Germany has a very diverse higher education landscape with more than 400 German universities with many different special features which can quickly be confusing for international students. In our consulting activities - whether for the DAAD or MyGermanUniversity - we have noticed how many questions students ask for orientation.
Choosing your dream study program can be very overwhelming, especially when you’re exploring options outside of your home country. Every year, many students make the decision to call Germany home for their study programs, whether it be a bachelor's, master's, Ph.D., or specialized study program. In this article, we’re going to go over the ins and outs of German higher education institutions and help you find your perfect home at an institution in Germany.
If you’re just beginning your journey to a university in Germany and aren’t too familiar with how it works, let us give you a simple breakdown of what you should know about studying in Germany!
- Type: Public, Private, and Specialized Institutions
- Cost: Free of tuition at public universities, tuition fees for specialized and private programs
- Language: English or German.
- Funding: International students have many funding options to help them fund their life (rent, food, etc.) in Germany, check out our scholarships article for more info!
Top universities in Germany - how to find the best one for you
The question about the top universities in Germany is one of those that we are asked most frequently by international students. If you are studying abroad, you also want to make the best choice, logically! Unfortunately, this is not so easy to answer as there are a lot of different criteria by which universities can be evaluated - and they are always subjective factors. Therefore, we would like to give you only a short introduction to the topic in the following section.
International rankings: approx. 50 German universities in the top 500
Germany is among the top 3 nations in the major international university rankings. For example, if you look at the top 200 in THE World University Ranking, you will find 23 German universities and other institutions of higher education just behind the USA (60 universities in the top 200) and the UK (28 universities in the top 200). Germany thus occupies 3rd place in the nation's ranking. The top 20 universities in Germany are the following:
- Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.
- Technical University of Munich.
- Heidelberg University.
- University of Bonn.
- Humboldt University of Berlin.
- Charité - Universitätsmedizin Berlin.
- University of Freiburg.
- University of Tübingen.
- RWTH Aachen University.
- Goethe University Frankfurt.
- University of Göttingen.
- Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.
- Free University of Berlin.
- University of Hamburg.
- Ulm University.
- Technical University of Berlin.
- University of Cologne.
- University of Münster.
- Technical University of Dresden.
- University of Mannheim.
In contrast to the Anglo-Saxon countries, the internationally ranked German universities are almost exclusively public universities. You will not find universities of applied sciences or private universities in the international rankings (apart from individual subject rankings) - which is mainly due to the fact that the rankings are primarily based on research output and reputation.
They say little or sometimes nothing about the quality of teaching. In this respect, you should not overestimate the rankings. Even German universities that do not appear in international rankings generally offered a very high-quality study program. This is because quality standards apply to all universities in Germany and are set by the state.
Compared to other countries, Germany does not have a very pronounced ranking culture. Putting universities on a ranking list on the basis of quantitative metrics is (rightly) viewed critically by many. This is because it is almost always a very abbreviated description of what universities achieve and offer to individual students. However, due to the high volume of requests we receive from students, you can find the top nationally-ranked German universities on our StudyFinder as well.
Further ReadingGermany in University Rankings
The 3 types of university (and why “Universität” is only ONE great option)
The 3 types of universities in Germany
|Type of University
|Degrees Offered||Subject-range||Focus||Official Degrees Issued|
|Bachelor, master, Staatsexamen, and Ph.D.||In general all subjects
(incl. state-regulated professions such as medicine, law, pharmacy, teaching).
|More academic setting, research-oriented.||Yes.|
|University of Applied Science
(Fachhochschule / Hochschule für angewandte Wissenschaften)
|Bachelor and master.||Applicable subjects
(engineering, business, social sciences, etc).
|Rather practical orientation than research.||Yes.|
|Colleges of Art and Music
(Kunst- und Musikhochschulen)
|Bachelor and master.||Fine arts, music, dance, etc.||Practical training.||Yes.|
Public vs. private universities (and why each has its pros & cons)
The German education system is (in contrast to other countries) traditionally characterized by public universities. This is because education in Germany is a public good that is paid for by the state. Therefore, studying in Germany is basically free of charge - even for international students. Private universities are therefore still a relatively new phenomenon in the German university landscape.
