A Jointventure of
Scientific infrastructure - Germany
A | A | A

What Is the Excellence Competition Really about?

By Hans Joachim Meyer

The Initiative for Excellence has kept German universities on their toes in recent years. Finally, so they say, true competition has put an end to the fiction that all universities are equal. But is it only about a competition of the best concepts? Or is there another guiding principle?

What Is the Excellence Competition Really about?© kallejipp - Photocase.comThe purpose of the Initiative for Excellence is to promote science and research at German higher education institutions
Let's begin with the praise: It was high time for an initiative like the Excellence Competition, and in many ways it was liberating, not least in contrast to the underfunding that universities had been suffering for decades. This new opportunity for success through academic performance released significant energies and motivated an undeniable mobilisation drive. For too long public opinion in Germany had been governed by the unrealistic postulate that all universities are equal; this notion was dealt a heavy blow by the Excellence Competition.

Another positive aspect was that the Excellence Competition adhered to the tried and tested German practice of not subjecting science to politically or economically motivated topical requirements, but instead evaluating the outcome of the competition through an expert review process. It is to be hoped that the attention that the Excellence Competition has attracted among the international public will also promote European acceptance of such competitive principles. Most importantly however, the Excellence Competition has in many cases led to an institutional flexibilisation that promotes scientific collaboration, both within the individual universities and in the relationship between academic and extra-mural research. This is an incomplete but nonetheless impressive list of benefits of the competition. Like any competition, the Excellence Competition laid bare strengths and weaknesses and amplified disproportionalities.

The distance between top-flight research and what may be termed normal university research has grown, due also to structural and financial focuses chosen for the purpose of standing a chance in the Excellence Competition. The already worrying issue of what can become of outstanding young scientists who have no realistic hope of a professorship has been exacerbated by a concentration of personnel on top projects. The risk that is inherent in any competition has been intensified by the imbalance between the opportunity for short-term funding and the need for long-term structural change. And the distance between research and teaching in terms of qualitative rank and practical utility has increased to a truly dramatic extent. All this does not argue against an excellence competition in research. It does however raise the question whether the intention of the German Research Foundation in this competition was really nothing other than to promote research.

In addition to the disadvantages almost inevitably associated with a competition, there are also specific points of criticism that it would be entirely possible to remedy or ameliorate, for example the request that precise and comprehensible reasons be given when rejecting projects. More important are the repeatedly expressed criticism of how quantitative indicators are weighted and the lack of consideration given to the various disciplines' unequal need for resources. When evaluating the performance of any institutional activity there is furthermore a danger that a concept of public value drawn from the model of New Public Management may be applied which is based on a primarily quantitative criterion of efficiency. Finally, the subject-blind generality of the process has repeatedly been criticised in the public debate, more specifically: the fact that the characteristic peculiarities which distinguish the natural, technical, social, economic and cultural sciences and the humanities in ways relevant to equitable research funding were insufficiently taken into account. These differences of course exist not only in disciplines' requirements for resources and the realistic extent to which third-party funds can be acquired, but also in the need and the willingness to work in teams and the significance of competing schools of thought.

The guiding principle of the Excellence Competition

My actual, fundamental criticism is therefore not linked to disadvantages resulting from the nature of competition or to individual elements of the competition which, while deserving of criticism, could certainly be corrected, but instead to the guiding principle of the Excellence Competition, which those responsible consider to be its advantage and which is represented by the third funding line. This funding line was, as is well known, about strategies for the future, which were to be justified with thematic intentions but primarily indicated by institutional decisions. Demonstrating effective university leadership was seen as a guarantee of future scientific success. This was the basis on which normal universities and excellence universities were distinguished. So was the Excellence Competition mainly about establishing a particular concept of higher education and science policy?

No doubt there would have been other ways to highlight certain universities as places of outstanding research. If, for example, the entire competition funds had been used for funding lines 1 and 2, this would, together with the collaborative research centres and research training groups for which funding had already been acquired, have resulted in a group of nine to twelve especially successful universities that could - informally but no less effectively - have been characterised as excellence universities. The outcome of the competition would then have more realistically represented the differing capabilities of the universities. It would have created a more accurate overall view of Germany's universities without extending the grand delusion that all universities are qualitatively equal. Nobody can however seriously claim that these can be adequately divided into two groups. It would also have avoided the entrenchments that result from the official announcement of such differences in status and will inevitably encumber the second Excellence Competition. The purpose of the third line was in any case entirely different from that of the first two. The aim of the first two lines was to promote research; the third line was intended to reward the ability to act strategically and thus to encourage institutional differentiation.

