Whoever is new to German higher education might be amused by the headline of this article: A university is a university is a Universität. What seems slightly absurd and tautological at first can be explained when looking at the historical development of different types of higher education institutions that currently leaves us three types of - yes - universities:
Universities (German: Universität) are one type of higher education institution that exists in Germany. The other two types are universities of applied sciences (German: Hochschule für angewandte Wissenschaften or Fachhochschule) and academies of arts, music, and film (German: Kunst-, Musik-, Filmhochschule).
Important for you to know is that all three types of institution are nowadays equally as good. They just stand out for different things. By its legal definition, a university (Universität) is unique in that it offers the full range of subjects to be studied and because it is the only type of institution that is widely allowed to award doctorate degrees. Linguistically, the development of different names for higher education institutions also reflects the strive of institutions that were previously not considered equal to universities to achieve that equality (institutionally, but also nominally).
If you are not a big history-buff, the most important takeaway for you is: All three university types are considered equally as good and you should decide according to your personal preferences.
Summary: Differences between the three university types
|University||University of applied sciences||Academies of arts, music, and film|
|Focus||Research-oriented, scientific, theoretical||Application-oriented, scientific, practical||Artistic training-oriented, scientific (related to subjects relevant to the arts), artistical|
|Degrees offered||Bachelor’s, master’s, state examination (German: Staatsexamen), doctorate degrees||Bachelor’s, master’s, no doctorate degrees*||Bachelor’s, master’s, in some cases: doctorate degrees, artistic degrees|
|Official degrees issued||Yes|
All subjects (incl. medicine, law, pharmacy, teaching)
(incl. engineering, business, social sciences)
Artistic subjects (fine arts, design, architecture, theatre, music)
|Teaching staff requirements||The highest scientific qualification (doctorate degree & habilitation)||High scientific qualification (doctorate degree) & work experience||Artistic oeuvre; and/or scientific qualification (doctorate degree & habilitation)|
*Exceptions exist in Hessia, Saxony-Anhalt & North Rhine-Westphalia.
As a basic rule, universities in the German higher education system represent the most traditional or classic type of higher education institution:
The oldest German universities date back to the 14th century (Heidelberg University, 1386, Universität zu Köln, 1388). And for a long time, this type of university remained the only one until, in the 19th century, the first colleges of music and art were established and the polytechnic school gained the right to award the doctoral degree.
The general focus of this university type is theory-driven, the university activities are research-oriented and students here get academic training that is most commonly associated with university education: Theoretical and focused on scientific research methods.
In comparison to that, universities of applied sciences are more application-oriented and combine scientific academic training with practical elements. Academies of arts, music, and film are open to students with artistic talent and provide a sphere to further train and develop artistic skills. While you can read more about all three university types in comparison here, this article focuses on solely presenting the type of theory-driven research universities in Germany, or in German: Universität.
This article gives you an overview over:
- the defining characteristics of universities in Germany,
- subtypes of universities in Germany,
- how you can gain admission,
- and whether a university is a good choice for you.
Disclaimer: Throughout this article, we use ‘university’ to refer to the specific type of higher education institution that can be characterized as a theory-driven research university. Elsewhere on the website of MyGermanUniversity, the term ‘university’ is used as a general term for higher education institutions in Germany (unless otherwise specified).
What is a theory-driven, research university in Germany?
Universities are the most traditional type of higher education institution that the German education system has to offer. Its orientation is geared toward producing and contributing new knowledge through its research activities as well as training students in often theory-oriented and research-driven academic study programs.
To help you better grasp the essence of universities in Germany, let’s, first of all, reduce the complexity of this topic and look at one of the most stereotypical representatives of universities in Germany: Germany’s oldest Universität - Heidelberg University. Which aspects make it such a typical representative of this type of university?
