Eight years ago, Germany announced an effort unprecedented for the European nation: It would have its universities compete for several billion dollars in public funds to spur them to distinguish themselves on the national and world stage. Other countries took notice, with some attempting similar strategies to vault their universities into the upper echelons of global rankings.
Since then, the German government's so-called Excellence Initiative has injected $2.3-billion into some 40 universities. While the effort has received extensive praise, a recent report by the Social Science Research Center, in Berlin, raises key questions about the program, saying it has failed to create a more diverse higher-education sector and produced few lasting changes at universities.
Tim Flink, a research fellow at the center and an author of the report, says the Excellence Initiative did get universities to think more about their individual profiles, but largely prompted a convergence of strategies, with institutions setting up similar programs and collaborative structures. For example, the infusion of money has led to the creation of a plethora of interdisciplinary programs with a focus on young researchers.
"Everything was encouraged in the direction of research, especially basic research," to the detriment of teaching, entrepreneurship, and other activities, says Mr. Flink.
The Excellence Initiative has also seen limited success, Mr. Flink says, in its effort to encourage universities to collaborate with other research institutions, such as the Max Plank Institutes. Many partnerships credited to the government effort existed before and were simply emphasized by the universities to qualify for the competitive financing, he says.
Other German higher-education experts disagree with the report's negative assessment.
Bernd Huber, president of Ludwig Maximilian University, a Munich institution that expects to receive more than 460 million euros (about $559-million) as part of the Excellence Initiative, says the program has enhanced the visibility of his university, nationally and abroad, and helped to attract donors.
"When I become rector 10 years ago, everyone was thinking that the German university system is sluggish, with not much innovation," he says. "That has completely changed."
'Shaken by the Result'
Horst Hippler, president of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology and of Germany's national rectors' conference, echoes that sentiment. "As a whole, I think it has been a success," says Mr. Hippler. He says that some criticism in the report is premature and that, with time, the universities that received funds will begin to look less similar. He also takes issue with the charge that the Excellence Initiative hasn't forged significant new partnerships.
His institution, the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, is the result of a 2009 merger of the University of Karlsruhe and one of Germany's Helmholtz research centers. "This would never have happened without the Excellence Initiative," he says.
In addition to the debate over the government program's effect on institutions, there are questions about whether it positively influenced the work of scholars.
German professors have traditionally enjoyed a privileged position in academe and society, and are largely free to decide what research to pursue and how much to teach. Mr. Flink and his colleagues surveyed thousands of professors about what defines their daily work lives. More than 90 percent of the respondents said their focus was decided primarily by their own interests, some 40 percent cited discussions in the wider scientific community, and just 5 percent said that the university president had any role.
"I was shaken by the result," says Mr. Flink. He says it demonstrates that the Excellence Initiative, for all its emphasis on institutional strategies, has had little impact on how academics function.
With the end of the program set for five years from now, German universities are wondering what's next. Some have argued for extending the program, saying its timeline was too short to build a lasting legacy. Mr. Hippler, of the Karlsruhe Institute, says the program should end, but he wants the federal government to continue to play a role in financing higher education, which traditionally only German states have done.
"There is no question," he says, "that the federal government has to support universities in the future."