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What makes the Excellence Initiative special?

In many ways the Excellence Initiative’s three funding lines were uncharted waters in German university funding. There were, of course, the long-established DFG programmes to promote research excellence, maximise the potential of research locations through collaboration with other research institutions, improve the research conditions of early- stage researchers, and promote strategic priority setting at universities. In particular, the DFG has administered the Collaborative Research Centre (CRC) programme since the late 1960s. Since the 1990s, a dedicated funding scheme called Research Training Groups (RTG) has sought to raise the quality of doctoral training and improve conditions for early-stage researchers at German universities. However, in comparison with the Excellence Initiative the scale and scope of these programmes were limited in terms of their ambition, visibility, reputation and funding. They focus more narrowly on clusters of high-quality research projects. Their structural dimension is less prominent than in the Excellence Initiative, and their structural impacts are more or less assumed to come from the spillovers of high-quality research projects.

In contrast, the funding lines of the Excellence Initiative directly address organisational and structural aims and objectives. In the CRC and RTG programme research excellence is the main criterion for funding. The Excellence Initiative asks for much more: a proposal should have ambitious overall objectives, particularly innovative approaches to research and training, and a convincing strategic vision for the long-term institutional development of the university. This is most obvious in the design of the institutional strategies funding line which had no direct precedence in Germany’s research funding. The WR had however much experience with institutional evaluations of federally funded research institutions and research infrastructure.

One could argue that all three funding lines of the Excellence Initiative pursue the same set of objectives with quite similar activities and measures but different starting points. These activities and measures coalesce either around doctoral training, strategic research priorities or the university as a whole. Graduate schools do need to pursue ambitious research objectives in terms of scientific networking, interdisciplinarity and international visibility. Clusters of excellence include a structured doctoral training module. The institutional strategies address organisational development in general and may include specific measures for innovative doctoral training, cutting-edge academic research through new organisational structures, more flexible recruitment and payment schemes, more effective administrative structures and support services for researchers, especially for early-stage and female researchers, and research infrastructure investments.

The Excellence Initiative provides funding as a temporary stimulus to trigger and facilitate institutional change at the universities. The universities’ activities and measures should lead to permanent improvements in the quality and organisation of top-level research and the academic training of early-stage researchers. Therefore, already in the proposal phase, the universities had to describe how they planned to sustain the proposed activities beyond the funding phase.

The overall high level of mobilisation and the total number of successful universities might obscure the fact that conditions at universities varied widely. Universities with internal cultures that were already well aligned with the basic principles of the Excellence Initiative, such as research excellence through meritocratic incentives, interdisciplinarity and a focus on early-stage researchers, seem to have found it easier to apply than more traditionally organised universities. This is particularly true for the institutional strategy line of funding. Some universities with performance indicators such as international university rankings and the German research grants statistics collected by the DFG ranked quite high among the leading German universities, but failed with their institutional strategy proposals because - as a university president put it in the interview - they assumed that more of the same in terms of excellent research would be enough to succeed. They had not understood that the point of the Excellence Initiative is to rethink the notion of a university. In this respect university culture - and openness to change with regard to university culture - mattered a lot as a factor of success in the Excellence Initiative.

Some universities had started long before the Excellence Initiative to implement measures similar to those at the core of excellence establishments. Excellence Initiative funding enabled these universities to be even bolder in pursuing their strategies as they had more money to finance their activities. At other universities, the Excellence Initiative was instrumental in initiating change. The Excellence Initiative broke down barriers between departments and the university management. It challenged stakeholders’ views on “how things should be run around here”. The process of change usually started in the application phase as the researchers that took the initiative, the representatives of participating departments and the university management had to communicate and work together closely in order to come up with convincing proposals.

It is also worth mentioning that some of the universities that initially failed to obtain institutional strategy funding decided to implement some of their proposed activities without the extra funding. According to the president of one of these universities, there was an understanding that the pursuit of institutional excellence should not depend on Excellence Initiative funding or require the external label of an elite university. In this sense there seems to be a substantial level of additionality triggered by the Excellence Initiative at universities that did not receive funding for some of their planned activities.

Interviews were conducted with some representatives of excellence establishments that received funding in the first phase of the Excellence Initiative but were not selected for funding with their renewal application. Besides the fully understandable disappointment expressed in these interviews, it was surprising to hear the constructive and forward-looking responses of the representatives and their universities to a certainly unpleasant, and financially and socially challenging, funding decision. Basically all these interviewees indicated that they and their universities aim to carry on and build upon what has been established and achieved over the funding phase. There was virtually no talk of closing down. There was even an indication that in some cases the negative funding decision has sent a wake-up call to address shortcomings that had not been sufficiently dealt with in the past.

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