First of all, it is very old and was founded in 1386. More importantly, you can choose from the full range of subjects there and can study to be a teacher, a judge, a medical doctor, or really any other academic profession in Heidelberg. You can also study for any degree type, including the Staatsexamen (state examination) for medicine or a Ph.D., and the university has a high research output. Just like most universities in Germany, the University of Heidelberg is public and therefore largely does not charge tuition fees (except for Non-EU students… but this is just an exception from the rule: Baden-Württemberg is the only federal state in Germany that charges these fees).
If you ever physically make it to Heidelberg, you can get the feel of a typical university town in Germany: You see students biking around, you have studentile bars and restaurants and the university facilities are very prominent in the city. No wonder, because stereotypical universities are big in size and student numbers: At the University in Heidelberg, 387 started their studies in law in fall 2019, so that gives you an idea of how many people were at the introduction and at the big lectures. Master’s courses, however, are typically smaller in student size.
Now, over time, other university forms and philosophies developed. Not all universities in Germany have such a long history, offer studies in every subject, or are that big. In the next few paragraphs, we present to you some more characteristics of typical universities in Germany and also of specialized university types and variations. To get to know one rather innovative and non-stereotypical university beforehand, you could check out Leuphana University in Lüneburg:
Leuphana University Lüneburg - one of Germany’s young and innovative (Research) Universities, based in the Hamburg Metropolitan Area
Germany has 129 universities and around 61 % of the total number of students at German higher education institutions are enrolled in universities. Typically, universities are significantly bigger in student numbers than other higher education institutions in Germany. As a consequence of that, there is often a certain degree of anonymity: Lecture halls often hold a bigger number of students and you often won’t have the closest contact with your professors and teachers. On the upside, universities are often surrounded by a vibrant student life with manyfold offers and initiatives for students to take part in.
Which subjects and degrees are taught at universities?
Since the so-called Bologna-reform in 1999, which represents the attempt to integrate the higher education systems of various European states, German universities have increasingly introduced internationally renown and recognized bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Today, most universities offer studies in these degree formats. In our StudyFinder, you will, for example, find more than 1,000 bachelor’s and master’s programs in the English language offered by German universities. Depending on your chosen subject, these degrees have different variations, for example: “Bachelor of Arts”, “Master of Science” or “Bachelor of Engineering”. This situates you and your degree in a broader field.
Some of the older formats that were unique to the German higher education system before its transnationalization, such as Magister or Diplom are only very rarely offered. You should, however, know of one other degree format that remains relevant in the German system: For degrees that lead to state-regulated professions in fields such as law, medicine, pharmacy, dentistry, and in some German states (German: Bundesland), teaching, students graduate after passing a state examination (German: Staatsexamen). A state examination is typically taken after around 5 years of study and is therefore comparable to a master’s degree. German state examinations are internationally recognized. Subjects that finish with a state examination are taught in German only. For one detailed example of such a degree course, read our article on studying medicine in Germany.
Because universities have the right to teach courses that lead to state examinations, there is no limit to the subjects that are offered at universities: Seriously, there is almost no limit to courses you can study at this type of higher education institution!
Which opportunities are there to pursue a doctorate?
Universities are the only type of higher education institution in Germany that consistently offers the opportunity to get a doctorate degree. Therefore, if you are looking to make a career in academia, become a researcher, and pursue a Ph.D. after your graduation, it is highly recommendable you apply to universities. In Germany, finishing a master’s degree (of any higher education institution) with good grades is one of the main requirements to be eligible for doctoral studies.
As a general rule, there are two ways of pursuing a doctorate degree in Germany. Firstly, there are structured Ph.D. programs, which are a somewhat new development in Germany that mirrors the structured doctoral programs found in anglo-American countries. In these programs, a doctoral candidate works in close contact with other doctoral students and various supervisors under the framework of a graduate school that is part of a university.
Secondly, under the scheme of individual doctorates, doctoral candidates work more independently on their dissertation topic under the supervision of one professor. This format remains more common in Germany, and to take part in it, students need to approach a professor at a German university, win them as their supervisors and then enroll at the respective university.
