New funding package for universities and research

Ministers in Germany have agreed on a new funding package for higher education and research. A total of €25.3 billion (US$32 billion) is to be provided for universities and research institutions over the next six years.

The agreement was reached in late October by the responsible ministers of the federal government and the 16 state governments at the Gemeinsame Wissenschaftskonferenz – Joint Higher Education and Research Conference, or GWK – which convenes to discuss issues relating both to the federal and the individual state levels.

Extra funding is to be provided above all to accommodate growing numbers of students, although university and non-university public-funded research is to benefit as well.

The new measure is based on existing joint federal and state programmes: the University Pact, launched in 2007 to cope with the student surge, the Pact for Research and Innovation, introduced in 2006 to support non-university research, and the Excellence Initiative, which was started in 2006-07 to boost excellence in university research.

Expansion, student success, research

Student numbers have risen much more sharply than originally anticipated by the University Pact, and an additional 760,000 new students are expected up to 2020 – 135,000 more than reckoned with.

Overall student numbers have grown from around 2.2 million to 2.6 million in nine years, and nowadays well over half a million first-year students enrol each year, compared to below 360,000 in 2005.

The federal and state governments have pledged to provide €26,000 per additional study place, money that will be spent largely on more lecturers and tutors.

Funding will also be provided to address the problem of dropouts. In some mathematics and engineering subjects, the share of dropouts exceeds 50%.

“With the new measure, we are demonstrating that we regard this as a very serious matter,” said federal Education Minister Johanna Wanka.

Germany’s major non-university research institutions the Max Planck Society, the Leibniz Association, the Fraunhofer Society and the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres, and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft – German Research Association, the country’s chief research funding body – are earmarked for an additional 3% to 5% funding.

Finally, the Excellence Initiative is to be continued beyond its original expiry date of 2017. The initiative initially received €470 million in public funds each year, although this sum has since been raised to €530 million and this is to be maintained after 2017.

Still to be approved

Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel and the chief ministers of the federal states have yet to approve the measure, although it seems certain that they will.

Bavaria’s Minister of Higher Education Ludwig Spänle calls the package “the most important decision in this electoral period”.

“The consensus of the science ministers represents a step towards a clearer outlook for higher education,” said Horst Hippler, president of the Hochschulrektorenkonferenz, the German Rectors’ Conference.

“We're delighted that the Higher Education Pact, with the funding of extra university places and research overheads, appears to be secured.

“It’s also important that a basic consensus was reached on a successor to the Excellence Initiative. The Excellence Initiative clearly revealed the potential of university-based research, which must be successfully promoted through performance-based funding without political input on planning.”

The measure has been given a lukewarm reception by Germany’s Teachers’ and Scientists’ Union – the Gewerkschaft Erziehung und Wissenschaft or GEW – which stressed that while it was high time to renew the University Pact anyway, institutions remained underfunded.

“In order to ensure a good education for increasing numbers of students, the universities at last need reliable funding,” said Deputy GEW Chair Andreas Keller. “Every few years, institutions have to worry about whether the University Pact will be extended so that study places can continue to be funded.

“There is no long-term planning or developing. Again and again, teaching staff are taken on and given short-term contracts covering just a couple of months and offering no career prospects. As long as this is the case, higher education remains a patch-up job.”

Keller also criticised the federal and state governments for supporting the Excellence Initiative with extra money that could go into the University Pact instead.

“What we need is an across-the-board expansion of higher education and general improvements in quality standards instead of top-level research beacons,” Keller said.

“And better student-teacher ratios and good student counselling are the best means to stop students from dropping out.”

* Michael Gardner Email: