精英大學 The Best Universities

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Spurred on by the Initiative for Excellence, German universities are currently engaged in a unique academic competition, which offers funding – and prestige. Which universities have the best strategies for the future?

Competition is good for business”: German universities are currently experiencing how much truth there is in this old German adage. With the Initiative for Excellence, the Federal Government and the Länder have launched an academic competition between institutions of higher education that offers a total of 1.9 billion euros of funding in the years until 2011. The goal is to make the brightest lights of German higher education, its “beacons”, shine even more radiantly. The Initiative has sent a strong breath of fresh air through Germany's university landscape, stimulating a mood of change and a large number of new ideas. After all, many of Germany's 102 universities offer top performance.

In particular, the Initiative for Excellence does not aim to select the very best German university. Even America’s elite universities are not “top” in every subject. That is why there are three different categories of support in the Initiative for Excellence: graduate schools, excellence clusters and institutional strategies. The graduate schools are aimed at young researchers; this is where postgraduate students will find the best study conditions. Excellence clusters entail the establishment of internationally outstanding research and training networks that also involve extra-university institutes, universities of applied sciences and industry. In a third area, support for institutional strategies aimed at developing outstanding university research is to strengthen the research profiles of up to ten selected universities. The prerequisite for application is that an institution of higher education submits at least one excellence cluster, one graduate school and one institutional strategy.

Institutions that are selected in all three areas can justifiably call themselves “elite universities”. In the first round of the competition, which ended in autumn 2006, these were the two Munich universities and the University of Karlsruhe. Of the 70 higher education institutions that participated in the second round, the following have qualified to be considered for the title of “elite university”: the two universities in Berlin and those in Aachen, Bochum, Freiburg, Göttingen, Heidelberg and Konstanz. The final decision will be announced in October. The choice will be made by an eminent academic commission including international participation. It consists of representatives from the German Research Foundation (DFG), which decides on government-funded research, and the German Science Council, the most important scientific policy think tank in Germany.

Of course, the universities that were selected with “only” one excellence cluster or one graduate school still conduct outstanding research. In the current second round of the Initiative for Excellence, unlike in the first, several humanities proposals were also honoured: for example, the excellence cluster on the Formation of Normative Orders at Frankfurt University or Bremen's International Graduate School of Social Sciences. However, even if the selection process may encourage the idea that only these universities are the best, excellent research and teaching can naturally also be found at institutions that have not been distinguished in this way.

The Initiative for Excellence offers money – but that is not everything. However attractive the additional funding may be, the prestige that selection brings is equally important to the universities concerned. It significantly increases their attraction for international academic luminaries. Furthermore, it can also be put to good use in fundraising – another academic competitive discipline in which German universities are becoming increasingly active.