Growing criticism towards German university alliances?

Jens Jungblut (University of Oslo)

Jens Jungblut (University of Oslo)

In this post, Hedda associate Jens Jungblut examines current developments with the German university alliances. Jens is working at the University of Oslo where he is writing his doctoral dissertation on the relationship between shifts in governments and changes in higher education policy. 

Institutional differentiation is something rather new to the German university landscape. While classically German universities were, and to a large extend still are, characterized by equality of funding and reputation, different recent activities aimed at creating more diversification in the system. The first and most influential of these activities was the excellence initiative by the federal and Länder governments. In a parallel process several universities formed alliances and associations, following the British example of the Russell-Group, to cooperate in a situation of growing competition for funding and students (see also an earlier article on this issue).

Open letter from a rector criticizing university alliances

Recently the debate around the differentiation of the German university system entered a new round. Ulrich Radtke, the rector of the University of Duisburg-Essen, published an open letter to the German rectors’ conference, in which he criticized the decision of his colleagues to form university alliances.

The University of Duisburg-Essen is the youngest universities in Germany and not a member of any of the German university associations. It is the result of a recent merger of two smaller universities and characterized by a relatively high percentage of students of non-traditional background.

Radtke criticizes several aspects of the newly established university alliances. He starts off by describing the university alliances as co-operations of the old and large universities against the young and smaller ones that try to enhance their position in a higher education system that is characterized by serious under-funding and student overload. For him the German higher education system offers a lot of excellent research environments but they are to be found on the departmental level and spread between many higher education institutions. For him there are maybe three or four universities in Germany that could claim to be overall stronger than the others, the rest are more or less equal.

University alliances creating false impression of quality?

Based on this Radtke criticizes that the selection criteria of the university alliances are arbitrary and not transparent. The alliance German U15 for example, uses the size of their institutions, the number of subjects represented and the fact that all members need to have a medical faculty as criteria and claims based on this quantitative facts to also provide better quality in research and teaching. For Radtke these are self-created prestige gains that in stand in no direct relation to real differences in quality between the member institutions and other universities in Germany. He thus classifies the alliance as an artificial form of vertical differentiation since it does not represent real differences in quality.

The biggest concern for Radtke is linked to the demand of the university alliances for more public funds based on their self-certified quality. The rector of the university Duisburg-Essen sees in this step not a competition for funds in a fair market environment but rather the creation of a cartel that hinders market mechanisms. This is especially worrisome since some of the members of the new alliances encountered negative results in the most recent round of the excellence initiative and thus could be perceived as using the prestige-win connected to the alliance to counter the negative assessment of their quality in the framework of the excellence initiative.

For Radtke the strength of the German higher education system is the large number of rather equal universities that each have some pockets of excellence in one or more of their departments. He supports the idea of scientific competition but based on a fair chance for every researcher independent from his or her institutional affiliation. Radtke sees an institutional approach to the assessment of differences of universities as not suitable for the German system. He also argues against using institutional labels as the basis for the distribution of competitive research funds.

Solutions to combat the fiscal difficulties of the HE system in Germany

Acknowledging the fact that the German higher education system is in need of a better financial basis Radtke proposes several solutions. First, he argues that the percentage of students studying in a Bachelor-level program at a university is too high compared to those studying at a university of applied science. While around 70% of all Bachelor-level students are matriculated at a university in Germany, in the Netherlands it is only 40%. Taking into consideration that the education of a Bachelor at a university in Germany costs on average 28.000 Euros, while at a university of applied science it costs only 14.000 Euros, Radtke sees a large potential for cost reduction without limiting access to higher education.

Secondly, he argues that the universities need to be put back in the centre of the scientific community in Germany, pushing back to growth in funding for the research institute sector. Furthermore, Radtke claims that a horizontal differentiation that allows for flexible study paths is preferable to an artificial vertical differentiation. At the same time applied research needs to be accepted on equal footing with basic research.

Finally, Radtke calls for the members of the different university alliance not to follow their own self-focused interest and with this create a situation that supports the self-demolition of the public sector, but rather join hands with the other universities and strengthen the position of the rectors’ conference. Instead of weakening the university sector and the rectors’ conference, all universities should stand together and argue for more financial resources and thus create a thriving German higher education system with real competition instead of self-proclaimed excellence.

A need for further dialogue

Radtke finishes his letter with a call for debate and dialogue on the issue and it remains to be seen how the university alliances, the rectors’ conference and the other higher education institutions react to this. Since institutional differentiation is something rather new to the German higher education sector, it is likely that the debate will continue. At the same time the newly founded alliances are very unlikely to disappear, thus it remains to be seen how the German university landscape will look after the dust of the debate has settled. Maybe the smaller and younger universities will also create their own alliance of “coming universities”, as Radtke ironically proposes, and in the end every institution will be a member of some alliance, all claiming to be the most excellent in the country.

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