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University Challenged - Germany is Ready to Move Forward

University Challenged - Germany is Ready to Move Forward
 Peter-André Alt
President of the German Rectorsʼ Conference

Many Higher Education and Research (HER) systems around the world were already facing acute challenges before the outbreak of Covid-19. The pandemic has further exacerbated them. Institut Montaigne’s series University Challenged seeks to compare what is happening to universities in France and to universities in other countries: are they facing the same challenges? If so, are their answers to these challenges the same? Peter-André Alt looks at the German HER ecosystem and offers his insight into how the pandemic affected the country’s students and professors alike.

More than 15 months into the pandemic, universities around the globe are still struggling with the impact of the Covid-19 crisis. In early March 2020, on campus, in lecture halls, and in research laboratories, life as we had known it came to an end. Since then, universities in Germany have shown a remarkable degree of resilience. Amid the uncertainties of the pandemic, German universities were quick to adapt to ever-shifting circumstances. Over the course of several nationwide lockdowns, they succeeded in transferring more than 90% of their classes to a digital format. Still, the almost exclusive reliance on virtual teaching schemes cannot be the way forward. In the long run, the research-based education of almost 3 million students can only take place in a rich research environment. I have therefore repeatedly called upon the 16 state governments and the federal government in Berlin to pay attention to the specific needs of students. Our students suffer from the lack of face-to-face teaching, are deprived of contact with fellow students and teachers, and go without the lively personal exchange of ideas and arguments that is so central to a rich academic life. Now, in June 2021, Germany is making progress in Covid-19 vaccination. We urgently need to seek special support for students in the larger vaccination campaign. Only this would allow for sufficiently high vaccination rates among students, teachers, and staff to permit us to return to a rough approximation of normal procedures in the upcoming winter term. The pandemic quickly revealed that the digitalization of German higher education institutions is insufficient. If Germany wants to make good use of recent experiences with digital learning and enable a real leap in innovation in this field, we need to introduce a federal/state government program for digital infrastructures and staff. Our goal must be to secure high-quality education in uncertain times. Face-to-face teaching will stay the format of choice but needs to be supplemented by state-of-the-art digital teaching tools.

In combination with Germany’s R&D-intensive industry, universities and non-university research institutions make up one of the leading research systems in Europe.

Germany’s higher education and research (HER) system is a rather complex affair that in many aspects differs from other such systems. Resting on several pillars, the German system is highly diversified. Research universities and universities of applied sciences are one such pillar. The four major extra-university research organizations are a second pillar (Max Planck Society, Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres, Fraunhofer Association, and Leibniz Association). 

In combination with Germany’s R&D-intensive industry, universities and non-university research institutions make up one of the leading research systems in Europe. In recent years, Germany has had to remove some obstacles to come closer to tapping the full potential of its research system.

To give but one example, since 2005, Germany has committed to further facilitating collaboration within its diversified research system. Run jointly by the federal and state governments, first the Excellence Initiative and now its successor program, the Excellence Strategy, support Clusters of Excellence all over Germany. Currently, there are 57 Clusters of Excellence. A total of €385 million are made available annually for them. They bring together universities and non-university research institutions, allowing them to jointly focus on priority fields of research. In general, German universities increasingly depend on third-party research funding. This troubling development has led to a situation in which LMU Munich, TU Munich, Heidelberg University, Freie Universität Berlin, and other leading institutions rely on third-party funding for more than half of their research. With an annual budget of €3.6 billion the German Research Foundation (DFG) is the most important funding organization for blue-sky research. Competition has always been a vital part of science and research. In previous centuries, competition took place between individual researchers within the academic disciplines, now it takes place mostly between institutions. Although I welcome competition in general, there is the danger, in Germany and elsewhere, that it will run hot and that the dependence on successful applications for third-party funding will begin to exert an unhealthy influence.

The German system also differs from other HER systems in its (almost) exclusive reliance on public funding. As a general rule, universities and universities of applied sciences in Germany are state funded. And unlike their British or American counterparts, they do not rely on student tuition and fees. 15 years ago, there were some experiments with the introduction of very moderate fees in some of the 16 German states. Yet, these experiments were soon abandoned for political reasons. This does not mean that study programs in Germany do not cost anything. It simply means that the German taxpayer covers the costs. With Baden-Württemberg being the only exception to the rule, this observation also holds true for students from other EU-countries as well as for overseas students.

German universities and universities of applied sciences are international institutions. Like higher education institutions elsewhere, they rely on joint research projects with international partners and place special emphasis on the exchange of students, scholars, and staff. In addition, the concept of internationalization at home has gained prominence in recent years. This holistic approach towards internationalization puts into practice a set of values that informs the German higher education and research system. In my understanding, universities are wide-open spaces that allow for intercultural experiences and collaboration across borders, and that do not limit themselves to the narrow confines of the nation state.

This openness towards the larger world is one of the reasons why President Macron’s initiative for European university networks was met with an overwhelmingly positive response in Germany. 

This openness towards the larger world is one of the reasons why President Macron’s initiative for European university networks was met with an overwhelmingly positive response in Germany. Currently, 35 German universities participate in 41 university alliances funded by the European Union. This is certainly an impressive achievement. In these networks, German universities and their partners assume responsibility for building a better Europe. Still, international collaboration suffered a series of major backlashes in recent years. There is a rising number of violations of academic freedom, not only in far-away places but also within the European Union. And there is the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union. From a German perspective, Brexit is a most regrettable affair. The UK is Germany’s second most important partner in science and research (after the United States). All of Europe has become a less attractive international study and research destination with one of the leading nations in science and research pulling out of the EU. Last December, I was particularly disappointed to learn that the conservative government had decided to quit the Erasmus+ exchange program. This program is the very backbone of European student exchange, allowing large numbers of young people to experience Europe first-hand. It will be difficult, if not impossible, for the recently announced Alan Turing-scheme to fill the rather large gap left by Boris Johnson’s decision to turn his back on Erasmus+. German universities will work with their long-standing partner institutions in the UK to find pragmatic solutions.

Universities need to promote interdisciplinary research and teaching on climate change across the entire range of academic disciplines.

Still, it is too early to tell what these solutions will look like in detail. Brexit and its dire consequences will bestow even greater importance on academic relations in continental Europe. Here, France and Germany have always been exceptionally close partners. The université franco-allemande is but one example of the lively academic exchange between our two nations. I strongly believe that we need to further strengthen this partnership; for the benefit of our two nations, and in the interest of all of Europe.

I wish to conclude by drawing your attention to the crisis of our time. Climate change is here. Universities around the globe have the potential to avert some of the effects of human-induced global warming. Universities need to promote interdisciplinary research and teaching on climate change across the entire range of academic disciplines. In fact, we will need to integrate the fight against climate change into each and every curriculum. Universities are also engines of research and innovation and can thus make a significant contribution to understanding climate change and to mitigating its impact. And, last but not least, universities themselves must change. With a strong focus on sustainable development, they will have to become carbon-neutral and energy-efficient institutions. As a comparative study edited by Tristan McCowan and others has recently shown, a growing number of higher education institutions in Germany and other countries are paving the way towards a more sustainable and climate-friendly future. Still, it is safe to say that across the sector there is room for improvement and that we urgently need to speed up our efforts now. Here, universities in developed countries such as France and Germany have a special responsibility. The impact of global warming will not be distributed evenly across the globe. With developing countries feeling the impact first and worst, universities in developed countries must devote themselves to the fight against climate change even more than before. German universities and universities of applied sciences will commit themselves to this goal.




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