When you pour a lot of work into your education, you want to make sure that you do so at the best place. International students understandably turn to rankings to find the top German university. However, before you do that, you have to decide which ranking reflects most accurately what you expect from a good university. This article helps you to navigate through the landscape of university rankings and introduces you to different factors to consider when including rankings in your decision-making process on where to study in Germany.
Which university ranking should I trust? Can I trust them at all?
There are various international rankings and some national rankings that only include German universities. Each ranking uses its own parameters - mostly focused on research performance - to measure what a good university is.
This reveals very different understandings of what even counts as a university.
- For the German higher education system, this often has the consequence that reputable Universities of Applied Sciences are not considered.
- Another problem is that some rankings measure research output in journal publications, which disadvantages schools that are excellent in the humanities, where most books are published.
Thus, no ranking holds the ultimate truth about the higher education landscape, which is why there is no definite answer to which ranking you should trust.
The 4 Top international rankings: Shanghai, THE, QS and Webometrics
Overall, rankings can be a useful tool to compare certain aspects of different universities. There are also other international university rankings that are relevant (e.g. U-Multirank). However, the following four seem to us to be the most influential in terms of public perception. Use our tables to find out which rankings address topics that are most important to you.
Table: Comparison of Worldwide University Rankings
|Academic Ranking of World Universities (Shanghai Ranking; AWRU)||Times Higher Education (THE) World University Ranking||QS World University Ranking||Ranking Web (Webometrics Ranking of World Universities)|
|Issued by||Shanghai Ranking Consultancy
(before 2009: Center for World-Class Universities Graduate School of Education, Shanghai Jiao Tong University).
|London-based newspaper Times Higher Education in cooperation with Elsevier.||London-based Quacquarelli Symonds (QS).||Cybermetrics Lab @ Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas.||Issued by|
|Frequency of publication||Annually (since 2003).||Annually (since 2004; new methodology since 2010).||Annually.||Semi-annually (since 2004).||Frequency of publication|
|Level of comparison||Institutional; (field & subject rankings available).||Institutional; (subject & teaching-focused rankings available).||Institutional; (subject & other rankings available).||Institutional.||Level of comparison|
|# of institutions||1,000 published (1,800 ranked).||Approx. 1,400.||1,002.||31,000.||# of institutions|
|# German Unis||51
(July 2020 edition).
|# German Unis|
|Focus on||Research performance.||Teaching, research, and knowledge transfer.||University reputation and academic performance.||Web performance.||Focus on|
Quality of education.
Quality of faculty.
Per capita performance of university.
Citations per faculty.
International faculty & international student ratios.
|Strengths||Highly regarded globally.||Includes survey-based indicators.||Approved by the International Ranking Expert Group (IREG).||Includes a large number of ranked universities.||Strengths|
The 3 Top national rankings: Humboldt, CHE, DFG
Table: Comparison of German University Rankings
|Humboldt-Ranking||CHE-Ranking||DFG Ranking (‘Förderatlas’)|
|Issued by||Alexander von Humboldt Foundation||Centrum für Hochschulentwicklung; cooperation partner German newspaper Die Zeit||Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation)|
|Frequency of publication||2009; 2012; 2014; 2017||Updated annually (since 1998)||Tri-annually (since 1997)|
|Level of comparison||Institutional; departmental||Subject-performance across universities||
Institutional; departmental information available
|# of institutions||79||37 subject-fields at 296 universities||85 universities with DFG support|
|Focus on||Reputation & popularity among international researchers||Many indicators that may influence a students’ decision of where to study||Research performance|
|Ranking parameters||# of holders of Humboldt foundation scholarship @ the institution||
Facts about a subject at the universities, e.g. # of international students, specialties about the library.
Analyses, e.g. research reputation.
Student opinions, based on comprehensive surveys
|Amounts of research funding universities could allocate from DFG|
|Strengths||Also lists non-university research institutions||
Specifically targeted at students,
possibility to choose your own selection criteria
Germany in the international rankings: Top 3rd nation worldwide
The German higher education system fares well in international rankings. If you take the Top 200 as the basis, Germany is the 3rd nation (right after the USA and the UK) in the
- THE ranking,
- QS ranking
- Shanghai ranking (to be consistent with THE and QS, only China mainland is considered).
- and Webometrics Ranking of World Universities.
This means that Germany is rated as one of the globally most excellent spots to study.
Shanghai ranking (2019 update)
German universities are amongst the front runners in the Shanghai ranking. 51 German universities made the 2019 ranking, with Heidelberg University, LMU Munich, Technical University of Munich and the University of Bonn making it into the top 100. This is a good turnout for German universities in the Shanghai Ranking, which ranks 1,800 universities from all over the world, but only publishes a list of the best 1,000. A good reason to let this influence your decision is that many employers around the world may respect you have studied at a university that is top-ranked by this widely renowned ranking.
Analyzed criteria are the quality of education and faculty, research output, and per capita performance. Something to keep in mind with these criteria is that high university output is not necessarily reflexive of high quality education or a good infrastructure for students. Furthermore, this ranking does not include universities of applied sciences, which are an essential part of the German higher education system.
