple universities over a period of several years is little more than the proverbial drop in the bucket – it is hardly enough to create a German Harvard.

Critics have also pointed out that, contrary to its aspired intention, rather than promoting effective and transparent competition, the Excellence Initiative really essentially consolidates existing structures and power blocs (Richard Münch). The polarization of the higher education landscape between elite and mass-market universities ultimately favors elitist access to education and subsequent employment – and it still remains to be seen whether the quality of education at elite universities is genuinely better (Michael Hartmann).

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