While some of the large state universities have a tradition that goes back centuries (e.g. Heidelberg University founded in 1386), private universities have only existed in Germany since the 1980s. Even though the private sector has been booming in the last ten years, public universities continue to dominate:
- about 90% of all students study at public universities,
- about 18,000 of the 20,000 courses of study (90%!) are offered by public universities,
- all top German universities in the three major international rankings (THE, Shanghai, QS) are public universities.
Nevertheless, there are also many reasons why students still choose a private university. Before we cover the advantages of both types of study institutions, we will first illustrate their differences in an overview below.
|Public Universities||Private Universities|
|Total no. of Institutions||240||113|
|In the Top International Rankings||
Approx. 28-50 (depending on ranking).
|0 (but a few in the subjects rankings e.g. MBA).|
|Humboldt University of Berlin, Free University of Berlin, Heidelberg University, Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich.||EBS, Witten-Herdecke, WHU, Jacobs University Bremen, Bucerius Law School, Hertie School of governance.|
|% of Students in Germany||Approx. 90%.||Approx. 10%.|
|No. of Study Programs||Bachelors: 7,914.
|No. of Master’s in English||1,164.||183.|
|Tuition Fees||Generally tuition-free*.||Average of 2,000 - 4,000 € per semester.|
* Non-EU students in Baden-Württemberg (1,500 € per semester); special master programs (e.g. MBA, LLM).
Pros and cons
Students seek out study programs in Germany for many reasons, but a great attraction is that programs at public universities in Germany are free. While this is the main pull for many students, there are many benefits to attending private universities in Germany. If you have had your eye on a private institution in Germany but are reluctant due to the tuition fees, let’s break down your options below and see if a private university is meant for you! Below we have listed a pros and cons list for each type of university, public and private, with three points for each section. While you shouldn’t let one con prevent you from applying to your dream study program, having a bigger picture can sometimes help you make the decision.
|Public Universities||Private Universities|
The most well-known factor which attracts students to public universities in Germany is free tuition. At public universities in Germany, with the exception of some specialized executive master’s programs, there is no tuition for students, including non-EU international students.
Private business schools, law schools, medical schools, and more! Attending a private university can mean that your program has a specialized focus which can be beneficial for many students looking to more specific study programs such as law, business, and medicine.
The full range of course options:
Depending on your program requirements, students can enroll in a variety of different courses on many different subject areas which are offered by the university as an elective course, parallel to their study program. Some may be in English, but if you speak German you can also enroll in German courses!
Innovative study programs:
Some courses are mainly offered by private universities depending on the subject. Some examples are courses in the field of entrepreneurship, digitization, or specialized health topics (e.g. physiotherapy).
Those who want to gain insights into research during their studies are still best off at public universities. This is where basic research takes place, where Nobel Prize winners also give lectures, or where there is more of a possibility to do a Ph.D.
Available services and facilities:
Private universities have smaller student bodies which means that students may have small classes, expanded access to study facilities (e.g. 24/7 coworking spaces), extra services such as organized accommodation and internships, and have extra chances to network with alumni.
Of course, this comparison can only provide a rough overview of the contrast between public and private universities. With a view to the 400 universities in Germany, you should always check each individual program you are interested in - both in terms of the university and the respective degree program because the differences can vary.
Special cases: the universities run by the church(es)
In Germany, there are also theology-focused colleges with different theology based courses of study. Such institutions also offer bachelor’s programs and master’s programs where students can focus on different topics such as theology, care management, education sciences, musicology, health care research, and more! There are also programs in English if you are not yet fluent in German. Take a look here!