German universities are the closest contenders to the US-American and UK universities in the THE ranking. In the 2020 ranking, Germany has 23 universities placed in the top 200 and the LMU Munich, Technical University of Munich, Heidelberg University, Humboldt University of Berlin, Charité Berlin, University of Freiburg, University of Tübingen and RWTH Aachen made the top-100, as well. The sample for the 2020 ranking consists of almost 1,400 institutions, the lowest group score assigned to universities is ‘1,001+’.
Like the Shanghai-ranking, this list also focuses on research performance but also includes other criteria, such as an institution’s performance in teaching, knowledge transfer, and international outlook. The latter point may be of special interest to international students, as well as the fact that the THE includes results based on student surveys. This information may influence your decision on where to study. However, keep in mind that universities of applied sciences are not included in this list.
In the 2021 ranking sample of 1,003 institutions, the QS ranking placed 45 German universities. Three German institutions secured a place among the top 100 universities: Technical University of Munich, LUM Munich, and Heidelberg University. The ranking organization behind this ranking, London-based QS Quacquarelli Symonds, used to cooperate with the Times Higher Education newspaper on the THE ranking until their cooperation broke apart in 2009.
Both rankings are similar in including survey-based results. Since the QS-ranking includes employer surveys, it captures the reputation of an institution and is therefore especially interesting for students trying to ensure good employability. The parameters measured by the ranking are an institution’s academic and employer reputation, faculty/student ratio, citations per faculty as well as the ratios of international faculty and students.
About the National rankings
On top of the international rankings, there are some national rankings you should know about.
The ranking organization behind the Humboldt ranking is the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation which promotes academic cooperation between excellent scientists and scholars from abroad and from Germany through their prestigious fellowship program (the Humboldt Research Fellowship). Their ranking shows which German universities international fellowship-holders chose for a research stay in Germany. Thus, it lists German institutions only and is an indicator of high international reputation, popularity, and well-established international networks. The latest ranking was published in 2017.
This ranking can be especially interesting for students who plan to pursue an academic career. The Humboldt ranking lists not only university performances, but also which departments international researchers chose. This can help you find out if your university is not just overall strong but also in the specific department you are looking to join. Furthermore, a separate ranking of non-university research institutions can give you insights into the top institutions of the German research landscape.
The CHE ranking is created by the German non-profit organization Centrum für Hochschulentwicklung and published in cooperation with the German newspaper Die Zeit. The intended audience for this ranking are prospective students, the goal is to aid them to decide on where in Germany to study. Therefore, it covers parameters that may be important to prospective students: facts and numbers about student towns, universities, and subjects are compiled in cooperation with the universities. Also, bibliometric analyses are included to include parameters measuring e.g. the research performance, and lastly, student surveys are included to capture students’ perspectives on studying their subject at their university.
After registering for free on the website, you can look for a specific subject and compare all German universities that offer this subject by criteria that you can select as most important for you. This can be a broad array of things, such as how many students use their bikes in that town, the number of seats available in the library, the number of students graduating in time, or the research output. We recommend you have a look at this ranking because it can give you a good idea of what it’s like to be a student of a certain subject in a certain city.
The DFG Ranking is a national ranking capturing research performance. It indicates which universities in Germany were most successful in allocating third-party funding from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation). With an annual budget of 3,4 Billion € (2018), the DFG is Germany’s central research funding organization. The ranking is considered an indicator of the quality of research at a higher education institution. It gets published tri-annually by the DFG, most recently in 2018. You can access an overview of the 40 universities with the highest third-party funding here.
Third party-funding can be a good indicator for you to understand which universities are understood to conduct especially meaningful research, and a department with well-funded projects may also provide a good study environment for you. You should keep in mind, however, that this ranking does not provide insights into the quality of teaching.
Does the ranking of a university matter in Germany?
University rankings in Germany do matter - but only a little bit. German universities do want to be able to compete internationally and landing on the international rankings is one way to boost international recognition. You can also observe recent initiatives, such as the Excellence Initiative started in 2005, as an attempt to push some German universities and research clusters into the international top-levels. After all, who wouldn’t want to be ranked as one of the best?
However, the overall mindset is that rankings are not really important. The German university system is fairly egalitarian, meaning that expertise is spread throughout the higher education landscape. Different universities are renowned for different things. The attitude among many students here is that you do not necessarily need to find the best university according to some ranking, but the best university FOR YOU.
That is also the advice we want to leave you with: think of what you need from a university and what your goals are. University rankings may give you an initial orientation of which school might be a good fit for you. Depending on what your priorities are, a ranking may even sway your decision. Or maybe you won’t look at rankings at all, which is also perfectly fine.
The important thing to keep in mind is that each ranking only reflects a small part of what a good university education is. Keep in mind that, even though a university may perform well in many rankings, your subject area might be rather weak at that school. Also, consider looking for programs offered by universities of applied sciences, especially if you are looking for practice-oriented education with close relationships with industry players. And maybe most importantly, pay attention to the content offered in the study programs. The StudyFinder is the perfect place to learn about your options.
List of all German Universities in international rankings
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