Cap­i­tal col­lab­o­ra­tion

Ber­lin uni­ver­si­ties draw up city-level re­search strat­egy

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - David.matthews@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­

Ber­lin’s uni­ver­si­ties say they are mov­ing to­wards a city- wide re­search strat­egy af­ter tak­ing the un­prece­dented step of jointly ap­ply­ing for fund­ing from Ger­many’s multi­bil­lion-euro ex­cel­lence ini­tia­tive.

Although the strat­egy has en­cour­aged Ger­man uni­ver­si­ties to com­pete for pres­tige and money, in this lat­est round, four of Ber­lin’s largest in­sti­tu­tions are ap­ply­ing to­gether to be crowned “uni­ver­si­ties of ex­cel­lence”.

The Hum­boldt, Free and Tech­ni­cal uni­ver­si­ties of Ber­lin, along with Char­ité – Univer­sitätsmedi­zin Ber­lin, which to­gether teach more than 100,000 stu­dents, have since 2016 an­nounced plans to open joint build­ings to­gether, co­op­er­ated to cre­ate a new in­ter­net re­search in­sti­tute, struck a joint re­search part­ner­ship with the Uni­ver­sity of Ox­ford, and now run six joint cour­ses, largely mas­ter’s pro­grammes.

They call their part­ner­ship the Ber­lin Uni­ver­sity Al­liance, un­der the motto: “as much in­ter­nal com­pe­ti­tion as nec­es­sary, as much co­op­er­a­tion as pos­si­ble”.

On 27 Septem­ber, the win­ners of fund­ing for new “ex­cel­lence clus­ters” – part of the next phase of the strat­egy and backed by € 385 mil­lion (£ 343 mil­lion) a year – were an­nounced, and Ber­lin in­sti­tu­tions picked up seven of the 57 grants on of­fer, al­low­ing them to ap­ply to­gether for “ex­cel­lent uni­ver­sity” sta­tus next year.

Peter Fren­sch, vice-pres­i­dent for re­search at the Hum­boldt Uni­ver­sity, said that although the in­sti­tu­tions had been col­lab­o­rat­ing for years, un­til now they had lacked a “joint re­search strat­egy at the Ber­lin level”.

Other cap­i­tals, like Paris or Lon­don, could of course take a sim­i­lar ap­proach, he said, but get­ting agree­ment on a com­mon ap­proach was “not easy”. Ber­lin had a par­tic­u­larly “happy con­stel­la­tion” of uni­ver­sity lead­ers who could work to­gether, he said. On the stu­dent side, the in­sti­tu­tions were set to dou­ble the num­ber of cour­ses stu­dents can take else­where, he added.

Gün­ter Ziegler, pres­i­dent of the Free Uni­ver­sity, said that the in­sti­tu­tions would co­or­di­nate when seek­ing to de­velop new re­search fields. “Get­ting us to­gether, we can go for re­ally big top­ics,” he added.

Chris­tian Thom­sen, pres­i­dent of the Tech­ni­cal Uni­ver­sity, ex­plained

that bud­get cuts by the Ber­lin Sen­ate in the 1990s and 2000s had al­ready pushed the city’s in­sti­tu­tions to co­or­di­nate their re­search ar­eas so as not to lose cer­tain sub­jects.

As well as a joint ex­cel­lence ini­tia­tive ap­pli­ca­tion, the uni­ver­si­ties would also co­or­di­nate plans to bid for Euro­pean and na­tional level funds, he said, adding: “It makes sense for projects where a large dis­ci­plinary wealth is nec­es­sary to be suc­cess­ful.”

Ber­lin uni­ver­sity lead­ers are adamant that the “al­liance” is not a pre­lude to a merger; in­stead the fo­cus was on “co­op­er­a­tive struc­tures”, Pro­fes­sor Ziegler said.

“We don’t want to lose our in­di­vid­ual iden­ti­ties,” Pro­fes­sor Fren­sch said.

But across Europe, there has been a surge of uni­ver­si­ties try­ing to climb global uni­ver­sity rank­ings by merg­ing, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent re­port; in Paris, for ex­am­ple, more than a dozen in­sti­tu­tions are com­ing to­gether to cre­ate a “mega-uni­ver­sity”.

Ac­cord­ing to Torger Möller, a re­searcher at the Ger­man Cen­tre for Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Re­search and Science Stud­ies in Ber­lin and an ex­pert on the ex­cel­lence ini­tia­tive, the in­creas­ing in­ter­de­pen­dence of uni­ver­si­ties was down to the need to cre­ate in­ter­na­tion­ally vis­i­ble re­search clus­ters.

But this join­ing to­gether of heavy- weights “can be a prob­lem for smaller uni­ver­si­ties at the pe­riph­ery” un­able to pool re­sources with other in­sti­tu­tions, he added.

A com­mon ap­proach Ber­lin had a par­tic­u­larly ‘happy con­stel­la­tion’ of uni­ver­sity lead­ers who could work to­gether, said Peter Fren­sch, vi­cepres­i­dent of re­search at the Hum­boldt Uni­ver­sity

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