The new German government has large immediate challenges, from Covid to Ukraine. As the new coalition involves three parties with very different underlying philosophies who have never previously governed together at federal level, nothing is likely to be easy. They share, however, a sense of Germany as a country in pressing need of a necessary modernisation, a word that permeates the government’s discourse and is emphasised as early as the preamble to the Coalition Agreement and symbolised in its subtitle: Dare More Progress.
Unsurprisingly, the coalition is showing a strong interest in education and research. I’ve already posted on the implications for adult learning, workforce skills, and apprenticeships. But the Coalition Agreement also has plenty to say about higher education and research, and these help clarify what it means by modernisation.
First, a simple counting exercise. The Agreement makes nine references to universities and five to Hochschulen (actually six, but one concerns the Volkshochschulen, or public adult education centres), as well as 94 to research and 65 to science (Wissenschaft). There are also 21 mentions of the word Stiftung (foundation), reflecting the importance of research foundations like Max Planck in supporting and influencing research. I don’t think this imbalance is misleading; although the coalition does have ideas for improving teaching and learning, its main interest lies in the potential of science in greasing the wheels of modernisation.
The Agreement is clear on its priorities for higher education institutions (HEIs): “We will strengthen our universities and higher education institutes of applied science as the heart of our research system, and support and accelerate innovation and transfer from the application of basic research”. It specifically commits the coalition to a target of raising public spending on R&D to 3.5% of GDP by 2025, as well as to the creation of a German Agency for Transfer and Innovation to support smaller HEIs. It nods approvingly in the direction of European and international networking, and hints at measures to make Germany more attractive to top researcher from abroad as well as incvreasing Germany’s capacity to engage with China and Asia.
The core of the coalition’s research policy, though, is to generate knowledge transfer. To achieve greater tech transfer, the coalition plans to continue and strengthen the existing Pact for Research and Innovation which provides targeted support for the four largest research foundations, and is broadly open – without a specific commitment – to the idea of a German Tech Transfer Fund. It also hints at a degree of selectivity through the adoption of “the British model” of regional networks (Oxford and Cambridge are said to be the examplars) where “selected locations as lighthouses” have concentrations of top researchers in strategic subjects, such as biotechnology where it believes Germany can be a world leader.
“Modernisation” is also taken to embrace openness to public engagement. It sounds a programmatic note in announcing that “Science is not a closed system but lives from exchange and communication with society”. Researchers will develop their communications skills, and the idea is floated of an independent foundation to support science journalism. There is a commitment to strengthening the role of citizen science, as well as strengthening existing commitments to open access and open science and promising a new law on access to research data.
In a sign of the balance within the coalition, the Agreement seeks to promote excellence and competitiveness along with equity and inclusion. It defines gender equity and diversity as fundamental to quality and competitiveness, and announces new training programmes for university imams. It argues that good science requires secure conditions of employment, particularly for post-docs, and promises that the government will support “modern governance-, personnel-, and organisational structures” along with improved standards of leadership and compliance.
As well as plans for strengthening knowledge transfer and innovation, the coalition has ideas about improving teaching and learning. The Agreement promises further development of the Foundation for Innovation in Higher Education Teaching in promoting the use of digital learning, as well as announcing a federal project of ‘digital higher education’ and the introduction of ‘micro-degrees’ to recognise participation in continuing higher education.
And there’s more, but to keep this post manageable I’m selectively summarising those ideas and proposals that strike me as particularly significant. What should be clear is that the coalition partners have given considerable thought to higher education and research, and have reached agreement on quite a large number of policy aims. Their main focus of attention looks to me to be the strengthening of knowledge transfer, particularly for economic competitiveness but also for the social good. It will be interesting to see how these broad policy goals are translated into practice.