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Towards a Unified but Stratified University Sector? On the Effects of the German Excellence Initiative

Knowledge
Education
Higher Education
Roland Bloch
Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg
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Abstract

This paper aims to account for the effects of “policies of excellence” that assign a selected group of universities “an apical status and position within the higher education system” (Rostan and Vaira 2011, p. 57). It takes the funding of graduate schools through the German Excellence Initiative, a competitive device for the distribution of government funds, as an empirical example. Prior to the Excellence Initiative, there was no specific sector of doctoral education in Germany and a “fictitious equality” (Kreckel 2010, p. 24) between universities of the same type was assumed. Based on longitudinal data it will be shown that the number of doctoral programs at German universities boomed after the Excellence Initiative had started in 2006. This boom can be related to isomorphic change in higher education (DiMaggio and Powell 1983). Unsuccessful universities then copy the strategies of their successful counterparts to increase their chances in future competitions. At the same time, the establishment of doctoral programs is legitimized as a means to assure the quality of doctoral education as well as by the Bologna Process which aims to institutionalize doctoral education as the third cycle of an European-wide study system. The boom in doctoral programs then points to two dynamics: a stratificatory movement driven by doctoral programs as a means of vertical differentiation; and a horizontal movement driven by alignment with a general model of doctoral education. This horizontal movement also impacts, however, on the binary structure of the German higher education system. The European degree structure differentiates between academic levels but not between types of higher education institutions which has led to a “blurring of boundaries” (Witte et al. 2008) between the two sectors. One of the last remaining distinguishing marks is the universities’ privilege to grant doctoral degrees. Thus, universities of applied sciences increasingly establish doctoral programs to prove the quality of their doctoral education and to legitimize themselves as doctoral-granting institutions. Nevertheless, this “de-diversification” (Teichler 2008, p. 367) triggered by the Bologna Process has not led to a leveling of all differences. If higher education institutions perceive themselves to be similar, and common concepts diffuse into the field (Strang and Meyer 1994), then they also open up a space in which they can be compared with each other (Bloch and Mitterle 2017). Furthermore, if competition in this comparative space leads to a general “leveling upward” (Trow 1984, p. 144) of higher education institutions, this is against the state’s interest in institutional diversity and may reinforce “policies of excellence” to counteract this development. Thus, new vertical differentiations may come to replace the old binary structure (cf. Bleiklie 2011, p. 31): between universities of applied sciences with the right to grant doctoral degrees and those without; and between universities with ‘excellent’ graduate schools and those without. The latter universities then hardly differ from doctoral-granting universities of applied sciences. The effects thus reach well beyond the political objective to establish ‘centers of excellence’, as they question sectoral differences and point to a unified but stratified university sector.