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The German Excellence Initiative

Anton Geyer, Technopolis Group Austria Conducted on behalf of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research1

This chapter discusses the German Excellence Initiative (EI) and its three lines of funding. It considers the universities’ approaches to and views on the initiative, the main features of the funding, governance structures, recruitment strategies, collaboration with other universities and with non-university research institutions, co-operation between departments and scientific disciplines, the international visibility of German research, and doctoral training. The EI has had a positive impact on a variety of measures and this has prompted federal and state governments to agree on a second five-year funding phase. More generally, the EI has triggered broad public debate about university research, priority setting and specialisation.

Background and framework conditions

In January 2004 the then federal minister of education and research, Edelgard Bulmahn, called for an initiative to identify Germany’s top universities with a view to increasing their competitive funding. The objective was to give universities stronger incentives to pursue excellence in research and doctoral training and thus become internationally more visible and more attractive to top academic researchers and students alike.

According to the German constitution, the states are responsible for universities and their financing. The German constitution allows the federal government to fund project- based science and research at universities but not to make general or permanent financial contributions. After almost 18 months of negotiations during which the original concept of the initiative was considerably expanded, the federal government and the states finally signed an agreement on the Excellence Initiative (EI) in June 2005. The total budget was EUR 1.9 billion over a five-year period, of which 75% from the federal budget and 25% from the states. The overall third-party funding of research and development (R&D) at German universities over 2006-10 was about EUR 24 billion (Federal Statistical Office, 2012). With a share of almost 8% of total third-party funding, the Excellence Initiative provided a significant additional funding for the German university sector at a time when governments generally faced increasing pressure to curtail their budgets. The representatives of the leading German science and research institutions welcomed the initiative as a critical and timely way to tackle chronic underinvestment in universities and their perceived diminishing relevance as locations of top quality research (Winnacker, 2005).

The Excellence Initiative has three lines of funding. First, it funds graduate schools. Graduate schools provide high-quality doctoral training and stimulating research environments. They attract the brightest doctoral candidates in Germany and from abroad and provide the best support and supervision. They also encourage early-stage scientists to achieve autonomy and independence in their research.

The second programme line funds clusters of excellence. These are internationally visible and competitive priority research areas at universities and their non-university partner institutions. Based on clearly defined visions and goals, they carry out top-level academic research that contributes to the university’s strategic research priorities, strengthens scientific networking and co-operation among the participating institutions, and provides an attractive training and research environment, especially for early-stage researchers.

Universities with at least one graduate school and one cluster of excellence may receive additional funding under institutional strategies, the third funding line, which supports specific university-level activities that strengthen international excellence in research and training. The funding helps universities to establish and maintain themselves among the leading world research institutions in their priority research areas.

This last funding line comes closest to the original idea of the programme to identify the top German universities, as set out by the federal minister in 2004. The Excellence Initiative is supposed to finance the institutional strategies of only a small number of universities. As this funding line is highly selective it carries the most prestige. It is widely regarded as the official seal of an elite German university.

Only universities that have the right to confer doctorates are eligible for the Excellence Initiative. All applications have to be supported and submitted by the universities’ management to ensure that the proposals are in line with the universities’ overall strategic priorities. The general criteria for funding are:

  • • excellence in research and training of early-stage researchers in at least one broad branch of science
  • • a comprehensive concept of the integration of disciplines and international research collaborations
  • • co-operation with other universities or with non-university research institutions, as a rule documented by binding co-operation agreements.

These general criteria are specified in more detail for each of the three funding lines (DFG and WR, 2010).

The mobilisation of universities by the first call for proposals in late 2005 exceeded all but the most ambitious expectations. The German Research Foundation (DFG), which runs the Excellence Initiative in collaboration with the German Council of Science and Humanities (WR), received a total of 319 draft proposals from 74 universities. A total of 108 German universities were eligible to participate, of which 84 run by the states. Not all of these universities had sufficient research capacity to participate in the Excellence Initiative. In the 2002-04 period only 77 universities received DFG funding for research projects of at least EUR 500 000 (DFG, 2006); this roughly indicates the number of German universities with the minimum top-level R&D capacity needed to take part in the competition.

International panels of experts evaluated the draft proposals. Based on the results, the Joint Committee of DFG and WR asked 90 draft applicants to submit full proposals. After a second round of international peer review, the Joint Commission, together with representatives of the federal government and the states (the Grants Committee), selected 38 proposals at 22 universities for funding.

The second call for proposals in late 2006 triggered almost the same level of mobilisation. Applicants submitted 305 draft proposals; after the two-stage evaluation and selection procedure, 47 proposals from 28 universities received funding. In total the Excellence Initiative provided in its first phase funding for 39 graduate schools, 37 clusters of excellence, and 9 institutional strategies (jointly referred to as excellence establishments in this case study).

The average funding was about EUR 1 million a year for graduate schools and about EUR 6.5 million for clusters of excellence. In addition to project-specific costs the universities could claim top-up funding of 20% of direct costs for indirect expenses. Universities with successful institutional strategy applications received up to EUR 13.5 million a year from Excellence Initiative funds.

The Excellence Initiative does not require any formal cost sharing or matching funds from the universities for the proposed activities. However, the universities and the states had in fact to make very substantial commitments to support their applications. The universities aligned spending priorities and allocation of resources with their areas of excellence. The states had to pledge additional long-term funding earmarked for excellence establishments at their universities as the applicants had to prove the financial sustainability of their activities beyond the funding period of the excellence initiative.

In 2008 the DFG and the WR drafted a first report on the implementation of the Excellence Initiative that demonstrated strong positive effects in line with the programme’s objectives (DFG and WR, 2008).

The success of the first phase of the Excellence Initiative, combined with a wish to keep the momentum of structural change stimulated by the programme alive, prompted the federal and state governments to agree on a second five-year funding phase. Taking into account the lessons of the first phase, the DFG and WR increased the flexibility of some rules for participation and funding and issued a call for proposals in March 2010. The call had a total budget of EUR 2.7 billion and was open both to new applicants and to applicants that had received funding in the first phase of the programme. After the two- stage evaluation and selection procedure, the Grants Committee selected 45 graduate schools, 43 clusters of excellence and 11 institutional strategies for funding. In total 44 universities receive financial support in the second phase of the Excellence Initiative in the 2012-17 period.

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