A German lesson?

In the discussion on a recent post here there was a brief exchange on German universities. In this I suggested that German universities under-perform in international terms. Indeed if you look at the world rankings issued by the journal Times Higher Education, German universities are not prominent. In fact, Germany’s number 1 institution is Heidelberg University, which comes in at number 57 (actually Ireland’s top university is ranked higher, though I forget which one that is). And the only other German university in the top 100 is the Technical University of Munich at number 78.

There are a number of interesting questions one could ask about this. Why does a country that has the world’s fourth largest economy not score more highly in higher education? Why is the country that arguably produced the model for modern higher education in the Humboldt framework not a torchbearer for excellence? What is it that they are doing wrong, and what do they need to do to correct it? 

I also wonder whether this casts some doubt on one German institutional structure which is sometimes thought to have been a progressive and imaginative initiative – the Wissenschaftsrat (translated on its own web page as the rather clunky ‘German Council of Science and Humanities’). This body is supposed to review and monitor higher education policy and propose improvements and reform. It has a ‘Scientific Committee’ and an ‘Administrative Committee’ – the former looks at broad educational and research issues, but the latter proposes actual measures; and this latter committee is composed not of academics but officials.

Perhaps the lesson is this – or at any rate this is what I am wondering, subject to correction: that Germany has not hit upon the idea of university autonomy, but rather has a centralised system of public and political control (though admittedly devolved to state governments, or Länder). And maybe this underscores again that global excellence cannot be achieved on that model. The chairman of the Wissenschaftsrat recently suggested in an interview that individual universities should find their own niche and specialisms so as to excel; but if that is the answer, it is only achievable by allowing each institution to develop its own special strategy on an autonomous basis, subject obviously to proper accountability.

But as we struggle in Ireland with questions about the appropriate level of monitoring and control, the German lesson may be a valuable one. We have an opportunity to continue to develop our higher education system so that it may punch above its weight internationally and attract both knowledge and investment to Ireland. We should not put that at risk; the German model does not work.

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9 Comments on “A German lesson?”

  1. Donal_C Says:

    I tend to agree that the German model does not work. However, is the Irish equivalent necessarily better? In the Shanghai Jiao Tong University Academic Ranking of World Universities, 16 German universities are ranked above the best Irish performer. This doesn’t look so great for Ireland, especially as institutions in English-speaking countries have an advantage because ease with the English language facilitates publications in international journals.

    Moreover, gradually, things are changing in Germany. Some recent developments point to greater autonomy. For example, one graduate school has been spun off as a non-profit company (gemeinnützige GmbH), held 25% by its university and 75% by a foundation of professors. This enables the school to offer higher salaries than universities. The school is reasonably well ranked internationally for research in its field.

    There’s also a move towards concentration of funds to selected institutions. In the past, the different German universities were treated by the federal and state governments as equals. With the recent “excellence initiative” and the distinction of three universities as “elite universities,” this is no longer the case.


    • Donal, I think there is now a fairly widespread consensus that the Shanghai Jiao Tong rankings are suspect, as they are almost entirely science-centred and Nobel/Field Prize-based. But even in that league table the top German university comes at number 55, so it doesn’t materially affect my argument.

      • Donal_C Says:

        True, the Shanghai Jiao Tong rankings are biased towards the natural sciences, but the THES rankings rely excessively on peer impression and reputation. Moreover, the two rankings do give very different impressions of German universities. Though the SJT rankings show few German universities to be among the international elite, quite a few are placed reasonably well within Europe, and many are ranked substantially higher than their Irish peers.
        More interestingly, check the THES country-level rankings (http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/hybrid.asp?typeCode=429&pubCode=1), which are calculated based on variables such as university access as well as outputs. Germany is in fourth place world wide, and highest outside the English-speaking world. Frankly, I don’t buy this myself, but we do get a different picture if we look beyond the flagship institutions of each country.

  2. Vincent Says:

    These are the Times of London world ranked universities. And as such spits out the same bias as that Lit guy on the Nobel judging panel who said that there was little American literature. Worse really because basically the Times is stating that if it is not in English and protestant it does not exist.
    What gobshite would rank Bristol higher than Leuven or U Queensland higher than U Wisconson at Madison.
    This list was a wet dream of some wishful thinking Australian who attended Canberra and thence to the banks of the Cam so it could slosh around in that particular polishing drum.


    • I’m afraid that’s not correct, Vincent. This is not the Times of London, but rather Times Higher Education, which is now unrelated and under different ownership. The actual data is collected and evaluated by Quacquarelli Symonds Limited, based in London and Singapore.

  3. Vincent Says:

    Back in the days of the Cold War it was relatively easy to decide where one stood on certain issues. One was either for or against a position. There tended to be very little grey.
    However, this situation presented the Universities with god given access to the exchequer in countries both east and west. But with the US buying the win it has been left with the headache of what the hell to do with the win.
    Mostly what it has done and by extension everyone else in the western alliance is to continue with the status quo as if they were still at war. Spending because they have to spend as if on a war footing.
    Germany, and us for that matter, did not need and were actively denied. Ireland by what can only be described as a truly amasing diversion of resources to training clergymen, which effectively defined the State and its finance on a war footing as good if not better than anything the Elector of Brandenburg could dream, and Germany by active restrictions on what it could spend on anything even vaguely military connected.
    Anyhow, this shit or get off the pot stance taken by most Universities, denies in the most absolute way the dreamer who developsover time. Who Knows, but I would be prepared to bet that the study done in Germany will have more resonance in 30/40 years time. There is after all real form for my wager.

  4. Aoife Citizen Says:

    German Universities are terrible; it’s amazing! The MPIs are a bit better, but in general it’s a mess. Of course, we need to argue that this has an economic consequence: these dreary economists with their little blogs could argue that the lack of autonomy in the German third level education makes for bad universities but good engines of economic progress. I don’t believe this: I believe the strength of the German economy is based on mid-level engineering and manufacturing, a gift from the past; but I couldn’t prove it.

    Anyway, as for autonomy; I don’t know why we have a national university and then threaten the autonomy of the whole sector: why do all universities need the same status?

    Oh and while I share your uncertainty as to which Irish University beats Heidelberg last year, I do suspect it is the one with the most independent spirit.


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