Controversy over higher education links with industry

A warning by German anti-corruption organisation Transparency International that links between higher education and business are becoming increasingly obscure has sparked an open debate.

“We are observing corporate interests increasingly dominating teaching and research to a large extent,” said Edda Müller, director of Transparency International Germany, at the launch of a revamped portal in Berlin.

The portal monitors links between universities and industry and was developed by Transparency International, the Berlin daily Tageszeitung and the Freier Zusammenschluss von StudentInnenschaften student union.

Müller called for clear, straightforward rules to govern how universities entered into research contracts, especially in the fields of medicine and engineering, and for the disclosure of third party funded projects.

“We need regular reports on sponsoring. What is being funded in what way at our institutions?” she said. has already documented more than 10,000 collaborations between German industry and higher education institutions, the focus being on sponsoring contracts, university chairs funded by endowments, support for institutes and research contracts. A total of 1,000 professorships are now funded by private companies or foundations.

Germany’s teachers’ and scientists’ union, the Gewerkschaft Erziehung und Wissenschaft, or GEW, also warned of corporate interests gaining too much influence.

“Both the federal states and higher education institutions themselves have to limit the commercialisation of research and teaching,” said GEW vice-chairman Andreas Keller.

Keller said there was nothing wrong with private sponsorship but that problems arose when co-operation only benefited the private partners. He maintained that co-operation contracts had to be made publicly accessible and discussed in committees.

“It is perfectly in order to take a critical look at institutions,” said Horst Hippler, president of the Hochschulrektorenkonferenz, representing the heads of higher education institutions. However, he cautioned: “But if the funding efforts of business enterprises are placed under blanket suspicion, this amounts to scandalising co-operation that makes sense and benefits companies, higher education research, students and the economy as a whole.”

Hippler denied that third party funding represented any threat to academic freedom.

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