Times Higher Education Supplement, 20.1.2006

'Elite 5' is a fix, critics claim

Malte Herwig , Berlin

Members of the panel who will decide which German universities will be named the country's five "elite" institutions have rejected suggestions that political manoeuvres have skewed the process.

A milestone will be passed today when a panel of 26 academics, education ministers from the 16 lander (states), and federal education secretary Annette Schavan, will select about a quarter of the 292 institutions applying to participate in an "excellence initiative". Those chosen will then submit a full proposal.

In October, 40 graduate schools and 30 "excellence clusters" intended to promote world-class research will be chosen. To qualify as one of five "elite" campuses, with the best strategy for top-level research, universities must have at least one excellence cluster and one graduate school.

Successful institutions will net an additional E14.4 million a year (£21 million) in federal funding. But vice-chancellors believe elite status will also put their universities at an advantage during the reorganisation of the higher-education landscape.

State governments are equally keen to lay claim to an elite university, and the political stakes are high. Daniel J. Guhr, director of educational consultants Illuminate Consulting GrouBernard Meunierp, caused consternation when he said in a television interview that the success of certain institutions was a "foregone conclusion".

Dr Guhr, who advised Berlin's Humboldt University on its bid, claimed that universities such as Darmstadt, Heidelberg, Bonn, Munich and Humboldt would win for political reasons.

"Higher education in Germany will become much more a matter of regional politics," he said.

The joint commission that decides the final round of the excellence initiative is made up of members of the German Science Council and the German Research Foundation (DFG).

Rebutting the view that politics will play a part in the process, Karl Max Einhaupl, chairman of the German Science Council, said: "There is no political influence at any stage."

Eva-Maria Streier of the DFG agreed: "Our criteria are academic quality and feasibility. Academics on the selection panel are in the majority so you won't get a political decision."

In a joint statement, Professor Einhaupl and DFG president Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker emphasise that it was not political pressure that guided the process, but strategic thinking, "something of which not only politicians are capable of, as we have learned on several occasions over the past few years".

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