Higher education in Germany
Good study opportunities, excellent and accessible universities
In Germany, access to higher education is regarded as an essential component of the basic right to education. This means that, at many institutions, it’s possible to study free of charge. How is higher education organised, what requirements have to be fulfilled in order to study, and what must foreign students and researchers watch out for?
Higher education institutions in Germany
Over 400 institutions in Germany provide higher education. In this aim, they pursue different goals. Universities focus on acquiring knowledge of a subject and carry out research. By contrast, the teaching and research at universities of applied sciences is more oriented towards practical application and careers.
At art academies, gifted musicians, actors and visual artists acquire and develop their skills. Colleges of education are only found in Baden-Württemberg. They are solely concerned with the education of teachers.
The majority of universities and universities of applied sciences are publicly funded by the federal states. Alongside these, there are several private institutions, as well as theological colleges supported by one of the churches. Particularly amongst universities of applied sciences, almost as many are privately supported (92) as are funded by the state (106).
Universities in Germany 2017/18
Type of university
Number of institutions
Students (winter semester 2017/18)
Universities of applied sciences
(excl. administration colleges)
Higher education entry requirements vary according to the type of institution. To study at university you need an Abitur (secondary school diploma), while for a university of applied sciences a Fachabitur (vocational diploma) is adequate as a school leaving certificate. In addition you have the right to freely choose your subject and place of study, making it possible to enrol even at centres of excellence. If the number of applicants exceeds the available number of student places, admission is restricted. In this case, selection is based on the average mark for the Abitur and the length of the waiting period between Abitur and applying for the student place. In addition, the universities may accept applicants according to their own admission criteria. Landing a place at university is thus easier in Germany than in the US or UK, where the institutions select their students themselves.
In the case of foreign applicants, the universities decide whether they fulfil the relevant acceptance criteria. In the final analysis, this is because the school leaving certificates of different countries are not necessarily comparable with one another. Often, however, it is sufficient if you have studied the same subject for a few semesters in your home country.
At art academies, on the other hand, it is your talent alone that counts, not your school leaving certificate. Interested parties must apply to the relevant colleges, which select their students themselves.
Higher education qualifications in Germany
The bachelor’s degree is the first level of graduation at a university and is accepted as a qualification for a profession. Most students, however, aim to achieve a least a master’s degree. Depending on the subject and institution, the normal study period is from three to four years.
The purpose of a master’s programme is usually to deepen previous studies or explore an additional topic. It is equally possible to obtain a master’s degree at a university or university of applied sciences. The normal study period is between one and two years.
In the 20th century, the diploma was the standard leaving qualification for most university courses in Germany. Since the Bologna Process, which was intended to harmonise study programmes and qualifications, diploma courses have now become the exception. The usual study period for diploma courses is roughly five years.
The state examination (Staatsexamen) used to be required for medicine, teaching professions and jurisprudence. Even today, these subjects form special cases in Germany. The state examination continues to be the normal graduation certificate in medicine. For teaching posts, the state examination was gradually replaced by other certificates, but state examinations still feature at the end of the course of study. On the other hand, legal studies may be concluded with a bachelor’s or mater’s degree, or also with a state examination. The last of these, however, is only required by judges, public prosecutors, lawyers and solicitors in order to be approved for their profession. By contrast, either of the other two certificates is sufficient for many other professions in business and administration.
In Germany, it is normally only possible to obtain a doctor’s degree at a university, after successfully completing a course of study. Many doctoral candidates teach on-site at their place of study, or collaborate on a research project with their supervisor. Research institutes and companies outside the university also offer positions to doctoral candidates. On the other hand, doctoral candidates may find structured doctoral programmes at graduate schools. Many doctoral candidates also support themselves with grants.
Postdoctoral teaching qualification
For a long time, the authorisation to teach (Habilitation) was an essential requirement for a professorship. Even today the academic title ‘Dr. habil’ still carries a high degree of kudos, but it has long ceased to be an admission ticket to a tenured professorship. Other career paths, such as junior professorships or heading up a junior research unit, now count as equally valid experience in many subject areas.
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Higher education expenses in Germany
Teaching, study, and part of the research at public universities are financed by the basic funding that the federal states allocate to the universities. According to the Federal Statistical Office, the federal states paid out a total of 23.6 billion euros to universities in 2015.
Cost of higher education in Germany
Students do not have to pay fees for their first period of study up to master’s level. However, some federal states require long-term students to pay a surcharge of 500 euros per semester. Only Baden-Württemberg and the Rhineland-Palatinate impose study fees on second courses of study. On the other hand, in Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt, the universities can decide for themselves whether to impose fees. Nevertheless, introducing student fees is a regular topic of political discussion. Some federal states have temporarily imposed student fees, but then abandoned the idea.
Students, therefore, are only liable for a lump sum for administration plus a contribution to the student union and, possibly, to the student body each semester. Additionally, in many cities the semester contribution includes a semester ticket for public transport that is mandatory for all students.
In most federal states, the exemption from fees also applies to all foreigners. An exception is Baden-Württemberg, where students from non-EU countries must pay 1,500 euros each semester. In Saxony, by contrast, the universities themselves can stipulate which fees non-EU citizens must pay. However, they do not make use of this regulation.
On the other hand, private universities in Germany are partly financed by student fees. The institution itself determines the amount in each case. Some universities offer financing plans, in which student fees are not levied until after graduation.
Quality of higher education in Germany
Universities in Germany cover a very wide range of subjects. Universities of applied sciences, by contrast, specialise in specific disciplines – for example administration, social welfare or engineering.
The courses must demonstrate a minimum level of quality, and must be approved by the institutions for academic self-management (faculty board, academic senate), along with their study and examination requirements. Additionally, the quality of many courses in Germany is regularly monitored by external accreditation agencies.
Nevertheless, the quality of courses at the various universities is different. Not the least of the reasons for this are the different subject specialisations which the universities themselves cultivate. Universities that specialise in technology may possibly set up in smaller institutes than those for humanities subjects. Universities that can point to a particularly strong tradition in the humanities will place the emphasis there. On the other hand, mass universities may often have a larger number of professors and other teaching staff per faculty. Smaller universities, by contrast, often offer their students much more intensive personal support.
One way to find out more about the quality of different courses is by looking at rankings. In international comparisons, institutions such as the universities of Berlin, Heidelberg and Munich mostly rank in the upper middle range, and less often amongst the top 25.
Higher education in Germany for foreign students
In 2016, more than 250,000 people from abroad studied in Germany. This was almost twice as many as in the year 2000. In the same period, the percentage of foreign students amongst students as a whole rose from 7.4 to 9.7.
Students from abroad are a welcome sight at German universities, since they are proof that a particular course is internationally attractive. Most courses at German universities are conducted in German. However, there are also international study programmes in English. Foreign students can attend German courses at the language centres of their respective university.
Number and percentage of foreign students according to selected subject groups, 2016
Foreign staff are also very welcome at institutions of higher education in Germany. For this reason, many positions are also advertised internationally. Of the approximately 387,000 academics who were employed exclusively at universities in Germany in 2016, almost 46,000 held a foreign passport. This is equivalent to a proportion of around 12 per cent.
At many institutions the teaching situation is tense, owing to the high student numbers. Therefore any researcher who voluntarily takes on teaching duties at their institution – even in English – at least wins sympathy.
Table: The five most important countries of origin for foreign academic and artistic staff at universities in Germany (Federal Statistical Office, as at: 2016)
Foreign academic and artistic staff
(UK somewhere in middle region: 1,604 employees. Source: Staff at Universities, Subject series 11, Series 4.4, p. 236ff.)