It is hard to find anyone who can offer a sensible explanation for why the 16 German states signed up to a reform in 2006 that prevented the federal government from directly injecting cash into their universities. Federal funds had previously been used to share the considerable burden of financing infrastructure and large equipment in universities, for which the states have general responsibility. The reform made such sharing impossible. And that left universities, particularly those in poorer states, to deteriorate in quality.

Both federal and state governments now agree that the situation must be reversed — urgently, given the relative underfunding of German universities. A proposal on 4 March by education and research minister Annette Schavan aims to do just that.

But the required (two-word) change to the German constitution is opposed by some political parties and certain states. Opponents say that the reform should not be limited to universities, and should allow the federal government to co-finance schools too — a demand that Schavan cannot accept.

To understand the situation, one has to look back to Germany's 1949 post-war constitution, which was designed to ensure that a dictator could never again seize centralized power. This involved the creation of a highly federalized country with politically strong state governments. In particular, responsibility for education, the most sensitive political issue, was placed exclusively in the hands of the states. The constitution allowed the federal government to offer only short-term project money to universities.

The federal government could do even more to steer academic science in Germany towards sustained competitiveness.

This admirable philosophy was not without problems. Universities in the more cash-strapped states, such as Saarland in the west and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in the east, could not compete with universities in rich states such as Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg in the south. And frustrated successive federal governments were unable to exert political influence to force universities to raise their game and become competitive. Despite Germany's general wealth, barely half a dozen of its universities regularly appear in the Shanghai Jiao Tong University ranking of the world's top 100 universities. The two most successful ones — the Technical University of Munich (now placed forty-seventh) and the Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich (placed fifty-fourth) — are in Bavaria. The University of Heidelberg in Baden-Württemberg comes in third, at sixty-second.

For decades, the federal and state governments have colluded to make exceptions to the strict federalization of universities in ways — such as in infrastructure — that did not allow the federal government to exert political influence. A 2005 agreement to create the multibillion-euro Excellence Initiative — which will expire in 2017 after two rounds — was something of an exception. The competition for graduate schools, research clusters and the coveted title of 'elite university' indirectly allowed the federal government to exert its political will.

So why the 2006 decision to stop money flowing to universities from the federal government? Probably because the 2006 federal reform was a much wider-ranging attempt to clarify responsibilities between governments on both levels that had, over the decades, been rendered fuzzy by the introduction of innumerable exceptions to the divisions laid out in the 1949 constitution. Universities were a tiny part of this. Although experts saw the problems immediately, they could not persuade politicians to delay a highly complicated agreement to negotiate an apparent detail.

German schools certainly need greater investment, and the federal government is well placed to help. But in this sensitive area, the states do not want the federal government to share in decisions on how its donated money is spent. This is unacceptable to the government, which until 2006 had always participated in decisions about the co-financing of university infrastructure and equipment through its inclusion in the German Council of Science and Humanities, a high-level committee of scientists and politicians.

The debate over schools could involve years of painful negotiation, and German universities should not be made to wait. If the Social Democrats and Greens drop their opposition to the two-word addition to the constitution now, that change could be in place by March 2013. They should do so. The federal government could then, for example, directly ensure the survival beyond 2017 of successful institutes created in the Excellence Initiative, even if the states in which they are located cannot give them permanent financing. And the government could do even more to steer academic science in Germany towards sustained competitiveness — not to usurp the states' power but to give them financial breathing space.