Corporate university sponsorship taken to task | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 12.03.2013
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Corporate university sponsorship taken to task

Struggling with tightening purse strings and shrinking research budgets, Germany's universities are fighting back with funding from big business. A new online portal aims to publicize any dubious sponsorship deals.

Berlinstudent Erik Marquardt sometimes feels like German universities are really just glorified advertising agencies.

He see's a future where lecture halls will no longer be named after great thinkers and poets, but after discount stores and online dating companies. Cafeterias will no longer be decorated according to the seasons, but furnished year-round with the colors and slogans of cell phone networks. And new students' introductions will no longer be organized by peer representatives, but by consultancy firms.

Erik Marquardt

Erik Marquardt believes the intellectual autonomy of universities is under threat

"I personally don't believe that it's a positive development, especially when you think that, at the moment, there are no legal limitations," the 25-year-old chemistry student at Berlin's Technical University told DW.

As the head of the Free Association of Student Bodies (fzs), Marquardt represents around 80 student groups from across Germany and has long been keeping a watchful eye on just how closely corporations and universities are connected through third-party funding.

"You wouldn't want to perhaps risk having ad breaks during lectures in the Aldi Lecture Hall because of a lack of funding," he said. 

Independence under threat

Marquardt is skeptical about the partnership contracts between the University of Cologne and the pharmaceutical corporation Bayer, the details of which remain closed to the public.

He's also been observing Berlin's two big universities, both of which ran an institute together with Deutsche Bank. Together with the Free Association of Student Groups and the Berlin daily newspaper taz, Marquardt launched the University Watch project.

The director of Transparency International in Germany, Christian Humborg

Christian Humborg supports collaboration, but not at the expense of independence

The German chapter of anti-corruption organization Transparency International is overseeing the project.

"With University Watch, we want to draw attention to many questionable links that exist between universities and companies. But most of all, we want to get a better feel for how things actually are," director Christian Humborg said.

Four-hundred Wikipedia pages can be found on the University Watch website - one for every German university. For one year, users can enter onto the website details about cases where funding from big business could compromise a university's intellectual independence. A team of journalists from the taz newspaper will investigate any accusations in order to ensure transparency.

However, the point of the project is not to attack commerce, Humborg said: "University Watch isn't an instrument to discredit third-party research. We believe it is practical for universities to collaborate. And they should do that as well. But the question is always, under what conditions that happens. And that is the bit that we are interested in."

Too close for comfort?

If a partnership is questionable, then there are no blueprints for that, Christian Humborg explained. For that reason he's expecting controversial debates to ensue.

A discussion on the influence of Internet giant Google on academic research is something Erik Marquardt is hoping for. It can be assumed that issues concerning data protection would possibly not be as intensively explored as, for example, those relating to advertising at a Google-financed university institute, Marquardt said.

Thomas Schildhauer, director of the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society at Humboldt University

Thomas Schildhauer denies that Google holds any influence over research at the institute

It's an assumption that Thomas Schildhauer strenuously denies. He's the founding director of just such a university institute. The Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society at Humboldt University is located in Berlin, but 80 percent of the financing comes from US-based Google.

In the first three years since opening in 2011, Google has invested around 4.5 million euros ($5.9 million) in the institute. However, Schildhauer has no worries about the influence of the Internet heavyweight on direction of research or staffing decisions.

"We have 20 people on the advisory board that evaluates us externally. That means that we have a large group of people who are totally neutral, people who have nothing at all to do with how the money is spent," he said.

For that reason, Schildhauer is relaxed about the prospect of any debate concerning the influence Google may or may not exert on the institute's research. Members of the public can read every funding contract, examine every annual report, and now they can access any information posted on the University Watch website.

For now at least, there's no concrete evidence that Google exercises influence on Schildhauer's institute registered on the site. Still, Internet users have a good year to look into it.

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