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Go Beyond Your Home Networks!


Germany's universities have let internationalisation pass them by, says Enno Aufderheide, the new Secretary General of the Humboldt Foundation. He explains how he intends to increase the number of professors from abroad.

Go Beyond Your Home Networks!© Michael Jordan - Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung"We want to bring the brightest and best to our universities, and I mean the brightest and best from around the world."
DIE ZEIT: The Humboldt Foundation wants to attract more foreign academics to Germany. But why? A foreign passport doesn't automatically make a better lecturer.

Enno Aufderheide: Not automatically. But based on the idea that excellence and intelligence are distributed evenly around the world, you can reasonably assume that not all the top-flight people are already here. And then it does become a problem that only 6% of our professors are from abroad - and of those, a third are from Austria and Switzerland. We want to bring the brightest and best to our universities, and I mean the brightest and best from around the world.

DIE ZEIT: Sounds great. But looking at your foundation's flagship programme, the Humboldt Professorships, one can't help but notice that they may be coming to Germany from universities abroad, but most of them are nonetheless Germans or German-speaking. Does that not contradict your own logic?

Aufderheide: We certainly don't want to create the impression that the Humboldt Professorships are a repatriation scheme for German scientists, that would be terrible.

DIE ZEIT: But that is apparently the case.

Aufderheide: Even today, approximately half of them are already "real" foreigners. However, the problem is that the applicants for the Humboldt Professorships are selected by the German universities, not by us. And once an application from an excellent German working in the USA arrives on our desk, we can hardly say: We would love to have you if you were a real American, but as you're German we won't.

DIE ZEIT: In other words, German universities are thinking too provincially, too nationally.

Aufderheide: Not provincially. But they are still thinking and recruiting in German networks too much. We want to change that. Particularly a prize with the appeal of the Humboldt Professorship can help us do this. A higher percentage of non-Germans among the award winners would be a globally visible sign that universities are also - as the Max Planck Society has long been - able to attract international top researchers, even if they have no cultural or linguistic proximity to Germany.

The Foundation

The history of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation goes all the way back to the 19th century. It was re-established in 1953 by the German Federal Government; since then it has enabled over 20,000 scientists from all around the world to spend a period in Germany. The Foundation has also sent 3,000 Germans to universities and research institutions abroad. In contrast to the German Academic Exchange Service, which specialises in international student and doctoral candidate exchange, funding from the Humboldt Foundation, which is mainly financed by the Federal Foreign Office, is available only to those who have completed their doctorate. The Foundation offers a wide range of fellowship programs, through which over 700 young scientists from abroad are temporarily invited to Germany every year. But the Foundation's flagship offering are the Alexander von Humboldt Professorships, which are paid for by the Federal Ministry of Research for a period of at least five years and of which no more than 10 per year are awarded. They are endowed with up to five million euros and intended to help the chronically cash-strapped universities keep up in the competition for the best researchers from around the world. The Foundation's new Secretary General, Enno Aufderheide, 52, holds a Ph.D. in biology. After several years in research, the Bochum native switched to science management, initially at the German Aerospace Centre. Most recently he managed the Department for Research Policy & External Relations of the Max Planck Society.
DIE ZEIT: Why isn't it occurring to the universities themselves to become more international?

Aufderheide: Because most of them have so far had no money for expensive stars, nor the experience to recruit them. In addition, not only have the policymakers not offered any incentives, they have on the contrary kept the higher education institutions on their toes with ever new reforms, from statistically determined funding allocation to the Bologna Process, thereby to some extent making it harder to see what really matters.

DIE ZEIT: Is the low number of lecturers from abroad not also due to the xenophobia that visiting researchers are forced to deal with, especially outside the universities?

Aufderheide: That is indeed an issue. Our fellowship holders rarely report negative experiences. But of course it's quite enough if some of those who have been to Germany report their flat-hunting experiences or what was said to them on the subway once they return home. That is certainly a deterrent. In my opinion this means that we have to offer scientists from abroad first-class conditions all round. Professionally, we succeed, for example by means of the Humboldt Professorships, which provide researchers with enormous freedom and up to five million euros in funding and the guest higher education institution with an excellent reputation. But we must ensure that scientists also feel comfortable in their personal lives here.

DIE ZEIT: Either way, the mere ten new Humboldt Professorships a year will hardly be sufficient to internationalise the German higher education landscape.

Aufderheide: The professorships are a start, because they bring role models to Germany, true global stars of research. For young international scientists we have fellowships, and there are almost 700 a year of those.

DIE ZEIT: In recent years the Federal Government has massively increased funding for the Humboldt Foundation. Now the economic crisis has reached public revenues, meaning that this bonanza may soon be over. What does that mean for you?

Aufderheide: It worries us. We urgently have to increase the rates for the Humboldt Fellowships. We are no longer internationally competitive in this area.

DIE ZEIT: And if there is no increase?

Aufderheide: Then we would like to reduce the number of fellowship holders and increase the rates anyway. It's not popular, but it's inevitable.

DIE ZEIT: Your bigger sibling in international academic exchange, the German Academic Exchange Service (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst, DAAD), has a new president. Sabine Kunst is expected to tackle the issue of duplicate structures in the funding programmes of various exchange organisations. Are you worried that she may throw down the gauntlet to the Humboldt Foundation?

Aufderheide: No, not at all. Our collaboration and division of labour works well. The German Academic Exchange Service funds researchers until the end of their doctorate, we come in after that.

DIE ZEIT: Who should suffer more if savings must be made, the large German Academic Exchange Service with its many thousand fellowship holders every year, or the small, exclusive Humboldt Foundation?

Aufderheide: What we offer are the seeds of prosperity. And seeds are the last thing you eat. The top determines the potential of the whole. Its funding must be maintained even when money is tight.

From DIE ZEIT :: 26.08.2010