Updated: 2020-06-28 | Duration: 6:00 min

Public Universities in Germany: A guide for international students (2020/21)

Why studying in Germany for free at top universities is not a dream, but a reality - more than 1,200 tuition-free Master's in English available

Public universities dominate the German Higher Education System

Germany is famous for many things, from beer and pretzels, to old castles and fortresses, to its automobile industry and efficient railway system. However, one shouldn’t overlook one of the best qualities about Germany - its amazing higher education system! The German higher education system is made up of a combination of public and private universities, the private ones usually being some specialized programs which charge some tuition.

 

Though there is a great selection of private universities, the approx. 240 public universities dominate the German higher education system.

Study programs offered

90% by public universities
10% by private universities

Enrollment of students

90% in public universities
10% in private universities

With those figures, it seems that there is a program for everyone at Germany’s public universities. Of course, it comes to no surprise that there is such a high number of students enrolled in these programs since public universities in Germany are free. Yes, that’s right, FREE. Studying at a public university in Germany means you won’t pay a tuition fee. There are a few exceptions for specialized programs, but there is no need to worry. We will break down all of the ins and outs of studying at a public university in Germany, the best free universities in Germany, the best internationally top-ranked ranked universities, and tuition fee programs versus tuition free programs.

Browse the top public universities in Germany with our StudyFinder

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Many students want to study abroad in Germany but aren’t familiar with the various universities, so to be on the safe side, they seek out the top-ranked institutions in Germany to apply to. To check out the internationally top-ranked German universities, let our StudyFinder serve as your guide. While we recommend for students to check their options and not just apply to a university because of ranking or name, we know that there are some great programs to choose from at these institutions! Approximately 40 universities are top-ranked internationally, but be sure not to underestimate those universities that do not make this international ranking list.

 

In Germany, there isn’t a significant difference between universities that are public or private or top-ranked than in other countries. There are also some programs which do not qualify in these international ranking systems because of a specialized focus they may have. For example, the Universities of Applied Science (UAS) programs are not ranked at an international level because of their focus on application and teaching over methodology and research. The international ranking system mainly takes research output into consideration, leaving many great programs at prestigious universities out of the rankings. In spite of this, many top-ranked German universities are also top-ranked internationally! Why is this? How can it be that these public institutions are putting the private universities to shame? It has to do with how Germans look at education, keep reading to find out more!

Why are all top-ranked universities in Germany public?

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

You may be asking yourself why all of the top universities in Germany are public. After all, the most well-known universities are usually private, aren’t they? Take for example the US, the prestigious ivy league circle with the top unis which charge infamous tuition fees for attendance. Well, you’re wrong. In Germany, the most well-known and top universities are public universities. What’s all that about?! As explained above, in Germany, there is not a great difference between private, public, or top-ranked universities. This is especially true for private and public institutions. Germany is home to some of the top-ranked universities worldwide and these universities are public and FREE. Take a look below:

* Except for Non-EU students (cf. “Special case: Baden-Württemberg”).

In Germany, education is thought to be and treated as a public good. Something that should be accessible to all citizens and inhabitants just as food is a public good. However, as private universities abroad became renowned worldwide (e.g. ivy league institutions of the US), private universities popped up in other countries too, including in Germany. Private universities have existed in Germany only since the 1980s!

 

They’re actually quite new and for this reason, Germany’s top-ranked universities are the older public universities which have a long standing reputation. This isn’t to say that there are not exceptional private universities in Germany, but rather, to reject the idea that a top-ranked university has to be private and expensive to be worthwhile. In Germany, public universities are tuition free and have the best programs available to anyone who wants to study them, even non-EU students!

Public universities in Germany are free for international students (with few exceptions)

There are some special exceptions to the free tuition at public universities rule, but don’t let this discourage you from taking a look at these great programs! It is important to note, that these exceptions are few and that generally, public university study programs are free of tuition. Let us break down the exceptions for you to see if one of these programs may actually be for you.

* Berlin is only indicated as a reference of its location in Germany.

  • Baden-WĂĽrttemberg: In the southwest of Germany bordering France and Switzerland, lies the state of Baden-WĂĽrttemberg. Home to some of Germany’s most prestigious universities, it’s a great place to keep in mind when hunting for your dream study program. You should note, Baden-WĂĽrttemberg has a mandatory tuition fee of 1,500 € per semester to all non-EU students. This means that some of the state’s more well known cities such as Heidelberg, Freiburg, Stuttgart, and Constance, will all charge this non-EU tuition fee at their universities. However, don’t be discouraged as there can often be waivers or reduced tuition fees for students with special circumstances.
  • Professional Master’s Programs: In Germany, there are some professional or executive master’s programs which can charge a marginal tuition fee for attendance, even though they are offered by public universities e.g. L.LM (Master of Law), MBA (Master of Business Administration) or MPA (Master of Public Administration). However, these make up only about 15-20% of all study programs, so you can breathe easy. Click here to check out these professional programs with our StudyFinder tool!
  • Specialized Programs: Specialized master’s programs are those that have very special components, partnerships, or joint programs that can sometimes charge a tuition fee. For example, many German universities partner with universities abroad, offering students the chance to study elsewhere for a semester or year during their degree programs. These specialized programs usually include a fee, so keep that in mind as you search.

Summary Box

Anyone can study in German for free with a great selection of study programs to choose from. Even the top-ranked universities in the country are public universities and are tuition free! Some points to keep in mind:

 

  • Public universities dominate German higher education with more than 240 universities which make up about 90% of the university study programs in the country.
  • Approximately 90% of students in Germany will attend a public university.
  • Public universities in Germany are free, even for international students! There are some exceptions for specialized or professional degree programs and for the state of Baden-WĂĽrttemberg which charges non-EU students a marginal tuition fee (1,500 € per semester).
  • While private universities charge a tuition fee to their own discretion, the fees are still significantly lower (average of 5,000 € - 7,000 € per semester) than at private universities in other countries.