The German “Ivy League”

by Adele Rossouw:

In Germany, as in the United States, the Ivy League is associated with academic excellence. So strong is this association, in fact, that it inspired the state-funded creation of the German equivalent: the so-called “Exzellenzuniversitäten” – universities of excellence. When I arrived in the country, I expected these institutions to be regarded with considerable reverence. Great was my surprise, then, when many of my fellow students did not know which universities belonged to the category, and which not. As I soon found out, however, this indifference was not to be wondered at – German undergraduates had nothing to gain from the creation of a national “Ivy League”.

"German undergraduates have little to gain from the "Exzellenz" initiative." (Rossouw/TYG)

The “Exzellenz” initiative is an attempt at reinvigorating a tertiary education system that is long past its prime. Although the source of the modern research university, Germany’s educational institutions have long since lost their dominating presence on the world stage. In the latest QS World University Rankings, for example, not a single German university appeared in the top 50. The “Exzellenz” initiative, implemented in 2005, is supposed to lay the foundations for better performance in the future. Through the program, € 1.9 billion is to be granted to select institutions by 2011, with recipients determined by the quality of scholarship they produce. The overall goal of the program is to support academic research of international standards.

With the above-stated goal in mind, the supreme irony of the “Exzellenz” initiative is its detrimental effect on the foundation of scholarship: sound undergraduate education. Even before the initiative was implemented, universities were understaffed because of lacking funding. This strained teaching standards, because staff members were often overwhelmed with administrative tasks. In spite of this problem, the initiative includes no financial incentives whatsoever to improve teaching. In fact, with many universities lacking funding, and with financial reward tied purely to research, the initiative can be viewed as an incentive to allocate even less time to teaching. It is hard to see how undergraduate education won’t suffer because of it.

The German federal and state governments’ goal of improving the standing of their universities is a noble one. However, one must question the efficiency of the “Exzellenz” initiative as a way to achieve this objective. Through its harmful effects on undergraduate education, it surely is counterproductive.