Universities in England and Germany

England has two universities that are invariably included in lists of the top ten in the world. Founded by the early thirteenth century, their immense prestige, the able international students funnelled in their direction by the Rhodes Scholarships and Gates Foundation, their ability to raise money from their alumni, the way in which their leadership is plugged into centres of power and, perhaps, the mundane circumstance that they operate in what has become the de facto global language, mean that Oxford and Cambridge will continue to bring glory to England for many years. The gap between them and the other English universities tends to be wide.

The oldest universities in Germany opened towards the end of the fourteenth century, and arguably they have never caught up with the most distinguished of their English counterparts. However, it may be that Germany has more universities than England at the next level of excellence, many of them similarly located in towns rather than cities: there are Goettingen, Freiberg, Heidelberg, Tuebigen and Konstanz, where I tramped around Benediktinerplatz last week in a fruitless attempt to locate some German colleagues with whom I was looking forward to enjoying some collaboration…if anyone from the Konstanzer Arbeitskreis fuer mittelalterliche Geschichte is reading these lines, I’m truly sorry to have missed you. Such institutions have allowed Germany over the centuries to perform at a higher level than England in classics, history, theology and, arguably, philosophy, while German physics was the strongest in the world until some way into the twentieth century.

It is hard to account for this divergence in outcomes between the two great countries, and such things as the quality of secondary education must be taken into account, but another circumstance is surely relevant. The two great English seats of learning are within easy reach of the capital city; indeed, the most famous shopping street in London is named for being at the beginning of the road to one of them!  And England remains centred on its capital. While it has a better range of quality newspapers than any other country, when the Manchester Guardian dropped the first word from its title there did not remain one published outside London. The situation in Germany is very different, and what applies to newspapers is also true of such things as symphony orchestras. (France seems to operate according to the English model; Italy and Spain the German.) Perhaps a regionally diverse network delivers better overall results than one with a few central commanding heights?

Recently China has begun to pour money into its top universities, seeking to make them competitive with the best in the world, and it will be fascinating to see what the outcome will be; perhaps the intellectual balance of the planet will seem very different in a few decades. (By contrast, it is hard to detect similar developments on the Subcontinent.) But I fear for the Australian universities. The best of them are going to have to run fast just to stay where they are.

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