Further ReadingPublic Universities in Germany: A guide for international students (2020/21)
Internationally recognized degrees: Bachelor, Master, Ph.D.
A question students frequently ask is how their degree from a German higher education institution will be recognized abroad. The easy answer is: Relax! A degree completed at a German higher education institution is recognized abroad. This is because Germany has been introducing international degrees only since 1999 as part of the so-called Bologna Process.
Apart from a few subjects that prepare students for state-regulated professions (such as medicine, law or teaching professions → see special case "Staatsexamen"), Germany offers international degree programs bachelor, master, and Ph.D. In this context, you will sometimes come across the term ECTS points (or simply credit points): This number is an internationally standardized description of academic performance and, in simple terms, amounts to 60 points per academic year.
|Degree Type||Standard Duration||ECTS points||Details|
|Bachelor||3 - 4 years.||180 - 240.||Three or four-year undergraduate programs.|
|Master||1 - 2 years.||60 - 120.||Two-year graduate degree programs.|
|Ph.D.||1 - 3 years.||Not applicable.||The German terms for this level are “Promotion” (doctorate) and “Doktor” (for the title). The duration varies much for each subject. In Humanities it can last even more than 3 years, whereas in Law it’s rather 1-2 years. A special case is Human Medicine where the “Dr. med.” is frequently part of the study (with little research impact).|
Special case: Staatsexamen (State examination)
In Germany, there are some specialized programs that require students to take a state examination before having an accredited certificate for their studies. Just as law students in the US must pass the Bar Exam after completing their degree in order to practice law, students in Germany must enroll in a Staatsexamen (State Exam) degree program. Staatsexamen courses are considered to be undergraduate studies.
State exams are required for courses of study that prepare students for state-regulated professions in medicine (human medicine, dentistry, veterinary, etc.), pharmacology, law, and teaching. In addition to the state examination, there are also a few other older degrees (Diplom, Magister), but these are only offered in some subjects or federal states. If you are interested in such degree programs, be aware that you will need to enroll in a Staatsexamen degree program.
Language of instruction: German or English (as you prefer)
Most courses of study continue to be held in German (approx. 18,000 out of 20,000 courses of study). In recent years, however, the range of English-language degree programs at the various levels has grown considerably:
Bachelor: more than 300 degree programs in English*.
Master: more than 1,800 courses of study in English*.
Ph.D.: more than 200 graduate schools in English* (the individual doctorate is always possible in English anyway).
*With at least 50% of the course modules taught in English.
The only courses of study which are still offered only in German are the state examinations. If you want to become a doctor, judge, teacher, or pharmacist, you can still only do this in German.
German universities generally recognize the major English language certificates (IELTS, TOEFL, Cambridge). The required language level (IELTS band, TOEFL score, Cambridge level) is determined individually for each course of study (in contrast to the courses of study in German where there are uniform regulations).
University entrance and applications - the basics you need to know
Universities in Germany have very similar application requirements as other universities abroad. To know the exact admissions requirements for your program of choice, it’s always best to check directly with the admissions office of your preferred university; Germany does not have a general or country-wide admissions policy for their universities and it differs with each program.
Generally, you need the following:
For graduate programs:
- A proof of a bachelor’s degree in a related topic.
- A transcript of undergraduate courses and grades with a certain GPA equivalent to the German grading system.
- A summary of the bachelor’s or master’s thesis.
For all programs:
- Proof of proficiency in English or German (TOEFL, TOEIC, or IELTS scores).
- A CV or résumé.
- A letter of motivation or purpose.
- Letter of reference.
For Ph.D. or post-docs:
- Project summary or outline.
- Timeline of research and studies.
Again, keep in mind that the above requirements are general and by no means indicate that every program follows these requirements. It may be the case that you will be asked for additional documents or information. There also may be items listed here which your program will not request. To be sure, check with your top-choice study programs!
List of Universities in Germany with English-taught study programs
Program Fees: 2,640 €
M.A. (Master of Arts)
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