Updated: 2020-12-21 | Duration: 5:00 min.

German Universities of Excellence (2020/21 update)

An overview on the alliance, partnerships, and unique opportunities for students

As you search for your perfect study program in Germany, you may have noticed that some universities list themselves (or are named) as a “university of excellence”. What exactly does this mean though and should these titles affect your decision in choosing a university?


The Excellence Initiative provides an opportunity for healthy competition among top universities in Germany. Universities are evaluated based on individual research departments and project proposals. Funding is then allocated towards projects and initiatives dedicated to a particular study or research field. The honor of being chosen as a university of excellence is great, but this also should not greatly influence choosing the right study program.


In the following text, we will explain exactly what being an excellence university means, why students shouldn’t let it be a “deal-breaker”, and introduce the Excellence universities. Additionally, the last section will present alternative options and explain in detail why students should not prioritize an Excellence university if it does not fit with their desired study path.

Germany’s search for Universities of Excellence - a short history

guy looking through his binoculars with books around him

The idea of appointing German universities of excellence or top universities was long frowned upon in Germany and is still viewed with skepticism by many today. This is why a competition for excellence between German universities has only been in existence for fifteen years. First, the PISA shock in 2001 (triggered by Germany's mediocre performance in the OECD's international comparative study) led to the realization that the German education system as a whole needed to innovate more.


On the other hand, in the so-called Lisbon Strategy (2000), Germany and the other EU members committed themselves to make the European Union the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economic area within ten years. In 2005, the first competition of the so-called Excellence Initiative was launched, in which universities competed for research funds in three different categories (graduate schools, research clusters, and future concepts for the entire university).


The first round of the competition (2006), however, was a real scandal: just three universities - all of them from southern Germany - were chosen as winners:

Winners of the 1st Edition of the Excellence Competition (2006)

The rest of the republic was left empty-handed - and disappointed. Efforts were quickly made to create a second round of competition (2007) that would better reflect the diversity of the federal higher education landscape and produced six more winners in the following year:

Winners of the 2nd Edition of the Excellence Competition (2007) - in addition to the 1st Edition

It was not until the third round of the competition in 2012 that the competition (which was henceforth called "Excellence Strategy") arrived in the midst of society from universities. The Technical University of Dresden was the first East German university to be represented (outside of Berlin) and was the only up-and-coming university that few had previously had on the list (Bremen).

The German Excellence Competition (2019 edition)

woman winning a race

In 2006, the German Council of Science and Humanities (WR) along with the German Research Foundation (DFG) collaborated to create an initiative that would foster cooperation among German universities and promote research and outstanding academic conditions for students and scholars. The creation of the German Excellence Strategy has since then awarded many universities across Germany with the title of German University of Excellence.


Most German universities are public and are funded mainly by taxes. Unlike the United States’ Ivy League society, Germany does not have this prestige status for private universities. Therefore, one of the goals of the Excellence Initiative is to strengthen public universities to raise international visibility. After all, Germany ranks 3rd in the world in internationally top-ranked universities (right behind the US and the UK). German Universities of Excellence can therefore be comparable to the “German Ivy League” of universities.


The purpose of the funding is to strengthen either a single university or a consortium of universities in the long term for the purpose of a sustainable joint collaboration for the purpose of developing their position in internationally leading research. The award funding is based on two criteria:


Universities of Excellence (EXU)

Individual universities are evaluated and considered for the title of Excellence University. A total of € 148 million is available annually for Universities of Excellence upon development and implementation of the German Council of Science and Humanities’ award guidelines (DFG).


Clusters of Excellence (EXC)

In Germany, many universities create collaborations or partnerships in order to remain competitive nationally in research, development, and academic potential by sharing facilities and resources for scholarly exchange. These university clusters are evaluated for funding based on fields of research. A total of € 385 million are available annually for the Clusters of Excellence upon development and implementation of the Excellence Commission's guidelines (DFG).

