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Joybrato Mukherjee, DAAD president, Germany

The German Academic Exchange Service or DAAD is the largest German support organisation in the field of international academic co-operation. Its new president, Joybrato Mukherjee, was vice president of the organisation until December 2019. The transition into the new role has been a smooth one despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, he told The PIE News, as he detailed what he hopes to achieve next.


Photo: Wilke/DAAD

"Competition doesn't mean that we don't want to cooperate or collaborate"

The PIE: As president of DAAD, what are you hoping to focus on? 

Joybrato Mukherjee: In this new decade, we will have to focus on technological innovations – all the digital technologies, virtual environments, augmented reality options that will dramatically affect our understanding of intercultural experience and international collaboration. This is certainly a topic that we have to delve into much more deeply than we have.

“In this new decade, we will have to focus on technological innovations”

To what extent can we use digital options to also perhaps replace some physical mobility, given the carbon footprint of our organisation? I mean, we are an agency that funds individual mobility – we have to take the climate political debate into account for our strategy for the future.

Europe will be a major focus of ours too. What can we contribute in order to stabilise the common European research and teaching space?

The third area has to do with the worldwide tendency of an increasing number of countries becoming challenging or even difficult partners. How do we defend our European values when negotiating with countries or with partner institutions that have other political systems that disagree with the values that we operate on?

The PIE: What projects has DAAD either started or planned to start with universities in more ‘difficult’ countries?

JM: China, for obvious reasons at the moment, is a challenging partner. We do have various transnational projects with Chinese universities as well as partnerships on collaborative projects, e.g. between German Universities of Applied Sciences (traditionally labelled  ‘Fachhochschule’) and Chinese partner institutions – the Sino-German University of Applied Sciences.

Another challenging and important partner at the moment is Turkey. In Istanbul, a new campus of the Turkish German University was inaugurated by [German] chancellor Merkel and [Turkish] president Erdogan in January.

It’s a project funded by DAAD – a German university with a German strategy and structure but on Turkish soil, co-funded and co-financed by Turkey and Germany.

In Germany, we are currently discussing a lot to what extent the collaborations between Turkey and Germany can be upheld given the political situation in Turkey. But this project shows that a scientific academic platform for research and teaching is an important transnational project.

The PIE: How does DAAD decide which projects are important and which ones it wants to fund?

JM: That depends. Proposals may come from individual universities that approach DAAD with an idea for a transnational project. The idea may come from inside DAAD as well. Suggestions can also come from the political sphere. The German-Turkish University was created as an idea by considerations of politicians in Turkey and Germany. Our job is to turn an individual or political idea into a solid, substantial roadmap for setting up a viable academic project.

The PIE: Bringing it back to what you mentioned about DAAD’s role within Europe and stabilising that research space. Why is that so important now?

JM: We want to see that the common European research and teaching area we have created through Bologna, Erasmus+ and other projects doesn’t fall apart. Brexit is probably the most substantial manifestation of those centrifugal forces that we can see all over Europe.

“We hope that Britain will continue to take part in Erasmus in the long term”

We hope that Britain will continue to take part in Erasmus in the long term. It’s a wonderful platform to provide young students with an intercultural experience in another European country. This, at the end of the day, will help create a kind of a European identity in young citizens all over Europe. And creating this identity is key to keeping Europe and the European Union together.

This is not only for altruistic reasons. I mean, if we want to stay competitive in the world and on a global scale, then we also have to bring together the academic forces of all European countries.

The PIE: Do you see Germany’s universities identifying themselves as European or German in the first instance?

JM: The DAAD is a German organisation, but in our mission statement, we say we are a German organisation in Europe. What we have to do constantly, continuously, is to think about our strategy at both levels. Of course, we are a national organisation, we are funded as a national funding agency by national ministries. But major funding comes also from the European Union, as we are the national agency in Germany in charge of the entire Erasmus program.

What I meant when I talked about the global scale of competition was that if we want to compete with the strongest universities worldwide and with rising academic powers like China, then we have to accept the fact that we can only stay competitive if the best German and European institutions join forces in transnational projects.

Of course, European funding for these joint projects and mobility is key. That’s the reason why we want, in the post-Brexit phase, to find a solution to keep Britain as one of the strongest academic nations in Europe when it comes to European funding and European programs.

The PIE: In terms of working with those institutions that you’re competing against, say, if it’s American universities or Chinese universities, do you see that benefit in working together more closely with partners in those sorts of countries?

JM: Competition doesn’t mean that we don’t want to cooperate or collaborate. Despite the increasingly challenging situation in China, and despite the disagreements that we have with the current federal administration in Washington, we are and will in the future be strongly interested in collaborating with the best universities worldwide.

We want our best scholars to spend time at the best universities worldwide, to invite people from over there to our universities, and we also want to see student mobility increase, especially with partners in the US and China. But that doesn’t mean that we are not fully aware of the fact that at the global scale, we are also in a competition for the best talent worldwide.

“I think universities in Germany have learned a lot from American institutions and others”

China has increased funding for higher education dramatically from a European perspective. And of course, it’s all about getting the best talent, students, researchers from all over the world. America has been for many years the best example for that.

The PIE: Can German universities learn from the US in terms of attracting the best talent?

JM: I think universities in Germany have learned a lot from American institutions and others, for example, by providing English medium study programs. Today there is a vastly different situation than, let’s say, 20 or 30 years ago.

The PIE: One thing I would propose that the rest of the world could learn from Germany is refugee integration at universities. Could you tell me a bit about your work at that level?

JM: We do believe that we have been very successful at integrating refugees into our high education system. In the autumn of 2015, DAAD created two new programs. The first – ‘Welcome’ – was intended to fund students who would support refugee students when they began to study at German universities. The focus was not so much on providing money to the universities or to administrative structures, but to student bodies.

‘Integra’ is the second program that we created. That one was intended to provide funding for institutions to provide language courses and support structures for refugee students so that they would learn more about the German system.

Four years down the road, we see that 25,000–30,000 of those refugee students that came to Germany from 2015-18 are now enrolled at German universities. And we will have to monitor that closely over the next couple of years. But so far, we would say we have been quite successful at integrating refugee students into our higher education system.

The PIE: You mentioned the carbon footprint of international mobility earlier. What sort of projects is DAAD working on to counteract that?

JM: There are various options here, and I guess we are at the beginning of a long road. But we have to accept the fact that funding more and more individual physical mobility can’t be the only option for our future strategy.

We have to ask ourselves which mobilities can be replaced by virtual or augmented reality scenarios. Is it necessary to provide funding for this or that conference? Is it necessary to have all the interviews of the applicants in face-to-face situations?

“So far, we would say we have been quite successful at integrating refugee students into our higher education system”

At the extreme end of that line of options is a science fiction scenario perhaps, but let’s see where technological innovations will head over the next 10, 20 or 30 years. The question arises whether a semester abroad can be conducted partially or fully in an augmented reality scenario.

Also, intercultural experience can also be gained on our international campuses of German universities, for example. Each German university has an international campus. How can this potential be used more strategically for providing German students with an intercultural experience? For us at DAAD, generally speaking, the intellectual challenge is how to dissociate intercultural experience and physical mobility.

We could think about scenarios where students from other countries would not study at a German university by moving physically to Germany, but in a virtual environment.

Long-distance learning platforms are also an option. My aim is to think more strategically about dissociating these topics, which so far, have always been seen as belonging together.

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