Often, Ph.D. candidates fund their studies by working at a university. There are also various scholarship opportunities provided for Ph.D. students. Some of the graduate schools that host the structured Ph.D. programs even offer to fund to successful applicants. The portal Research in Germany is a great start to planning your doctorate in Germany.
How do students learn at universities?
The first and most important thing to consider here is that each university has its own history and its own teaching philosophy so that there are differences in the level of theoretical orientation or focus on the practical application between different universities. Also, some courses may place a strong focus on practical application and include mandatory internships into their curriculum, while others get students involved in rigorous, fundamental research of theoretical concepts or formulas.
Therefore, reading the course description and curriculum of each program is essential!
Stereotypically speaking, university education does not focus so much on training you for a specific job but training you as an academic in your field. You need not only know how to apply a formula but dive deeply into its backgrounds too. You are expected to complete self-study periods at home, for example by working through scientific literature and coming up and completing your own thesis as a relevant scientific contribution. While students may opt to complete internships in their semester breaks, long practical phases are rather untypical. Again, this is a stereotypical description and you will find many programs that are organized more practically oriented at universities, as well.
Typical teaching formats include big lectures, smaller seminars, lab rotations, or literature reading courses. It depends entirely upon the individual study program whether students get to choose their own modules, or whether a curriculum is predefined: Both is possible. Universities typically require a high level of self-discipline, self-organization, and independence of their students.
What are the teaching staff requirements at universities?
For this type of higher education institution, the requirements towards the academic staff are based first and foremost on academic qualifications. For example, to become a professor at a university, one needs to obtain a doctorate degree, undergo a process of habilitation (which is similar to obtaining a doctor’s degree: After being a post-doc for a while, people can present more significant independent research and thus become habilitated), and finally get a call to be a professor at a university. Your university professors will have a number of significant and relevant publications under their belt and likely engage in cutting edge research projects. Professors at universities have more time besides their teaching responsibilities to dedicate to their research than professors at universities of applied sciences.
A professor is an academic title in Germany, just like a doctor, and you will also encounter teachers who are not professors, but for example, doctors who work at the university as researchers in a post-doc capacity and are to support the teaching activities of the professors. On a bachelor’s level, some seminars may be taught by doctoral candidates who also work at universities.
Who runs the universities?
The majority of German universities (and higher education institutions in general) are public. This reflects an overall attitude towards education in Germany: Education is considered a public good that should be made available to everyone, and therefore, should be paid for and provided by the state. From your home country, you may know an education system in which privately run institutions enjoy a better reputation than public ones. In Germany, this is a bit different, since public universities enjoy an excellent reputation. This is also reflected in the national and international rankings, in which German public universities frequently score highly.
Private universities are a relatively new phenomenon in Germany:
It was not until the end of the 20th century that the first private institutions were granted the right to award doctorates. There are 20 private universities in Germany. Private universities are often funded through foundations, which are partially affiliated with companies. Through accreditation with the state, private universities and the degrees they offer are recognized in Germany and internationally, often portray a high level of specialization, and enjoy a good reputation, as well. Students at private universities often profit from smaller class sizes, close supervision and counseling schemes, and generally are taken care of by university staff a little more than at public universities.
In Germany, there are also theology focused universities 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. Programs are often open to students of all religious backgrounds unless they are specifically dedicated to training religious staff. Just like any other university in Germany, church-run universities provide a sphere of learning and discussion that is open for various ideas. Therefore, visiting a state-accredited, church-run university is no disadvantage when it comes to your ability to develop as an academic and the recognition of your degree.
What do they cost
The cost of studying in Germany is one of the big factors that makes German universities very attractive to international students: Public universities typically do not charge tuition fees, and therefore, studying in Germany is basically for free. All that students are expected to pay is a small semester contribution twice a year, which covers their public transportation and access to low-cost student services, such as student housing or student cafeterias. Examples of programs for which you do have to pay tuition fees at public universities often include executive MBA programs or online courses. Likewise, universities run by the church are also for free.
Private universities, on the other hand, do charge tuition fees, which averages around 5,000 - 7,000 € per semester. To get the full picture, read our article on studying in Germany for free.
