New funding may see spinoffs for African universities

African universities stand to benefit – through partnerships – from the German Research Foundation’s new annual €533 million (US$626 million) seven-year Excellence Strategy that seeks to stimulate competition among universities in Germany, according to a foundation spokesperson.

“African universities cannot take advantage of or benefit from the Excellence Strategy in a direct way because the competition is limited to German universities,” German Research Foundation or DFG spokesperson Marco Finetti told University World News.

"However, German universities can apply for projects or initiatives relating to their African studies – as was successfully done by the University of Bayreuth under the Excellence Initiative – the precursor to the foundation’s Excellence Strategy which started in 2005.”

According to Finetti, the Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies has been funded since November 2007 and focuses on cooperating with young researchers and universities in Benin, Ethiopia, Kenya, Morocco, Mozambique and South Africa.

Broadly, the Excellence Strategy is mirrored by a range of programmes aimed at installing centres or clusters of excellence in Africa, said Finetti.

Natural partners in Africa

“These African networks of excellence are natural partners for scientific co-operation with German researchers, particularly those successful in the Excellence Initiative and upcoming Excellence Strategy,” he said.

The Excellence Strategy aims to strengthen top-level research at German universities and further improve Germany’s position as an internationally visible and competitive place for research.

It is set up as a competition in two funding areas. The Clusters of Excellence is for project-based funding in internationally competitive fields of research at universities or university consortia. The second, Universities of Excellence, aims to strengthen universities as individual institutions or as university consortia, while further developing their leading international role on the basis of Clusters of Excellence.

While the DFG will develop and implement the Clusters of Excellence fund, the Wissenschaftsrat or German Council of Science and Humanities is responsible for developing and implementing the Universities of Excellence fund.

Finetti said both Excellence initiatives differ from previous approaches to funding in the sense that they move away from a traditional conception of all universities as equal.

Funding inequality

Both the Excellence Initiative and its successor, the Excellence Strategy, were informed by German politics – in federal government and 16 state governments – and science, he said.

“According to both sides, there had to be a targeted impulse to strengthen top-level research at German universities. Such an impulse clearly included a departure from a long-cherished conception in Germany’s science and research politics: that all universities are equal and should be treated equally. Instead of that conception, the Excellence Initiative – and actually the Excellence Strategy as well – take a path of funding inequality and elites in a positive sense.”

The Excellence Strategy is based on an administrative agreement by the federal and state governments to jointly finance the Excellence Strategy from June 2016, as they had done previously with the Excellence Initiative.

According to Finetti, €385 million of the total annual €533 million budget for the Excellence Strategy will go towards Clusters of Excellence, beginning in 2018, and these will be funded for seven years. The Universities of Excellence will receive €148 million from 2019. It has been agreed that 75% of the budget is to be borne by the federal government and 25% by the relevant state of the successful initiatives.

“A second seven-year funding period may be granted upon successful proposal submission and review,” he said, adding that the administrative agreement envisages the funding of 45-50 clusters.

Regarding the Universities of Excellence, he said the administrative agreement foresees funding for up to 11 universities in the first round of the competition, starting in 2018, and up to 15 universities in a round that will start in 2025-26.

On 29 September, an international committee of experts for the Excellence Strategy, which was appointed by the Joint Science Conference, selected 88 Clusters of Excellence projects on the basis of research quality to proceed to the full proposal stage. A total of 195 draft proposals were submitted by 63 universities.

Applicants who were successful in the draft proposal stage are now invited to submit full proposals to the DFG by February 2018. The final funding decision for Clusters of Excellence will be made on 27 September 2018 by the Excellence Commission. Funding for the new Clusters of Excellence will begin on 1 January 2019.

Universities must have attained funding for at least two clusters to compete for the Universities of Excellence funding and proposals must be submitted by December 2018.