Higher education system and types of universities in Germany

Germany is known around the world for offering a wide range of various educational opportunities in different fields and of varying levels. Its higher education system is specifically renowned for high-quality standards and excellent reputation. Thus, it does not come as a surprise that over the last years Germany is ranking as number one studying destination among all non-German speaking countries. Let us take a closer look at the factors that make studying in Germany increasingly popular among not only locals but also internationals with dreams of getting expert qualifications abroad.

Success factors of German universities

Focus on innovation

Majority of institutions in Germany have a strong focus on academic research and technological inventions. Innovation is perceived as the driver of the global economy and academics are provided with important stimulus for continuous progress – 80 German Nobel prize laureates serve as confirmation of that.

Strong partnership networks

Getting accepted to a German university often means entering a vast network of partnerships with a lot of educational opportunities. German universities cooperate with different institutions worldwide and are offering international exchange and dual degree programmes, as well as other important partnerships. Such cooperation allows broadening academic and learning experience of students.

International programmes

Germany gives a lot of importance to the international exchange which is widely supported by institutes of higher education. Universities in Germany welcome international students from all over the world which account for approximately 12% of the total number of students in Germany. At the same time, students here are encouraged to go abroad for a certain time during their studies.

Long-established traditions

Even though most of the universities in Germany today follow the modern scientific approach, it does not mean giving up on long, successful tradition that was born and built upon over centuries. Starting with the first German university in Heidelberg, which was founded in 1386, an educational culture has developed here.

Regulation of German education

Education in Germany is regulated at the level of each individual federal state with local acts and guidelines meaning there is no nation-wide legislation. Moreover, universities are given a lot of authority to define their own policies, as well as admission and application processes. Therefore, we strongly recommend to thoroughly check the requirements of each specific university when preparing for entry.

Types of German universities

There are three different types of German universities that you need to consider when planning your education path abroad:

Academic universities

Theoretical knowledge and methodological expertise are known to be the ground basis of programmes taught at academic universities, regardless of the course chosen. Another characteristic feature is the possibility to do a doctorate, which is usually not possible at other types of higher education institutions.

Universities of applied sciences

Otherwise known as “Fachhochschulen”, those universities have a strong focus on the practical side of learning and professional practice. The range of subjects taught at those institutions usually covers such areas as business, technology, social work, and medicine. An important part of those academic programmes is a so-called “Praxissemester” – a work placement for the period of one or several semesters at companies in Germany or abroad.

Colleges of art and music

Those institution types offer study courses for future musicians and artists that aim to become professionals in their fields. While certain institutions deliver a whole range of subjects in arts, others choose to focus on a specific area like music or design.

Private vs. public universities

Most universities in Germany are state-funded and attract the majority of students in the country due to low tuition fees and high-quality education. In fact, more than 90% of all students in Germany enrol at public universities, while approximately 5% choose to attend a private university.

There are more than 120 private universities across Germany with most of them being universities of applied science. So, should you decide to pursue studies with a focus on professional practice rather than theoretical knowledge, it is quite likely that you would need to attend a private university.

Despite the differences in tuition fees, it is well-known that both public and private universities have high standards of teaching and offer equally valuable programmes for both German and international students. It is up to you to decide which university and programme are most fitting and would benefit your future most.

Differences in the study environment between private and public universities

German universities are organised differently from many other countries, while state universities can differ from private institutions. Most state universities do not control attendance regularly for most of their courses. It is up to you, the student, to create your own time schedule and to make sure you are well prepared for the eventual exam or assessment.

Furthermore, is it up to you to register for courses, exams, or events and to prepare for classes and to do follow-up work. Most study programmes at state universities have lectures with high diversity in structure and in their requirements. You can choose the courses you prefer and, therewith, tailor the study programme to you individually.

It is important to note that many registrations for examinations, courses or events have deadlines that must be adhered to. Accordingly, the amount of time you need to earn your degree at a state university strongly depends on your self-organisation and academic proficiency.

Studying at a private university, however, is often quite different from attending a state university. In most cases you receive a set timetable with mostly set courses, only leaving a few courses for you to choose from. Attendance is, furthermore, kept track of in some institutions and must be at a certain minimal level for you to pass the courses.

Additionally, the standard period of study is usually shorter than at state university, with only limited possibilities for you to extend the whole duration at some universities. Also, further costs are charged if you must attend courses again because you failed the exam, handed in a paper too late or did not meet the minimum attendance. Organisational skills, as well as profound time management, are, therefore, essential skills required to successfully study in Germany at both, private and state institutions.

