German higher education has seen a profound transformation in the past two decades. Embedded in a quickly changing, now highly Europeanized and internationalized higher education (HE) sector, German universities increasingly see themselves in a global race for reputation, revenues, researchers, and students. This new higher education landscape challenges some of the historical legacies of universal and egalitarian access to higher education.
This essay outlines two major changes in the environment of German HE, notably the increasing premium on excellence and the growing internationalization and Europeanization of universities and their students and staff. It sketches two of the major transformations of German HE. First, the so-called “managerial turn” has introduced a new professionalism in HE administration and novel rationales about how to lead and manage universities. Second, universities have started to become strategic actors, actively seeking to position themselves nationally and internationally by displaying their excellence and forging strategic coalitions with peer organizations.
Finally, I argue that these changes might result in, first, a growing diversification of German HE, until now marked by a two-tiered system of universities and technical universities and, second, a growing stratification of the HE system where new markers of distinction are strategically used to display their “elite” position and to attract the most ambitious students.
Notions of excellence have come to dominate national and international discourses around higher education. With the growing mobility of students, staff, and programs in a strong wave of internationalization and Europeanization, not only comparisons and league tables in HE have become truly global, but so too have the strategies to position themselves.
From Quality to Excellence
While the 1990s were marked by a strong premium on quality and accountability, research universities have increasingly started to perceive themselves as being in competition with each other in a (global) race for reputation, revenues, and researchers in the more recent period. Situated in such a globally competitive field, higher education organizations’ research function has become the target of particular interest and policy directives. National and international ratings and rankings (e.g., German Centre for Higher Education University Ranking; European “Multi-Rank,” and the global Academic Ranking of World Universities, to name a few), national research evaluations, and performance-based funding schemes have emerged throughout the world. They differ in degree of formalization, standardization, and transparency and they touch upon the core of science systems and scientific activity by changing authority relations and publication behavior.
Internationalization and Europeanization
Internationalization has many faces usually describing the poignant increase in the mobility of people, programs, and campuses of the past two decades. Internationality has also become a quality seal and policy goal in itself. Policy statements, program calls, and organizational self-portrayals are awash with references to the international outlook of research.
At the micro-level of scientific research, internationalization has long become a social reality with the striking increase of international collaborations in science for virtually all research fields since the 1980s.
Institutional Change in German Higher Education
I argue that German higher education has undergone a series of significant changes. Among these, I highlight the restructuring, expansion, and professionalization of management as well as universities’ growing efforts to strategically position themselves in a global HE market.
Professionalized Management and Leadership
This shift toward the rationale of professional management, internal and external evaluation for performance measurement, quality improvement, and resource allocation has been well documented in relevant scholarship. From a European perspective, such shifts are often seen as a dubious “success story” of the U.S. model where universities have been described as “public enterprises” or “entrepreneurial.”
Further, it is beyond dispute that significant changes have occurred in the formal structure of German HE organizations. New management positions emerge where general public administration has been prevalent. Research evaluation, quality assurance and management, student services (e.g., academic counseling), alumni services, science communication, knowledge and technology transfer not only indicate formal structural change, but also the incorporation of novel occupational groups dealing with growing internal complexity. Moreover, a new professional/occupational field of HE management has begun to appear in major recruitment portals (e.g., Die Zeit).
Finally, HE leadership becomes more important. While many high-level positions in rectorate and deanery were occupied by staff from the legal fields, they now show stronger links to the research fields they represent, often indicated by holding a PhD from the respective field.
Strategic positioning has occurred both at the individual university level as well as on an aggregate level of university networks. At the individual university level, mission statements as public billboards displaying uniqueness and organizational integrity are about to become a universal feature. The number of universities with mission statements rose dramatically from 5 to 70 in the period 1998-2010. Mission statements, while showing a good deal of sameness across different types of (private vs. public) universities, emphasize universities’ distinct history, comparative advantage, and unique mission in the international landscape.
Moreover, university coalitions and networks have long been dominated by pragmatic reasons. Geographical propinquity, for instance, would help secure a larger offer for study programs through partnership agreements allowing students to freely move between two or more campuses. Cooperation between neighboring universities would facilitate the promotion of regional higher education hubs and the joint acquisition and use of expensive laboratory facilities would mean shared burden of costs.
Yet, other motives can be found in more recent university cooperation and network initiatives. The network TU9 of German Institutes of Technology (*2006) brings together the nine most renowned technical universities in Germany to increase international visibility and to impact the discourse on quality, accreditation, and HE policy in STEM fields. Similarly, the U15 group (*2012) unites the fifteen largest and leading German research universities and medical schools and is well embedded in international networks like the Global Network of Research Universities.
