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German government pledges spending increases for universities

Germany’s new government has promised big spending increases for universities and research, describing higher education as “the backbone of the German scientific landscape.”

The “traffic light” coalition‚ made up of the “red” Social Democrats, the “yellow” Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the Greens—published a political program that promised to increase funding for universities by 3 percent each year from 2022 through a “pact,” akin to a similar settlement for research and innovation.

The 177-page agreement also pledges to increase government spending on research and development to 3.5 percent of gross domestic product by 2025, and create a “digital university” program covering teaching, qualifications, infrastructure and cybersecurity.

The Excellence Strategy, a federal and state government funding program, will expand with a focus on interdisciplinarity, while the German Research Foundation will get its program budget ramped up until 2030.

“The agreement has a lot of great potential to advance the German science system, to advance German universities and Germany. There’s a lot of appreciation of science in it; there’s a lot of very interesting, very forward-looking measures,” said Jan Wöpking, managing director of the German U15 group of research universities.

“In general, it’s really good news that the system of higher education is mentioned that often and that it is the focus, and not the nonuniversities sector, which has benefited in the last years massively,” said Peter-Andre Alt, president of the German Rectors’ Conference, who highlighted that the introduction of an annual grant uplift for higher education institutions extends to them a privilege that nonuniversity research institutes had enjoyed since 2006.

The political agreement, the result of more than a month of talks between the three parties, also promises reforms to the “capacity” law, which in effect prescribes student-to-staff ratios, as well as changes to make student financing more flexible. “If there were reforms to come, the importance for higher education institutions cannot be overemphasized,” said Wöpking, referring to the two areas.

Frank Ziegele, executive director of the Center for Higher Education, a German think tank, noted that the document’s sections on higher education and research were “very specific and detailed,” showing that the authors “know something about higher education, and they know where the pressing issues are.”

However, while the agreement names much, it is light on figures. Wöpking and Alt suggested that a new German agency for knowledge transfer and innovation would get 1 billion euros ($1.13 billion) a year from mostly existing sources, for example, but nothing is on paper.

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“If you add up all these promises, even in the part of higher education and research, it’s not a cheap thing,” Ziegele said. “They could be financed, but this is a matter of priorities. I have some hope that there is a priority, because especially the Free Democratic Party and the Green Party both have been very, very strong proponents of many of these proposals.”

Bettina Stark-Watzinger, the former manager of a research institute at the Goethe University Frankfurt and a member of the FDP, has been named education minister. “She knows universities; she knows nonuniversity research. She’s not new to the system,” said Wöpking, adding that it was a good sign that the FDP leader, Christian Lindner, will lead the Finance Ministry. “It might be helpful that she’s from the same party.”

Ziegele added, “If they do all the stuff that they promised, I think in four years’ time we will have taken many, many steps into the right direction.”

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