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DAAD: Germany is losing out on China expertise

The German Academic Exchange Service has published recommendations for universities when dealing with China. Its real contribution, however, is an uncompromising analysis of Germany’s unequal relationship with China and its implications

By Tim Gabel

January 18, 2024

Germany's academic system is about to completely fail when it comes to maintaining and developing expertise in China. This is the slightly exaggerated diagnosis of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), which published new recommendations for academic cooperation with China on Monday. These recommendations are intended as guidelines for universities, but the preceding analysis of German-Chinese university and academic cooperation is particularly alarming.

It found that only 120 German academics and researchers visited China in 2021. This figure, compiled by the DAAD and the German Center for Higher Education Research and Science Studies (DZHW), represents a decrease of almost 83 percent compared to 2015. The fact that Chinese universities had isolated themselves from the outside world for several years due to the implementation of zero-Covid puts this figure into perspective. Nevertheless, according to the DAAD, the mobility statistics for German students and researchers are showing a clear downward trend. "Forecasts also show that the figures will only recover slowly in the coming years despite the lifting of Coronavirus restrictions," the paper states.

Development of China expertise – 'cause for concern'

As a scientific nation, Germany cannot have any interest in academic "de-coupling," writes the DAAD. "The decline in cooperation and mobility figures described above is cause for concern, not only with regard to the medium and long-term development of China expertise in Germany," it says. This is particularly true because China's interest in cooperation with Germany is unbroken, and the country's importance as a scientific nation has grown considerably in recent years. The DAAD sees a risk of lopsided relations here.

Driven by the Communist Party's openly stated ambition to make China a global leader by 2050, the state massively subsidizes science and research. At an investment level of 424 billion euros, the country ranks second behind the United States (660 billion euros) and well ahead of Germany (148 billion euros). In its analysis, the DAAD explains the consequences of this: In terms of the number of universities, China will soon overtake the European Union and the number of graduates is already twice as high as in the EU. According to a cited Georgetown University analysis, the number of STEM graduates in 2025 will be twice as high as in the USA.

Demand: Secured funding for necessary processes

However, the DAAD says that the Chinese government is not only aiming for an increase in quantity, but also to improve the quality of its universities and its own innovative strength. In 2023, eleven Chinese universities were in the top 100 of the "Shanghai Ranking" and seven universities were in the top 100 of the THE World University Ranking. A similar trend can also be observed in scientific articles. According to the DAAD, the People's Republic's scientific influence and research strength will increase accordingly.

In view of this development, DAAD President Joybrato Mukherjee calls for a more comprehensive exchange within the scientific community in Germany on scientific interests, the expansion of existing China expertise at universities and secure funding for the establishment and further development of the necessary processes. "The China expertise rightly called for in the Federal Government's strategy must be consistently expanded. This should preferably be done using our own resources and in independent structures," says Mukherjee.

Risk avoidance only possible through access and resources

This is the only way Germany and the German academic system will succeed in "safeguarding their own interests in the joint generation of knowledge, maintaining access to Chinese institutions as important stakeholders in the international academic system and assessing and avoiding risks in a well-founded manner," said the DAAD President in a statement. In a German interview with Table.Media in late 2023, he had explicitly called for the Confucius Institutes funded by China to be converted into publicly funded institutes for developing China expertise. He criticized the German government for not backing its China strategy with money. However, he also emphasized that the primary funding of universities is a matter of the federal states.

In its analysis, the DAAD once again highlighted the potential risks. While China achieves and, in some cases, exceeds international standards in higher education and science, clear systemic differences are becoming apparent in many areas of society, which China also stopped trying to conceal. The challenges in the higher education sector include the close civil-military entanglement and power-political anchoring of Chinese academia, the centralized control and monitoring of the academic system and the lack of freedom in research and teaching.

Guidelines for dealing with difficult relationships

The DAAD recommendation paper published on Monday derives three general guiding principles for German universities when interacting with Chinese partners: It should be interest-oriented, risk-reflective and competence-based. The paper contains five specific recommendations for implementing this approach at universities for each guiding principle.

  • Under the title "Defining own interests and building symmetrical relationships," the DAAD recommends that member universities reflect on and readjust their cooperation based on their own priorities. Universities should define and formulate binding cooperation goals. The DAAD also recommends better integrating Chinese students and attracting Chinese guest academics. It further recommends establishing reciprocal joint university programs to cushion the imbalance in academic exchange. In the future, German academics are to better reflect on and explain the benefits they gain from cooperation.

  • In the chapter "Minimizing risks and creating transparency," the DAAD examines the security of collaborations. Universities should first gain an overview of cooperations and cooperating parties. In addition, they should use a criteria-based evaluation process for assessing collaborations. It is also essential that academics who conduct dual-use-relevant research cooperate with faculty-specific or university-wide export control offices and that university management makes such review procedures widely known. The DAAD also advises strengthening due diligence procedures to monitor whether Chinese partners have any contact with security-relevant research. Lastly, when initiating collaborations, the DAAD recommends specifying principles and identifying common grounds.

  • Last but not least, the chapter "Building China competence" focuses on developing a comprehensive understanding of "the framework conditions, decision-making processes, restrictions and grey areas of the Chinese academic system and Chinese society." The DAAD's specific recommendations here include pooling China expertise and competence at universities, for example, through China competence teams. At the same time, the individual China expertise of researchers and students must be strengthened. Among other things, the DAAD recommends offering language courses and corresponding information and training opportunities. Universities are advised not to adopt a defensive stance towards China, but to promote the development of low-threshold initial contact formats, for example. In the recommendation "Involving Chinese partners, maintaining own independence," the DAAD seeks to ensure that the development of China expertise is not dependent on China, but rather through independent measures. The China-funded Confucius Institutes are again mentioned here as an example. Finally, universities are encouraged to engage in critical dialogue. Above all, a constructive exchange can happen when Chinese narratives are deliberately confronted with an alternative narrative.

This text appeared for the first time on 16 January 2024 in Research.Table, a professional briefing from the largest independent start-up for quality journalism in Germany. The editorial team reports for the key people in the research scene who set and fill the framework for science, research and development.


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