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Excellence schemes are blooming in Europe’s universities

The European University Association recently published a new report examining ‘excellence schemes’ and their impact on universities in Europe. NIC MITCHELL looks at the main findings.

From Britain’s recent Research Excellence Framework, or REF, used to decide where public funded research is best spent to France’s €7.7 billion Excellence Initiatives designed to create up to ten multidisciplinary hubs capable of competing with the best universities in the world, ‘Excellence’ is the current buzzword in European higher education.

In Russia, Project ‘5-100’ will see €750 million spent between 2013-16 to try to fire five Russian universities into the Top 100 world university rankings.

While over in Germany billions are being spent to improve the quality and international competitiveness of its universities and research through ‘Exzellenzinitiative’.

‘Excellence’ schemes everywhere

‘Excellence’ schemes are everywhere, but what is their impact on European universities struggling to manage with an ever-tightening squeeze on general public funding since the start of the recession?

The European University Association, or EUA, launched an investigation to find out and and its report entitled Funding for excellence is the first in a series of three thematic reports from the EUA-led DEFINE project analysing the impact of funding efficiency measures on universities.

Written by Enora Bennett Pruvot and Thomas Estermann, the report looks at various excellence schemes in countries across Europe, and at ten in particular.

Their paper focuses on large-scale initiatives using public funds to develop wider institutional strategies, such as the excellence initiatives in Germany and France.

They say that while excellence schemes most commonly address research, like the British REF, some focus on teaching excellence and others to the creation of new institutions. The merger of three higher education institutions in Finland to create Aalto University is cited as an example.

Excellenzinitiative KIT Germany

Excellenzinitiative KIT Germany

The authors also point to Germany’s Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, or KIT, which was the subject of a lecture at EUPRIO’s 2014 conference. The new institution (pictured) emerged as a strategic merger between the University of Karlsruhe and the Helmholtz Centre Karlsruhe following the first round of Germany’s ‘Exzellenzinitiative’.

But what’s the point of all these initiatives across Europe when money is tight?

The authors list many of the usual reasons you might expect, such as enhanced international visibility, improving research and/or teaching quality, and matching supply and demand in the higher education market.

Funding efficiency or fixing holes?

But they point out that ‘excellence schemes are also meant to increase funding efficiency, whether as a main objective or not’ and often have as an ambition the removal of inefficiencies and the concentration of funding by creating hierarchies between institutions.

“In some cases, the goals pursued are to be measured very concretely via, for instance, an improved position of key universities in international rankings. This is the case for instance in the Russian “5-100” project, whose title relates directly to the objective of placing at least five Russian universities in the “world’s top 100 universities” by 2020.”

The report says excellence schemes should not be considered in isolation from the general funding framework even though they are usually special initiatives that exist as an addition to mainstream funding channels.

But there is a danger, say Pruvot and Estermann, that where regular public funding is cut ‘Excellence’ schemes may be used to ‘fix holes’ to enable universities to sustain daily business rather than their original intention of rewarding and lifting up capacities of the best performing institutions.

“As an example, Spanish universities have seen their block grants diminish by about 15% over the period 2008-2014 (taking into account inflation), with a loss of over €1.1 billion, while the ‘Campus of International Excellence’ programme has provided around €700 million to the sector between 2009-2011.

Lever in external support

Excellence initiatives are often seen as a means to ‘boost’ institutions through short-term additional funds to help lever in further support from private partners. “This is a clear objective of the Spanish and German programmes”, says the report.

Having clear goals and objectives is vital and it is important that these are communicated effectively, both within the university and towards external partners, to help gain acceptance internally for the changes triggered by participating in the excellence scheme, and, externally, to foster or enhance longer-term collaboration.

Sustainability and exit strategies

Most excellence schemes are time-limited to five to seven years and the report emphasises the need to face-up to the challenge of sustaining and consolidating achieved outcomes, particularly in relation to collaborations with external partners.

So exit strategies need to be in place by the time funds run out.


The authors stress that Excellence schemes should represent additional funding, and not take away basic funding granted to universities and there needs to be a high degree of transparency.

“Excellence schemes should avoid direct linkages with international rankings, particularly as the methodologies used by these rankings vary and the criteria they measure may differ from the ‘excellence’ that the scheme seeks to foster”, says the report.

Author Thomas Estermann

Author Thomas Estermann

One of the authors,  Thomas Estermann, Director for Governance, Funding and Public Policy Development at EUA, said: “Excellence schemes should should be instrumental in fostering risk-taking approaches and public authorities and evaluation panels should steer away from conservative, risk-adverse patterns that would only consolidate and widen existing disparities between leading players and other actors in the field.

“They should also seek to foster the development of teams of young academics and researchers, thus supporting the emergence of the next generation of scientists.”

Read the report in full here and see the useful quick overview of the Excellence funding mechanism used in Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Norway, Poland, Spain and Russia.

*DEFINE is a 2.5-year project (autumn 2012-spring 2015) run by EUA in collaboration with CIPES, the Centre for Research in Higher Education Policies (Portugal), and the Universities of Oxford (UK), Aalto (Finland) and Erlangen-Nuremberg (Germany), and the Copenhagen Business School (Denmark). The project is co-funded by the European Commission under the Lifelong Learning Programme.