[Viewpoint]Germany puts focus on universitiesCalling it the “Excellence Initiative,” the German government initiated a plan in 2005 to restructure universities. The key point of the project is to raise research standards and nurture international-level elite universities that represent Germany by providing government financial support amounting to 1.9 billion euros, or around 2.5 trillion won, by 2011.
The German government reviewed and evaluated reform programs from about 70 universities in the last two years and announced the final results last month.
The universities and the media focused their attention on which universities will be selected for the elite university training program.
Six universities were included in the final list: Free University of Berlin, Aachen University of Technology, University of Goettingen, University of Heidelberg, University of Freiburg and University of Konstanz.
Including the University of Munich, Munich University of Technology and University of Karlsruhe, which were selected last year, a total of nine universities will receive comprehensive support from the government to transform them into elite universities through structural reform.
These universities will concentrate on strengthening research functions by promoting “excellence clusters.”
This refers to inter-disciplinary academic research, which breaks barriers between academic fields such as literature, science and engineering, as well as combined research activities among industry, university and research institutes.
In particular, they connect universities with companies.
The German government’s pursuit of reform is bringing drastic changes to Germany’s education policy.
Until now, Germany did not have different levels for universities or the notion of prestigious universities.
Education, including university education, was regarded as a public domain managed by the government; competition and market theories were excluded as much as possible.
However, Germany’s new initiative makes universities compete against each other and differentiates financial support based on academic levels; in other words, it tries to break the standardization of universities.
Germany is trying to bid farewell to the traditional idea of considering university education to be a public sector with national resources distributed equally.
The will of the government to introduce competition instead of equalization is clear.
That becomes obvious with the geographic distribution of the universities selected for the elite university grooming project.
Four of the nine universities selected, or almost half, are concentrated in the Baden-Wurttemberg state; not one is in the former East Germany.
This shows that the competitiveness of universities was the only standard of evaluation, not local distribution.
The decision of the German government to establish elite universities by selecting them fairly and providing them with concentrated support is partly due to the awareness that an equalized university system will make the country lag behind in international competition.
Germany was the first country to introduce the idea of a research university at the beginning of the 19th century. However, German universities and off-campus research centers are separated today, and are evaluated, therefore, as failing to function as the birthplace of investigative thought and creative research.
The press is especially critical about the university situation. When the German press reported that two German scholars received the Nobel Prize this year in physics and chemistry, it did not forget to mention the concerns about the universities. It said the fact that both Nobel Prize winners were produced from research centers outside universities, not within them, showed the research standard of German universities, which has become a cause of national concern.
We all need to focus on the same type of university reform being pursued by the German government. They talk of a crisis of universities, but the scholarly tradition of Germany is still internationally respected.
If such a country is worrying and shouting about a lack of international competitiveness, it means that Korea has an even bigger problem. To make matters worse, in some parts of Korean society there are people who strongly support the idea of destroying the order of our universities. That contrasts the German way, which seeks to do away with equalization.
The German education policy that stressed the public nature of education until now is probably the ideal that everyone who supports equalization aspires toward.
However, Germany is now trying to change. Some may not think it appropriate, but their awareness of the global reality makes the choice inevitable.
At the core of the Excellence Initiative is the belief that there is no future without excellent elite education. If some people still think of education as a way to realize the political or ideological values of equality, I would like to ask them to look at the changes taking place in Germany.
*The writer is a professor of Western history at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Ahn Byung-jik