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The relative lack of attention to universities and research in the German federal election campaign has been a “deficit,” with funding concerns looming in the wake of the pandemic, the head of the nation’s university leaders has warned.

The center-left Social Democrats, currently junior partners in a conservative Christian Democratic Union-led governing coalition, are the front-runners in polls ahead of the Sept. 26 vote, although they will need the support of other parties to form a government.

In an election dominated by the pandemic and economy, universities and research have featured little in the campaign. To some extent that is unsurprising, given Germany’s 16 states, or Länder, have chief responsibility for education, rather than the federal government.

Nevertheless, that absence from the campaign is “really a deficit,” said Peter-André Alt, president of the German Rectors’ Conference (HRK).

“I’m very much complaining about the fact that science and education are not playing a key role in the debate, because we have learnt in the pandemic how important science and research are to solving the problems of the future,” he told Times Higher Education.

Frank Ziegele, executive director of the Center for Higher Education, a German think tank, said that in the past the federal government, which by law has a role alongside the states in higher education, was “quite good at pushing reforms” through the levers of additional funding, most notably in the Excellence Initiative intended to drive competition in research. But in current party policy platforms at the federal level, “there is not much innovation regarding new programs with modernization goals,” he added.

The HRK has called for a 270 million euro ($317 million) annual investment in digitalization in universities in the wake of the online shift driven by the pandemic, a policy picked up by the Social Democrats and Greens, although without committing to that specific sum.

In addition, there is “strong consensus among the main parties,” Ziegele said, that Germany’s system of student funding, a federal responsibility, “urgently has to be reformed,” because its outdated design “does not take into account lifelong learning or part-time studies, so it doesn’t address sufficiently a diverse student body,” reflected in a sharp decline in the number of grants awarded.

The Social Democrats have also talked about reducing the number of young researchers on temporary contracts. While Social Democrats in government at state level have made moves here, “this requires additional money if you want to make somebody permanent,” said Alt.

Are funding cuts at federal or state level a concern as governments look to slash costs after spending heavily to support the economy during the pandemic?

Alt replied, “We are afraid of that … University leaders are very skeptical on whether we will hold this high level of support which has been given over the last decades to the system -- not only to universities, but to nonuniversity institutions. These were good years for science in Germany.”

But, in contrast to nations such as England, where there is little cross-party consensus on university funding and much policy instability as a result, might the lack of focus on higher education in the German election be taken as a positive sign of consensus?

“It might also be a positive indicator for the fact that the system is working quite well,” acknowledged Alt.

He added, “Tuition fees are out of the debate … The public financing of the system of higher education is, without any doubt, the way Germany will go on in the future.”

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