The ‘Humboldt Ranking’: Germany’s Top Universities and Research Institutions (as selected by international AvH-Fellows)

The prestigious Alexander von Humboldt-Foundation (AvH) allows its fellows (the so-called Humboldtians) to freely choose where to spend their research stay. The ranking reflects their most popular choices

This article is about a very prestigious ranking - the Alexander von Humboldt (AvH) Ranking or in short: the Humboldt-Ranking. It shows which universities and research institutes gain the highest number of top-class fellows from all over the world that are awarded by the very exclusive Humboldt Fellowships.



Humboldt Ranking

Issued by

Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung)

Frequency of publication

In general every three years (2009; 2012; 2014; 2017; 2020)

Level of comparison

Institutional; Field

Number of Institutions

more than 110 Universities (Universitäten, Universities of Applied Sciences, Academies of Music and Fine Arts) plus more than 250 Research Centers 

Focus on

Reputation and popularity among international researchers

Ranking parameters

number of Humboldtians (AvH fellows) hosted at the institution


In addition to the Universities (Universitäten) it also lists Research Institutes, Universities of Applied Sciences, Academies of Music and Fine Art



This is part of our "Germany in University Rankings" articles' series


What is the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation?

The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (AvH) is Germany’s flagship institution for the international academic exchange of top-level researchers. In many regards, the Humboldt foundation can be considered as a sister organization of the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) - but more exclusive.

Both AvH and DAAD:

  • represent Germany’s Higher Education Landscape;
  • are mainly sponsored by the national government (especially the Federal Ministries of Foreign Affairs and of Education and Research);  

  • reside in Germany’s former capital (Bonn);

  • support the academic exchange of Germans and Foreigners by Fellowships (AvH) and  Scholarships (DAAD).

Whereas the DAAD (1,100 employees) is rather a mass institution with more than 100.000 Scholars per year (peak: 145.000 in 2019) where you can apply on your own, the Humboldt Foundation is much more exclusive - and high-class. With a budget of 145M EUR (DAAD: 549M EUR, both numbers for 2019) it finances only 800 fellows and prizes each year that need to be nominated by professors or even university rectors. And these awards are really high-class:

Alexander von Humboldt Professorship


Sofja Kovalevskaja Award


Humboldt Research Award


Humboldt-Research Fellowships


German Chancellor Fellowship


In a nutshell, the Humboldt Fellowships are among the most prestigious awards worldwide and it’s an honor for any researcher to become part of this elite club. Hence, the motto "Once a Humboldtian, always a Humboldtian" is still valid today among the 30,000 Humboldt Alumni worldwide. For a good reason: Among the Humboldtians, there are 55 Nobel Prize winners - if the Humboldt Foundation was a country, it would be ranked 5th in the list of Nobel laureates by countries right after the USA (398), UK (137), Germany (111) and France (70) [numbers for 2021].


Visiting researchers are from all over the world, however, the majority come from the USA (1017) followed by China (630), India (385), Great Britain (336), and Italy (253).


Further Reading

Scholarships for international students (2022/23)

Is the Humboldt Ranking trustworthy?

Yes, because it is based on a very clear metric that is quite easy to follow: The Humboldt Ranking lists universities and research centers in Germany, where international scientists have spent their research stays as Alexander von Humboldt Foundation scholarship holders. For this ranking the number of guest stays at the particular institution in the past five years is evaluated.

The Humboldt Rankings show how very attractive Germany is as a location for conducting research and reflect German science’s many good international connections. The rankings also indicate which universities and research institutions are particularly popular among the Humboldt Foundation’s international guest researchers. In addition to large universities in major cities, Germany also has a wealth of attractive, smaller institutions with an international profile.


