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Conflicting Opinions

Discussion about the next Excellence Strategy competition and the future of the University of Freiburg

Freiburg, Apr 24, 2017

Conflicting Opinions

Graphics: Style-Photography/Fotolia

It’s been much praised and criticized, longed for and feared: The Excellence Initiative was perhaps the most controversial topic in German higher education policy in the last almost 10 years. Now that the federal and state governments have announced that the competition will be made a permanent fixture of the higher education landscape after the upcoming third round of funding, both its proponents and critics have become more vociferous in their arguments. The University of Freiburg has decided to provide a platform for the exchange of opinions and ideas: On April 28, 2017, at 6 p.m. it will host the first round of public discussions in which researchers, students, and research policy-makers can present their arguments for and against the Excellence Strategy.

Graphics: Style-Photography/Fotolia

Leading up to this evening discussion, we conducted an interview with three members of the University Council: Dr. Beate Konze-Thomas, Dr. Marion Mangelsdorf, and Anna-Lena Osterholt. This conversation was inspired by a statement published by Mangelsdorf and Osterholt in which they warn how competition could result in social inequality and injustice while contributing toward creating an elite. Representing the other side of the argument, Konze-Thomas, who is the former head of the Department of Funding Programs for Infrastructure at the German Research Council (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG) and who helped to develop the Excellence Initiative, strongly disagrees. She will also be defending her position at the discussion on April 28. Rimma Gerenstein invited these three women to discuss their different points of view.

Dr. Konze-Thomas, you helped to develop the Excellence Initiative. Was it your goal to create an elite and make the German higher education landscape more hierarchical?

Beate Konze-Thomas: The federal government and the states wanted to develop a program that would make German universities more attractive on an international level while also improving research. In the mid-noughties, when the Excellence Initiative was gradually taking shape, a common argument against it was that all of Germany’s roughly 100 universities were equally good. But that just wasn’t the case. There have always been differences in quality. The goal of the Excellence Initiative was definitely to differentiate the German higher education system and highlight its strengths. But there was never any talk of an “elite.”

True. “Elite” was something the media primarily attributed to the Initiative. Still, it can’t be denied that the Excellence Strategy concentrates funding on a few universities that therefore have an advantage.

Anna-Lena Osterholt: This is exactly the problem we address in our statement. If a university is permanently put on a pedestal, this can result in social disadvantage. There is an even greater danger of this happening in the current round because the Excellence Strategy will become permanent.

Konze-Thomas: But this has to be put in perspective. The universities receive basic funding from the states. Freiburg, for example, has a budget of roughly €300 million per year. The Excellence Initiative, on the other hand, provides a university with roughly €12 million per year. That’s about 4 percent of their entire budget. So please tell me how that creates social inequality?

Beate Konze-Thomas is an external member of the University Council. She was head of the Department of Funding Programs for Infrastructure at the German Research Council (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG) until the end of 2014. Photo: Beate Konze-Thomas

Osterholt: I remember the negotiations for a higher-education funding agreement two years ago in Baden-Württemberg. During those negotiations, it quickly became clear that all the state-run universities didn’t have enough money to meet their own research and teaching goals. So I wonder if €12 million is really as little as you say.

Konze-Thomas: Alright, then let’s do the math. Let’s say that we distribute the €533 million that the federal and state governments provide each year by spreading it equally among all the universities: Each university gets the same amount, roughly €5 million. Believe me, a sum like that doesn’t make a difference in the long term.

Osterholt: But the universities could use the money to create special programs and initiatives. Even at a low scale, this would allow them to realize valuable potential.

Marion Mangelsdorf: I want to say something about the concept of “excellence.” I think that it does create a certain elite and inequality. It’s not just about distributing money, but about what is conveyed to society under the label of excellence. Of course we need innovators, but we’re also living in an age when we have to ask ourselves “Who are we funding, and who are we helping to reach the top?” It shouldn’t be the case that only those universities with unique selling points are allowed to climb to the top and stay there.

Konze-Thomas: That may be correct, but it also makes a certain degree of sense. We live in a wealthy country, but we still can’t afford 100 universities that are labelled “excellent.” That’s why we have to think carefully about the criteria for distributing tax-payers’ money and find a way that our society can make the most of it. This means taking economic aspects into consideration and looking at how German universities rank internationally.

Osterholt: I’m concerned that, in the long run, the universities will make their criteria so strict that only a certain kind of student will be able to get accepted – like high school graduates with top grades. It would of course be great if the overall level could be raised, but the student body would also be very homogeneous. Prospective students from families where education is not a priority might not have the same opportunities.

Konze-Thomas: It is possible that the admissions policy of universities could become more selective, but that doesn’t have anything to do with social discrimination. It’s purely about performance.

Mangelsdorf: The Excellence Strategy sounds a lot like the higher education system in the US to me. Only wealthy families can afford to send their kids to top universities that cost tons of money. The rest don’t advance past the lower rungs of the career ladder later and become socially disadvantaged because they didn’t study at the “right” university.