The third line in fact seems to have been to some extent a competition among university managements, the results of which were also affected by the favourableness or unfavourableness of location and other non-academic factors. It is no doubt a worthy aim to develop German universities into independent collective agents with the ability to make decisions and take action. And of course it is necessary to work towards the structural and mental conditions required to achieve this. But it cannot be done without considering the status of German universities as institutions of public responsibility. And it seems equally unrealistic to believe that it could be done without taking into account the federal character of our constitutional order and the permanently unequal spending power of the federal states. The new excellence universities however are - at least potentially - in conflict with both these sets of conditions to a degree that should not be underestimated. So the question is whether a competition for convincing "future concepts" was not an unrealistic back route that more or less ignored the reality of the federal republic. The consequences within the universities must also be questioned - not only the increased incongruity in the perception of the two core tasks of universities, namely research and teaching, but also dysfunctions in academic decision-making structures.

It may fall to university managements to define and implement an overall institutional interest that not only integrates the diverging individual and particular interests, but also orders them by priorities and posteriorities. But this does not justify a command-run university just because it could enable success in competition. Any centralisation will inevitably lead to intransparent management decisions and privileged individuals. In comparison with other European countries it is admittedly impressive that the German Research Foundation and the Science Council have appointed themselves the main drivers of higher education and science policy; it does however raise the question of the political and ideological concept behind this action.

The ideological concept of the Initiative for Excellence

This ideological concept is all too clear: its ideal and its yardstick are what the German consciousness believes it knows - and only wants to know - about American universities. It is a starry-eyed view of the USA that not only gold-plates that country's reality but is also unwilling to acknowledge its peculiarity within the Western world. This misleads into a belief that the success of the USA can be imitated without analysing its context. In particular, one aspires to copy the way American universities operate on the education and research market in the hope of thus gaining a little of their lustre. Dreams of the myth of the Ivy League engender a desire to constitute a German Ivy League - with German thoroughness even entirely officially - no matter the consequences. That the real Ivy League is merely a sporting association of the eight oldest universities in the USA has apparently been overlooked. Most importantly, however, there is a dominating idea that globalisation will lead to a global society that speaks English and thinks American.

And its driving motor, according to this line of thought, must be largely unfettered competition, the results of which can be measured quantitatively and quickly. Germany must be made fit for this global society. In the corporate sector this idea of the future has led to truly disastrous consequences. The same strategy has long been followed in German academia without critically reflecting on these. In fact, the current reform processes are about americanising German higher education institutions and replacing German with English as the language of higher education and science. The dominance of the third line within the Excellence Competition is therefore part of an overall strategy. Its one important step was the introduction of the allegedly existing and allegedly even internationally recognised Anglo-American grading system into German higher education - improperly justified with the European Bologna Declaration. As was to be expected and surely also intended, Bachelor and Master degrees act as symbolic enablers for the use of English in academic studies. Its other step is the orientation to a diffuse ideal of an American university as the target outcome of the Excellence Competition, combined with the strict stipulation of English as the language in which all projects and concepts submitted for funding must be evaluated, even in the social and cultural sciences and the humanities. The justification offered for this is that the exclusive use of English is due to the internationality of the evaluation. And this, it is claimed, is the only way to guarantee the objectivity of the process.

I dispute that an objective process is achieved by 90% of expert reviewers coming from abroad. The greater the physical distance from the institution to be evaluated, the more significant becomes the diffuse criterion of its international visibility, which is after all not determined only by allegedly objective quantitative parameters. It exists no less in the minds of those assigned authority and competence. A reviewer convinced of the high rank of a university will not change his or her mind based on a few specific data; to do so would after all rightly be considered unworldly. And what one hears and reads of the specific evaluation process after all tallies with common experience: everyone tries their best to produce fair evaluations and for precisely this reason embeds the specific case into what they previously knew and thought. Those who come from afar will moreover often have only an unclear image. One cannot help but wonder whether the much vaunted internationality only amplifies the role of subjective visibility and thereby reduces the objectivity of the evaluation.

The underlying agenda of the Excellence Competition was made unmistakably clear in the speech given by Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, formerly President of the German Research Foundation and thereafter Secretary General of the European Research Council, at the annual conference of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities on 27th June 2009: He wants an English-speaking European science region. Therefore the same fundamentally applies to the Excellence Competition as to the German version of the Bologna Process: both were important steps, and positive results are undeniable. But their true aim is to treat German universities as applicants to an English-speaking and US-dominated academic world. In the long term this will have decisive and disastrous consequences for Germany's intellectual self-image and its culture.

Abbreviated version of a talk held at a conference of the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung on 19th June in Cadenabbia.

From Forschung und Lehre :: August 2010