The following article is from our November 2007 issue.

Selective Upgrades The government's "Excellence Initiative" grants German universities small packs of ivy seeds - By Lutz Lichtenberger

Six universities are receiving additional money in Germany's attempt to create a German Ivy League. Can the grants reverse the country's image of educational mediocrity and improve scientific excellence?

The mockery continues.

Another six German universities have now been officially declared to be "elite" institutions of higher education. And the winners of the second round of Germany's state-funded sweepstakes, the so-called "Initiative for Excellence," will receive between ?7 and ?13 million ($10 and $19 million) per year until 2011.

Three of the universities, Freiburg, Heidelberg and Konstanz, are located in the southern state of Baden-Württemberg and are joined by Aachen, Göttingen and the Free University of Berlin. Among the winners of the first round were also two schools in Munich and Karlsruhe's Technical University. The decision had caused an uproar among politicians from other states, who demanded a share of the funds for "their" schools.

The whole idea cannot be understood without understanding the pervasive desire to create a German Ivy League and with that, increase scientific excellence simply by handing out a total of ?1.9 billion over five years. "The initiative for excellence is writing scientific history," said Minister of Education and Research Annette Schavan (CDU). Still, Harvard University alone, in comparison, possesses assets of almost $35 billion.

In order to gain the additional money and "elite" branding, the German universities had to write extensive applications for scientific programs, a massive undertaking in itself. In effect, it means the creation of marketable programs, in order to receive funds that were already rewarded for these programs. Critics have called the application process an "institutionalized tooting of one's own horn." German universities have come up with a Friedrich Schlegel School of Literary Studies, an International Graduate School of History, Sociology and Politics, and the program Multiple Futures, a platform that brings various branches of scientists together. Apparently there is no future for the German language in German universities.

Because of the high number of worthy applications, the German Research Foundation (DFG), a state institution that helped coordinate the competition, decided to award more schools than originally planned. As a result, the sum awarded to each of the nine universities from both rounds, had to be decreased by 15 percent. The universities in Munich and Karlsruhe were especially upset. In an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the president of the Technical University of Munich, Wolfgang Herrmann, said he considered the belated cuts in funding to be illegal. "For us, what was laid out in the initial authorization is legally binding," he said.

After years of neglecting its universities, German politics is making an attempt to upgrade selected institutions. The long-standing notion that every school has to be of equal quality is stated less often. With the announcement of elite universities, the paradigm of equality was replaced by the rhetoric of excellence. Once, the idea and ideal of the Humboldt University − the unity of research and education − was adopted by the U.S. Ivy League schools. With that spirit gone, only the ideal of excellence remains.

- Lutz Lichtenberger is a staff member of The Atlantic Times.


Another University for Berlin

The state of Berlin plans to create a new university for top-notch research. It is still to be decided if it will be called the International Forum of Advanced Studies or International Free Humboldt Forum. Berlin's senator for education, Jürgen Zöllner (SPD), called it "a new type of university." With the new institution, Berlin is aiming at a "leap in quality" with the chance to make the city "one of the most attractive locations for research in the world."

The new institution will be a joint venture of the four existing universities in Berlin, as well as the research institutes of Max Planck and the Fraunhofer societies. The institution is planning to have 500 students and 100 scientists and is set to open in 2009.