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.


And third, it remains incumbent on the makers of labor market and social policy to avoid gross social inequalities. It is essential to bear in mind that there is no truth in the easy assumption that differentiation of educational opportunities will lead to differentiation in forms of employment. Of course, in Germany today, there are marked inequalities in access to employment. Differentiation in higher education per se will not heighten these inequalities. Ideally, it will lead to a situation in which access to employment is oriented toward education rather than the secondary criteria described above. The avoidance of gross social inequality is not primarily the task of educational policy, but rather of labor market and social policy. The education system must ensure that access routes to employment, while necessarily unequal, are oriented toward performance criteria and actual qualifications. A differentiated system of higher education is better suited to this task than one that lacks differentiation.

These, then, are the preconditions under which differentiation among universities might constitute not so much a problem as progress. However, the question remains as to what actual advantages that might bring.

Studying abroad is becoming more attractive

It must be kept in mind that the German university system is in competition with others. In the research field, brain drain has long been a topic of conversation. Anecdotal evidence, well documented by journalists, as well as individual systematic studies (such as that conducted in 2002 by the Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft) show that this phenomenon is all too real, and that a return to Germany is generally prompted by private and practical reasons rather than career considerations.

The competition between university systems revolves not only around scientists, but also around students. The improved recognition of school-leaving qualifications within the EU and the greater willingness of younger generations to embrace mobility combine to make an entire course of study at a foreign university more attractive, rather than just individual semesters – albeit in certain countries only (Great Britain, the US, Switzerland) and only for those who can afford it.

And precisely here lies the danger: those who are wealthy enough to pay the high tuition fees and cost of living in Oxford, Cambridge, St. Gallen, Zurich or Boston would prefer to send their children there rather than to a German mass-market university. Attendance at these genuinely elite universities in turn sends a strong signal to future employers. An undifferentiated higher education system may comply with the model of equality among universities, but that is of little benefit if they all appear equally lacking in value, and if the attractive jobs remain reserved for those who have graduated from leading universities abroad.

The creation of high-value, internationally competitive universities in Germany – which, in a public-sector education system, will always require political intervention – could reduce the pressure to migrate. At the same time, we would also have the chance to avoid the dark sides of genuinely elitist university systems. Decisions regarding access to employment would become more transparent, with a greater attendant need for legitimacy. It would no longer be origin and private networks that matter, but achievement. This would also apply to the distribution of research funding, even if, as critics of the Excellence Initiative note – with some justification – the present procedure favors particularly those universities that were already well endowed with third-party funding.

Finally, differentiation in the higher education system will also have a beneficial effect on the education decisions young people make for themselves. The information advantage that children from the upper strata of society have over others currently serves as an essential mechanism by which social stratification is mirrored in higher education. A differentiated system accompanied by greater transparency will also allow children from educationally deprived strata to make informed and balanced choices.

All in all, I must conclude that, despite the somewhat justified criticism of the Excellence Initiative and the differentiation it heralds in the German university landscape, the advantages predominate. Linking access to employment and elite positions to performance criteria rather than disposition or networks would strengthen the universities as a central pillar of social advancement. And that would be a substantial step forward for German education, business and research.

The author:
Marius R. Busemeyer is a staff member at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies.

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