Although these burgeoning structures do not yet look like the well-established configurations so prevalent in British HE, they indicate first signs of a more networked field where strategic coalitions are forged to pursue particular agendas and introduce markers of distinction.
(Un)intended Consequences of German Higher Education Transformation
Two consequences might result from the managerial and strategic turn in German higher education. One describes the rise of a novel organizational diversity including more specialized organizations and those that differ in their funding, notably private universities. Another consequence, not less controversial, is the burgeoning stratification in the German HE system, partly pushed for by strong universities themselves, partly facilitated by novel public funding instruments.
More Organizational Diversity?
Organizationally, German higher education has been a fairly homogenous field. The classical university, with its broad and generalist study portfolio, was supported by a more application-oriented field of Fachhochschulen (polytechnics or universities of applied science) with limited rights to confer doctoral degrees. To this two-tiered system, we may add several more occupation-specific, highly state-regulated institutions such as colleges for art, teacher training, health, and medicine.
This relatively homogeneous system has been diversified in the past two decades, mainly due to increasing privatization. While only 1 percent of the student population has studied at a private HE organization in the mid-1990s, the share has risen to 6 percent two decades later. They are hosted by a private sector whose size has increased by factor eight within two decades, now totaling more than 150 organizations. These include such private HE organizations as regional universities of applied sciences, large part-time and further education organizations, but also full-scale universities and aspiring top universities within a specific field with PhD and habilitation rights. These universities offer virtual studies, specialized degree programs that were formerly part of the vocational sector, a more international study program and, importantly, study programs emphasizing their excellence. Here, differentiation meets with stratification. I will now turn to the aspect of stratification.
A More Stratified Higher Education System?
Notions of quality and excellence generated in the national and global environments of universities have started to change the HE discourse. For example, Marques et al. find that almost half of the educational departments of British universities use labels from the national Research Excellence Framework to describe themselves. Among these descriptors, they find such terms as “leading,” “excellent,” “quality,” and “top,” directly borrowed from the rating and ranking thesaurus used in the evaluation.
The highly stratified descriptors produced by the growing global rating and ranking industry described above are increasingly used by universities to distinguish themselves in the international landscape. Ever more types of rankings help to provide “excellence” to even those universities that would not attract much attention in the comprehensive global pool. For example, the Times Higher Education now produces league tables for U.S. colleges or specific countries and regions (e.g., Japan, Asia, Latin America, or BRICS). It also constantly re-operationalizes comparator criteria in order to generate ever-more new organizational clusters, for example, rankings based on reputation or internationality of staff only or those rankings exclusively including universities aged fifty years or under. The latter ranking allows universities like Ulm, for instance, to make it into the group of the top ten universities, as proudly displayed on its website. Specific criteria are sometimes selectively highlighted by universities to underline their international excellence. Although only one among many indicators in the overall rating methodology, the University of Reutlingen, for example, emphasizes its world-class share of publications co-authored with collaborators from industry.
Universities’ attempts to strategically position themselves in a field suddenly perceived as competitive and to publicly display their rank through media and self-portrayals have begun to reach students. While not uncommon in French, British, or U.S. higher education systems, German students have traditionally been less driven by a “rational choice” when deciding where to study. Other, more pragmatic, reasons weighed more heavily, including, for example, geographical propinquity, facilitated by a fairly equally spread presence of HE organizations, avoidance of restricted admission requirements (numerus clausus), availability of certain specialized study programs, and popularity and attractiveness of certain cities (rather than the university). This is about to change. Some preliminary studies show that students from better-off backgrounds and with better Abitur grades have started to make a more conscious and strategic choice picking specific universities for their “elite” image.
Such trends are exacerbated by public initiatives, notably the large-scale Excellence Initiative. The Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), together with the German Research Foundation (DFG) and the German Council of Science and the Humanities (WR), is investing more than €2.7 billion in the training of young researchers, specific research clusters, and, most importantly, in so-called future concepts; that is, promising institutional strategies to promote international excellence in research. Given the financial scope and long-term orientation, observers have already noted that this tidal change would usher in a new era marked by increasing inter-university competition and inequality leading to a German Ivy League and a more stratified higher education system, influencing students’ decisions even more in the future.