Hans-Christian Pape, President of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation

In a word, this ranking is quite popular in Germany because:



Leading position in the Humboldt ranking is an important indicator for the global reputation of an institution in Germany



This ranking also shows subject areas in which German research is so good that it wins the international competition for the best minds



To avoid statistical distortions due to the different sizes of the host institutions, the Humboldt ranking is based on a weighted count of the number of visiting researchers per university



As each institution has its specific strengths and weaknesses in the various subject areas, the ranking also differentiates between the four major scientific areas of humanities and social sciences, life sciences, natural sciences, and engineering

About the methodology

The methodology of the ranking is quite simple compared to other international rankings - counting the number of international Humboldtians (Alexander von Humboldt fellows) a university or research institution has gained (hosted) in the past 4 years  (However, to make it more just and provide appropriate comparative analysis, several conditions are taken into account:

  • Humboldtianer are counted only once per host institution. Even if the person visited an institution several times as part of research;

  • If a Humboldtianer stays at several host institutions during the scholarship, this is counted as one stay for each of the participating institutions; 

  • All stays of one month or more are taken into account;

  • The ranking only includes research grants- and research awards-connected stays;

  • Stays within the framework of programs such as the German Chancellor Scholarship Program, the International Climate Protection Scholarship Program, the Hezekiah Wardwell Scholarship or partnership and cooperation programs are NOT taken into account; 

  • In order to avoid statistical distortions due to the different sizes of the host institutions, the Humboldt ranking relates the guest stays to the number of professorships at the respective scientific university. The weighted results reflect the number of recipients per 100 professors. These figures are based on the information provided by the Federal Statistical Office on the number of W3/C4 (Universitätsprofessor/Professor) professorships at the individual universities.

  • In the case of university institutions, only those institutions are considered in the weighting that have at least five W3/C4 professorships (Universitätsprofessor/Professor). Since the personal details of the Federal Statistical Office were blacked out at some universities in certain scientific areas for data protection reasons, they could not be taken into account in the weighting.

  • Since each institution has its specific strengths and weaknesses in the various subject areas, the Humboldt Ranking also differentiates according to the four major scientific fields: the humanities and social sciences, the life sciences, the natural sciences and engineering

Which German universities are ranked?

The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation includes any university or research institute in Germany that hosted a Humboldtian (AvH fellow) in the past five years (for the 2020 rankings, the years from 2015-2019 were considered). Since Humboldtians can freely choose where to spend their research stay, the ranking can theoretically include any German university (regardless of the university type) or public research institute (e.g. belonging to the big four of Germany’s research societies: Max Planck, Fraunhofer, Leibniz, Helmholtz).

However, since the number of Humboldt fellows is rather small, only a limited no. of universities make it into the ranking. As a rule of thumb, approx. one-third of the German universities can be found in the ranking.

The Ranking consists of two lists (which still reflect the ‘old’ differentiation between Universitäten and other Universities or research institutes):


Overall ranking of Universities (including rankings according to scientific areas)


Research Institutes, Universities of Applied Sciences, Academies of Music and Fine Art, plus a few small Universities (with less than five W3/C4 professorships)

Universities and the rest


Further Reading

Germany in University Rankings


As it becomes clear from the previous sections, the ranking is very straightforward and specific. However, this simplicity implies some criticism:


Quantity equals quality? It is true that via this ranking both the international visibility and reputation can be read to a certain extent. However, comprehensive evaluative conclusions are not possible only based on one parameter.


Subjective choices: Due to its limited selection of individuals (not all international researchers, but only the ones awarded scholarship/fellowship), the ranking seems to be more subjective.


City Ranking? As the leading institutions are in Berlin and Munich, it is possible that the scientists may not only consider the attractiveness the host institution itself but also the city when selecting their destination.


Advice Box

CHOOSE THE BEST FOR YOU! Depending on the main question of the ranking, different universities can be positioned differently in a national or international ranking. A university can be ranked number one just because their food/drinks in the cafeteria might be particularly tasty and the ranking is exactly about that. Therefore, every ranking has its own approach. One ranking is interested in the third-party funds raised from industry. Another asks about student satisfaction with research and teaching. Still, others look to the outside world and want to know from employers which institutions produce the "best" graduates and "quality". Therefore, to repeat ourselves - CHOOSE THE BEST FOR YOU!