Deutsch, Students, Universities

Germany: Universities of Excellence – excellent universities?

The German university system has never had an equivalent to Oxbridge, Russell Group or the Ivy League. This is partially down to the way students are admitted – there are no (or very low) tuition fees and by law each university is obliged to offer all students with a German “Abitur” (A-level/IB equivalent) a place for Higher Education. Only if a certain course has more applicants than places can the university choose – and even then the choice must purely be based on A-level results.

Therefore, German universities are pretty egalitarian and cannot chose their undergraduate students and build a profile in the same way universities in other countries do, and students tend to choose their universities mainly based on location.
In more recent years, universities have been given more freedom to choose their postgraduate and PhD students, based on criteria they themselves can set, but since that is a recently new development it has not yet resulted in the same kind of profile building as UK and US universities have perfected.

Much high-ranking German research happens outside the universities: research societies like the Max-Planck Society, the Leibnitz Association, the Fraunhofer Society or the Helmoltz Association run over 200 non-university research centres and are empowered to award PhDs and PostDoc qualifications.

It may be asked, surely there must be a difference in quality between German universities?

The DFG (“Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft”, German Research Foundation) is the main funding body for research at German universities and has been responsible for funding of research in all disciplines since 1937. Over the last 15 years, the DFG has recognised that in order to participate in the international exchange of research and in international university rankings, a certain “elite”  status was necessary for some universities. Therefore in 2004  the DFG started the prestigious “Universities Excellence Initiative”, which initially supported certain “clusters of excellence” at a variety of universities. Effectively, selected interdisciplinary research projects and graduate schools were being awarded special funds for developing outstanding research.

This initiative evolved and was developed further over the years, and in 2019 was re-named the “Excellence Strategy”.  It nominated a selected number of universities as “Universities of Excellence” – awarding these institutions up to €15m annualy for research over a period of 7 years.  When this period time has elapsed,  each university is re-evaluated. On 19 July 2019 the DFG announced the 11 winning universities (list see below) that have been awarded this status.

The universities had to apply for selection and were evaluated by an international commission. The initiative focuses exclusively on research output. Whether or not teaching at these universities is “excellent” remains undecided; the German Council of Science and Humanities (Wissenschaftsrat) and the German Rectors’ Conference (Hochschulrektorenkonferenz) have both made it very clear they have no plans to establish an equivalent to the TEF.

The German “Universities of Excellence” are:

  • RWTH Aachen (Rheinisch Westfälisch Technische Hochschule)
  • “Berlin University Alliance” (including FU Berlin, Humboldt University Berlin, TU Berlin and Charité)
  • University of Bonn (Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität)
  • Technical University of Dresden
  • University of Hamburg
  • Heidelberg University (Ruprechts-Karls-Universität)
  • KIT – Karlsruhe Institute of Technology
  • University of Konstanz
  • LMU – Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich
  • Technical University of Munich
  • University of Tübingen (Eberhard-Karls-Universität).

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