Marion Mangelsdorf is a member of the University Council, where she has an advisory function as a representative of the mid-level teaching faculty. She is the coordinator of the Gender Studies degree program at the University of Freiburg. Photo: Patrick Seeger

Konze-Thomas: That’s simply not true. Fifty-five percent of the students at Harvard have scholarships, meaning they don’t have to pay for part of the tuition, or any tuition at all. But we’re not talking about that here. Let’s look at the University of Passau or the University of Siegen. Neither of them have been awarded the title of Excellent University, and neither of them has a Cluster of Excellence. They are surely aware that earth-shattering discoveries are not likely to be made there, but they are solid universities where students can receive an excellent education that provides them with great prospects on the labor market.

Dr. Mangelsdorf and Ms. Osterholt, in your statement you argue that women could be left behind in the Excellence Strategy. What do you mean by that?

Mangelsdorf: We all know the figures. The number of women students is high, but this drops when they get to the doctorate level, and the number of female professors is critically low. Because the Excellence Strategy concentrates its funding on clusters in the natural sciences, which are generally headed by male professors, this contributes to unfairness. I think the German Research Council’s equal opportunity approach is very important, and it has done a lot in the area of Collaborative Research Centers (Sonderforschungsbereichen, SFBs) and Research Training Groups (Graduiertenkollegs). But we still have a very long way to go before women are just as visible in research as men. We can’t forget that the more a person achieves and the more funding they receive, the more responsibility they have toward society.

Konze-Thomas: I agree with you. But, the Excellence Strategy doesn’t shrink from this responsibility. You said so yourself that the competition’s equality standards are partially responsible for putting more women in top positions while raising the awareness of gender and diversity among young researchers and scholars. None of that really existed before the Excellence Initiative, but because German universities now have to compete internationally, they have established these standards and continue to develop them.

What is the equality situation in the different disciplines? If we look at those clusters of excellence that have received funding so far, engineering and the natural sciences clearly outweigh the other disciplines.

Konze-Thomas: There is a good reason for that. Interdisciplinary collaboration plays an important role in clusters of excellence. There is a lot of experience collaborating in the engineering and natural sciences: Not every institute has all the equipment they need, and not every scientist is skilled in every method or technique, so they rely on teamwork. In the humanities, on the other hand, people don’t have to collaborate quite as much. They don’t travel in groups of three to an archive in Ukraine to look for documents about the policies of the former Soviet Union. Humanities researchers rather work alone, although of course they discuss things with others, and that gives them new ideas they can work with. The University of Freiburg doesn’t have to worry that humanities research will be neglected, however. It has two collaborative research centers: one focusing on leisure, and one on heroes. These centers are almost as large as clusters, and they also cost almost as much.

Mangelsdorf: As a humanities/cultural studies person with 18 years of experience in research management, I have to say that it’s the humanities scholars who usually have to adapt to the working methods and structures of the natural and engineering sciences dominating such institutional structures as clusters, collaborative research centers, and research training groups. Our disciplines have a different structure, and I think there is a clear danger that this will only be intensified.

In your statement, you also want to make sure that teaching is not forgotten in the Excellence Strategy. Does it make sense to prioritize teaching in a competition focusing on research?

Osterholt: If top researchers are collaborating in a cluster on a fascinating project that is relevant to society, then I wonder how this group who’s receiving so much attention relates to the rest of the university. As a student, I would like for a group in my field or in a related field who’s receiving funding to be accessible to me and to let me benefit from their findings. This could be in the form of workshops, themed lecture series, or research-oriented teaching projects. We saw, for example, how the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies (FRIAS) became exclusive and no longer had a connection to the University, meaning only a small, select group profited from it, and not the University as a whole.

Anna-Lena Osterholt is a member of the University Council, where she represents the student body of the University of Freiburg. She is studying to be a German and political science teacher. Photo: Patrick Seeger

Konze-Thomas: Right, but that’s now all in the past. The reviewers didn’t tolerate that kind of exclusiveness in the second round of the Excellence Initiative. Now, FRIAS is a wonderful institution that’s open to the entire University and to all residents of Freiburg. That’s a great sign for how outreach plays a very important role in the Excellence Strategy.

Mangelsdorf: I remember the early days of FRIAS well – I thought it was very off-putting. It was as if they were sticking to the idea of “we have the best of the best, and there’s no room for all the rest.” But since then, I've completely changed my mind, and I’ve participated in a few courses there. They have lively discussions in which everyone has a chance to contribute, and I find the exchange of ideas inspiring. I now recommend that my students attend their courses and lectures, and they do.

So it’s a question of communication?

Mangelsdorf: Yes, absolutely. It matters what people say about an institution, or how it presents itself. The Excellence Strategy has had a huge impact, and it will continue to change our university. I think it’s a shame that how we want to be involved and what our goals are hasn’t always been communicated clearly in the past. However, it is easy to see that discussions such as these can have a huge effect. They are a way of communicating information and can take away some of the potentially unfounded fear inspired by such labels as “elite” and “excellence.”


Statement by Marion Mangelsdorf and Anna-Lena Osterholt about the Excellence Strategy

Excellence Portal of the University of Freiburg

University Council