Embedded in a global higher education landscape, increasingly marked by Europeanization, internationalization and a strong premium on the measurement, ranking, and medial display of “excellence,” German universities have started to challenge their own structural legacy. Shifting from public administration to professionalized HE management and actively seeking to increase and display their branding and market value, they have turned into strategic organizational actors. At an aggregate level, such transformations have led to hitherto unheard-of organizational diversity and a burgeoning stratification from above (public funding) and below (universities and students). This latter trend raises important and controversial questions. Future research is well advised to assess whether the historical science-society contract, with its implicit consensus on a free and egalitarian higher education system, begins to fray.
Dr. Mike Zapp is a DAAD/AICGS Research Fellow at AICGS in Fall 2017 and will be a research fellow at the Stanford Graduate School of Education in Spring and Summer 2018.
The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.
 See Ellen Hazelkorn, Rankings and the Reshaping of Higher Education: The Battle for World-Class Excellence (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).
 Diana Hicks, “Performance-based university research funding systems,” Research Policy 41:2 (2012), 251-261.
 Richard Whitley and Jochen Gläser, The Changing Governance of the Sciences (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer, 2007); Marcelo Marques, Justin J.W. Powell, Mike Zapp, Gert Biesta, “How does research evaluation impact educational research? Exploring intended and unintended consequences of research assessment in the United Kingdom, 1986–2014,” European Educational Research Journal 16:6 (2017), 820–842
 Jane Knight, “Three generations of cross-border higher education: New developments, issues and challenges,” in Internationalisation of higher education and global mobility, ed. B.T. Streitwieser (Didcot, UK: Symposium Books, 2014) pp. 43-58.
 Caroline S. Wagner, C., Travis A. Whetsell, Loet Leydesdorff, “Growth of International Collaboration in Science: Revisiting Six Specialties,” Scientometrics 110:3 (2017), 1633-1652.
 C. Paradeise, et al., University Governance (Springer: Western European Comparative Perspectives, 2009).
 Burton R. Clark, Creating Entrepreneurial Universities: Organizational Pathways of Transformation (Bingley, UK: Emerald Group Publishing, 1998); Rosemary Deem, “Globalisation, New Managerialism, Academic Capitalism and Entrepreneurialism in Universities: is the local dimension still important?” Comparative Education 37:1 (2001), 7-20.
 Georg Krücken, Albrecht Blümel, Katharina Kloke, “The Managerial Turn in Higher Education? On the Interplay of Organizational and Occupational Change in German Academia,” Minerva 51:4 (2013), 417-442.
 Stifterverband, Stifterverband: Hochschulleitbilder sind durch, angebotsorientiertes Einbahnstraßendenken geprägt (2010). Available at: http://idw-online.de/pages/de/news383444.
 Anna Kosmützky and Georg Krücken, “Sameness and Difference,” International Studies of Management & Organization 45:2 (2015), 137-149.
 See Yorck Hener, Philipp Eckardt, Uwe Brandenburg, “Kooperationen zwischen deutschen Hochschulen,” CHE Centrum für Hochschulentwicklung gGmbH Arbeitspapier Nr. 8 (2007) for a review.
 Statistisches Bundesamt, Hochschulen (2014). Accessed 11/8/2017, https://www.destatis.de/EN/FactsFigures/SocietyState/EducationResearchCulture/EducationResearchCulture.html;jsessionid=A74A03AFA1E56116887CD08EBAD30FC0.InternetLive1
 Alexaner Mitterle, “In Search of the Private: on the Specificities of Private Higher Education in Germany,” in Rethinking Private Higher Education, ed. D. Cantini (Leiden: Brill, 2017), 193-219.
 Marcelo Marques, Justin J.W. Powell, Mike Zapp, Gert Biesta, “How does research evaluation impact educational research? Exploring intended and unintended consequences of research assessment in the United Kingdom, 1986–2014,” European Educational Research Journal 16:6 (2017), 820–842
 Oliver Winkler, “Exzellente Wahl. Soziale Selektivität und Handlungsorientierungen bei der Wahl von Spitzenbildung im Hochschulbereich,” Zeitschrift für Soziologie der Erziehung und Sozialisation ZSE 34:3 (2014), 280-296.
 Barbara M. Kehm, “To be or not to be? The impacts of the excellence initiative on the German system of higher education,” in Freedom, Equality, University, ed. C. Kościelniak and J. Makowski (Warsaw: Civic Institute, 2012) pp. 221-245; Richard Münch, Academic Capitalism: Universities in the Global Struggle for Excellence (New York: Routledge, 2013).
Made possible by the support of German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) with funds from the German Foreign Office (Auswärtiges Amt - AA)