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.