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News vom 09.09.2010

Make university councils a platform for social discourse

Politicians, the business world and universities are being called upon in equal measure the success of university councils. The Heinz Nixdorf Foundation, the Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft and the CHE Centre for Higher Education Development present a comprehensive study.

University councils can only fulfil their role as social discourse platforms if their membership is diverse. They must also have the authority to make decisions, but they must not be weighed down with detailed operational tasks. This is the conclusion of the University Councils Handbook, a major joint study by the Heinz Nixdorf Foundation, the Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft and the CHE Centre for Higher Education Development. The handbook was presented in Berlin on 10 September, 2010.

Currently, every second member of a university council has a research background, but only every third member has a business background. ”It cannot be said that university councils are dominated by businesses,” said Andreas Schlüter, secretary general of the Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft. “In order to build bridges into society, universities should open up their internal bodies to non-researchers from all areas of society.”

The strength of university councils lies in the strategic advice they offer to higher education institutions, but they are only effective if the underlying orientation of the university and the council matches. Frank Ziegele, managing director of the CHE, said that the regional university council of Brandenburg, an inter-university body, and the university council of Schleswig-Holstein, were “misconceived”. He said that the inter-university style of working impeded identification with a specific higher education institution and conflicts of interests are inevitable as such bodies were intended to advise both regional politicians and university management.

The study concludes that German university councils are not yet functioning properly, but all involved parties could contribute to making the reform an overwhelming success. Governments must correct the mistakes in the laws, such as the overloading of university councils with detailed work for which they have neither the expertise nor the necessary time. The laws should also make university councils accountable and able to be dismissed. Higher education institutions must provide the resources to set up a council office and equip the council in a way that enables it to work. University councils, for their part, must negotiate a clear allocation of roles at the start of their periods of office with university managements and senates; they must also seek internal communication at the respective higher education institution.

All German Bundesländer except Bremen have had university councils as supervisory and advisory bodies at universities and Fachhochschulen since the mid-1990s The new bodies took on wide-ranging authority that was previously in the hands of the education ministries of the Länder, and the tasks and composition of university councils has been a controversial debate ever since. The Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft, the Heinz Nixdorf Foundation and the CHE Centre for Higher Education Development have been promoting, observing and supervising the work of university councils for many years.

The University Councils Handbook is based on expert interviews with university council members, presidents and rectors of universities, civil servants from education ministries and heads of university council offices. Recommendations and practical ideas were developed in several expert panels on the basis of the information produced by these interviews. A comparative analysis of regional legislation that was carried out for the handbook project discovered great differences between the Länder. The handbook is intended to give university council members practical tips for their supervisory and advisory roles. It should also serve to highlight stumbling blocks that hamper the work of university councils. “The ideas and recommendations are an invitation to take part in a dialogue,” said Horst Nasko, chairman of the Heinz Nixdorf Foundation. “It is now important to use the experience of the first years of university councils to draw the right conclusions. This will mean that the introduction of university councils will be a key building block in the modernisation of higher education institutions.”.

Presentation of the University Councils Handbook with, from left, Dr. Horst Nasko, deputy-chairman of the Heinz Nixdorf Foundation, Prof. Dr. Frank Ziegele, managing director of the CHE, Dr. Rolf-E. Breuer, former chairman of Deutsche Bank AG and chairman of the university council of Goethe-Universität Frankfurt, Dr. Annette Fugmann-Heesing, chairman of the university council of Universität Bielefeld, and Prof. Dr. Andreas Schlüter, general secretary of the Stifterverbandes der Deutschen Wissenschaft (photos: David Ausserhofer)

The University Councils Handbook was presented and discussed at the "How university councils should work" symposium that took place on 10 September 2010. The aim of the symposium was to help define the role of university councils and improve understanding among all parties involved of the tasks the councils perform.

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