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Summary and conclusions

Since 2006, the Excellence Initiative has supported research groups at German universities and their partners at non-university research institutions that had very high research standards even before the start of the funding period. The funding has mainly aimed to facilitate additional structural and organisational change in order to make German universities more productive, effective and attractive for academic talent. These structural measures have focused on the reorganisation of departments, investments in new research infrastructure, the recruitment of leading professors and generally the creation of a stimulating framework for early-stage researchers, including gender mainstreaming and dual career offers.

The underlying research programmes of the graduate schools and clusters of excellence support high-risk and innovative research that crosses traditional scientific disciplines. Some universities have introduced new formats for carrying out research and providing strong researchers with the time and academic freedom to concentrate fully on their scientific programme. In this sense the Excellence Initiative funds university strategies rather than high-quality research projects. This is most visible in the funding line institutional strategies that connect graduate schools and clusters of excellence in an overall long-term university strategy.

The interviews with the representatives of the universities and the funded graduate schools and clusters of excellence suggest that the Excellence Initiative has done considerably more than foster excellent research at German universities. Although originally meant as a programme to distinguish the outstanding few, the Excellence Initiative has contributed to the on-going transformation of the German university sector as a whole. It has channelled various internal and external pressures on universities: international competition, pressure to focus on research priorities and create a more visible institutional identity, increased organisational autonomy in combination with new and challenging financing and governance models. It has also provided an additional stimulus for organisational and structural change at universities. In particular, it has supported the modernisation of research management and the organisation of research and doctoral training.

The interviews provide clear evidence that the Excellence Initiative has strengthened communication and co-operation between departments and university management. It has increased trans-departmental collaboration within the universities, considerably strengthened the links with non-university research institutions and contributed to improving the visibility of German academic research internationally.

The mobilisation of the German university sector that was triggered by the Excellence Initiative seems to go well beyond the funded graduate schools, clusters of excellence and institutional strategies. The Excellence Initiative set in motion a broad, public debate about research at universities. Priority setting and specialisation became a more pressing issue for the universities and the states that finance them. The response of the German universities to the calls for proposals indicates that the universities have accepted competition as a tool to achieve priority setting and specialisation. The Excellence Initiative has encouraged universities to understand themselves as institutions with specific identities rather than as administrative shells for departments and research groups. The interviews have also revealed that universities have implemented these activities even when they failed to secure funding from the Excellence Initiative.

In spite of the positive impacts of the Excellence Initiative, some university representatives and researchers have questioned its rationale and the long-term effects on the German university sector. Competition and structural change at the universities inevitably means that some may be disadvantaged or lose out. The results of a recent empirical study on research conditions of professors at German universities seem to confirm this (Bohmer et al., 2011). Some academic researchers reported that the Excellence Initiative has caused considerable friction and conflict within the universities (Ash et al., 2010). Some also argue that the Excellence Initiative reduces variety within the German university landscape and does not help universities to develop distinct research profiles (Flink et al., 2012).

Overall, the Excellence Initiative has had many, if not solely, positive results. The broad mobilisation of the German university sector and changes in attitudes and views may have been the most beneficial effects of the Excellence Initiative.

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