2019 German Excellence Initiative Universities

a trophy

Ten universities and one consortium (made up of the three big universities in Berlin), were selected for the Excellence Initiative funding in 2019. For many of these thirteen universities, it was not their first time to be honored with this status. Some universities even renewed their status for the third time while others received the title for the second time and three being first-time excellence universities. Below we have enumerated the 2019 German Universities of Excellence:

University (in alphabetical order of city name) 2019 2012 2006
RWTH Aachen University
Free University of Berlin
(as part of the Berlin University Alliance)
Humboldt University of Berlin
(as part of the Berlin University Alliance)
Technical University of Berlin
(as part of the Berlin University Alliance)
- -
University of Bonn - -
TU Dresden -
University of Hamburg - -
Heidelberg University
Karlsruhe Institute of Technology -
University of Konstanz
Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich (LMU)
Technical University of Munich (TUM)
University of Tübingen -



Further Reading

Universities (Universitäten)

2019 German Excellence University Clusters

group of people raising their left hand in sign of victory

Universities in Germany have many different alliances, associations, and partnerships. The members of such coalitions depend on their location or topic focus of universities (technical focus, arts, business, arts, etc). These alliances are meant to foster cooperation among universities and therefore many students seek out institutions that are part of a multi-university alliance. The Excellence Initiative makes sure to also take project collaborations from universities that are in a cluster or alliance into consideration.


The Clusters of Excellence include 57 research projects which are funded by the Excellence Strategy and receive approximately € 385 million per year (BMBF). These projects involved researchers from an array of disciplines and institutions who work collaboratively on projects of their choosing. In 2019, the Berlin University Alliance - namely Freie Universität, Humboldt Universität, and Technische Universität Berlin - was chosen as a Cluster of Excellence.

2019 Excellence Initiative University English programs

book with a yellow cover with the words "everyday english" written on it

The U15 partner universities are not exclusive to German students. Not only do they welcome international students, but they also offer a variety of courses in English. To make the search process easier for students, we list the more than 400 English-taught degree programs from German Universities of Excellence on our site. Alternatively, you can click on the universities below to see the English-language courses they offer:

Keep in mind that while there are many English-taught programs available, international students may also apply for courses taught in German. Whether you are applying for a study program taught in English or German, it is important to observe the language requirements of the program carefully to ensure you meet the requirements.

Cost of attending a German University of Excellence

lots of different coins

Public universities in Germany are free of tuition, with very few exceptions which are detailed in the table below. The U15 universities are exclusively public. However, there are some exceptions to free tuition. Specialized executive master’s programs (e.g. LLM, MBA, MPA, etc) can sometimes charge tuition fees. Of course, this all depends on the university and the program as well, so be sure to check each study program page carefully. To provide a general idea, an overview of tuition costs in Germany is displayed below:

Tuition Fee Semester Contribution
Pays for study program*

*Administrative costs, social services, etc, are extra.
Pays for administrative costs, social services provided by the university, local public transportation ticket for unlimited use throughout the semester.
Averages 5,000 - 7,000 €  per semester. Averages 200 - 300 € per semester.
Charged by private universities and specialized professional degrees (e.g. L.LM, MPA, etc)**. Charged by all universities.


*In the southwest of Germany lies the state of Baden-Württemberg. Baden-Württemberg has a mandatory tuition fee of 1,500 € per semester for all non-EU students.

Keep in mind that while some programs are not tuition-free, you shouldn’t overlook them on your master’s program search. Should you be interested in a program that charges tuition, keep your many funding options in mind. There are many scholarships available for international students. Also, be sure to refer to DAAD Scholarships for international students in Germany.


Further Reading

Tuition-free Universities

Critique: Are Excellence Universities worth it?

woman wearing glasses thinking about something

There is much skepticism and reluctance regarding the Excellence Strategy and university rankings in Germany. This is because most Germans regard the public university landscape as a great achievement: it offers anyone in all 16 German states equal access to a high-quality education. Sorting the public good of education into rankings is therefore still controversial today. Generally, there is still no national university ranking that brings the winners and losers down to a simple denominator. Instead, the national CHE university ranking is dominated by a procedure that strives for the greatest possible differentiation in subjects and deliberately does not publish an overall list.


While the German Universities of Excellence illustrate that Germany is constantly working forward and innovating its cutting-edge research, there are many great universities outside of the Excellence Initiative because the Excellence Strategy focuses on select research departments or project proposals at universities rather than universities as a whole. These departments must be research-based which also creates a bias in the subject areas chosen for funding. This funding (approx. € 10 million) is also criticized as it is perhaps not sufficient enough to create significant developments in cutting-edge research; the Excellence title is therefore seen more as a symbolic title.


Furthermore, Universities of Applied Sciences are not included in the evaluation, leaving many top institutions out. Consequently, many top-ranked German universities are not Universities of Excellence. For example, the Hamburg University of Technology and the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management achieved high scores in the European Commission’s Multirank Higher Education Ranking, though they were not chosen by the Excellence Initiative (BMBF). In our StudyFinder, students can find an array of English-language degree programs from nationally top-ranked institutions.

13 Universities of Excellence

Browse all English-taught programs