Tuition fees at German universities

Are German universities free of charge?

One of the most frequently asked questions among international students is whether it is true that studying in Germany is possible for free. Yes, indeed, many of the state-funded universities offer low or tuition-free programmes which include undergraduate and many of the master’s degree programmes. This applies to both German and international students.

Keep in mind that some of the administrative costs related to your studies will still apply, like the fee for the student union or the price of your transportation ticket. Altogether, those expenses usually do not go higher than € 250 – € 300 per semester.

Even though there are good chances for internationals to get a tuition-free spot at a German university, studying abroad requires a good level of financial security that needs to be proven to German authorities before you can come to study. For example, you will likely need to open a blocked account with €10,332 for a year of your studies in Germany.

When do I need to pay for studying in Germany?

There are still cases when even at public universities a student needs to pay a tuition fee of €10.000 per semester or even more. This mainly applies to master programmes and especially non-consecutive degrees that you might wish to obtain. Therefore, carefully check the requirements of the specific university you are interested in before submitting your application.

Should you decide to study at a private university, be prepared to face high tuition fees as well.

Getting admitted to a German university

A list of special requirements needs to be fulfilled for you to be accepted to a German university. You will be asked to go through the entrance qualification (Hochschulzugangsberechtigung”) and some universities might also request additional certificates or even interviews to be completed.

> Read more about admission requirements at German universities

Qualifications of the German higher education system

Being part of the European Higher Education Area, Germany follows the directives of the Bologna Process with three levels of higher education qualifications:

Bachelor’s Degree in Germany

This is the very first qualification one can obtain when studying at a German university. Usually, the bachelor’s degree programme consists of six to eight semesters depending on the university type and lasts up to 4 academic years.
You can choose to study Bachelor of Arts (B.A.), Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) or Bachelor of Engineering (B. Eng.). After you get your degree, you already have an opportunity to start your career. Having a bachelor’s degree is often enough to be hired for entry positions in Germany or other European countries. However, many students decide to continue their education and increase their chances of successful employment even further.

Master’s Degree in Germany

Bachelor’s degree is followed by the second higher education qualification which is a master’s degree. During this programme, you will be able to deepen your knowledge in the chosen subject of studies and become a high-profile specialist in your field of interest. In fact, for many senior positions in the fields of business, engineering, or accountancy, having a master’s degree is a must.

When deciding for a master’s course, you also can choose in between a Master of Arts (M.A.), Master of Science (M.Sc.), and Master of Engineering (M.Eng.) based on your desired qualification.
It will take you 3-4 semesters to complete the programme that usually takes up to 2 academic years.

PhD Degree in Germany

Germany is known to be one of the most attractive places to study for a PhD degree – a third higher education qualification. This in-depth research programme requires highly qualified specialists to work on a specific topic for the period of usually two to five years. At the end of those studies, a student needs to successfully present a “Doctorate” with the results of conducted research to be awarded a PhD.

It is good to know that there are different types of PhD programmes in Germany you can choose from. If you decide to work within the traditional model, you need to find a supervisor that will support you and your research topic beforehand. Once this is settled, you will be able to work at your own pace and according to the structure, you two agree on.
Should you decide to go for a structured PhD programme, you will likely have a group of supervisors helping you with your research and a fixed term of about 3 years to complete the course.

Open your blocked account with Fintiba

Although studying at a German university involves low tuition fees, visitors from outside the EU must still provide proof of financial resources in order to obtain a German visa. Find out more about our digital solution and open your blocked account completely online in just a few steps.

German academic year and typical semester dates

At academic universities, and therewith at most public universities in Germany, an academic year consists of two periods: a summer semester (usually, from April to September) and a winter semester (usually, from October to March).
In comparison, at most universities of applied sciences, the winter semester start is in September and the start of the summer semester in March.

While a semester itself is usually a period of six months, it also includes semester breaks, examinations, and internships. Therefore, the actual period of studies is typically much shorter than the semester duration. Also, some private universities prefer to divide the academic year into trimesters, so that one academic year contains three different study blocks.

Your Fintiba Study Guide.
Germany at one glance.

From preparing your stay to mastering your visa application and navigating through daily life in Germany. Our Study Guide within the Fintiba app provides you with relevant information throughout all important stages of your German adventure – tailored to your individual situation.

Last update: 06-01-2021

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