Subtypes and variations of universities in Germany
Universities have a long-standing tradition and history in Germany. Did you, for example, know that Germany’s oldest university, Heidelberg University, dates back to 1386? Over the years, the German education system grew and changed. Throughout this historical development, different variations of universities developed. These subtypes share the characteristics of universities and are overall research and theory-oriented, but differ in their subject fields offered or areas of focus.
Technical University (TU)
Technical universities, in short TU and in German: Technische Universität, have a strong focus on the STEM subject group, which stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. However, you will also find that they offer other subjects. For example, one of Germany’s most influential gender studies faculties is located at the Technical University of Berlin.
Historically, this university subtype stems from institutions for advanced technological education, so-called “Technische Hochschule” (TH). They have their roots in the (non-academic) polytechnic schools that were established in the 19th century and not considered as equivalent to the universities - until 1899 when the first one gained the right to award the doctorate (Königlich Technischen Hochschule zu Berlin which is the predecessor of TU Berlin).
This is reflected in name changes, as well: The respective institutions renamed themselves into “technical universities”. Well, all but one did: The famous and internationally renowned RWTH Aachen, which stands for Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule Aachen, stuck with the name Technische Hochschule. In all other cases, Technische Hochschule nowadays refers to technical universities of applied sciences.
Many international students are especially interested in studying at a TU in Germany, because of the great reputation of education in the STEM subjects in Germany. If you are among the students who are interested in TUs specifically, we recommend you read our article on Technical Universities in Germany. You may also familiarize yourself with the TU9, an alliance of nine technical universities that enjoy the highest reputation and can be considered outstanding flagship universities.
Theological University (Theologische Hochschulen)
Some universities in Germany are run by churches of religious communities, mostly the evangelical and Roman Catholic churches. Historically speaking, many of the Roman Catholic universities in Germany have their roots in the secularization period in the early 19th century. An upsurge in the founding of protestant-run universities in Germany was visible after the liberation of the nazi-regime, to present an alternative to state-run organizations.
Today, there are around 12 theological universities in Germany that can award doctorate degrees. They typically are called “Theologische Hochschule”, “Katholische Hochschule” “Kirchliche Hochschule” or “Philosophisch-theologische Hochschule”. The biggest example is the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt. A unique example worth noting is the Hochschule für Jüdische Studien Heidelberg which is run by the central council of Jewish people in Germany and therefore represents an example of a religiously affiliated university of a non-Christian denomination.
What differentiates this subtype from other universities is the (sometimes exclusive) focus on theological studies with the goal to train religious personnel and teach the respective belief systems. Many theological universities do also offer other study programs often in the fields of religious studies, social work, pedagogic, and the like. These non-theological programs are typically open to students of all denominations and backgrounds. Theological universities are often rather small and may therefore be a preferred choice to some applicants. Furthermore, the admission process partially includes criteria that go beyond the applicant’s GPA.
Over time, many theological universities have been integrated into the state-run public universities. Therefore, you often find theological faculties or religious studies faculties at public universities, as well. Here, you can also find studies in the field of Islamic theology, for example at the universities of Münster and Erlangen-Nürnberg or at the Universities of Education.
University of Education (Pädagogische Hochschulen)
Universities of education, or, in German: Pädagogische Hochschulen (PH), are unique to the German state of Baden-Württemberg. They originate in the various historical forms of institutions that offered training for teachers. In recent German history, universities of education all throughout Germany gained the status of universities with the right to award doctorate degrees but were then largely integrated as pedagogical faculties, or faculties of educational science into the generalistic universities.
An exception to this is provided in the state of Baden-Württemberg, which kept its 6 universities of education as independent institutions. They are located in Freiburg, Heidelberg, Karlsruhe, Ludwigsburg, Schwäbisch Gmünd, and Weingarten. One central focus point of these universities is the training of teachers. An advantage of studying to be a teacher at one of these universities is that much attention that is put to the practical challenges and realities of working as a teacher and to didactic aspects of a subject. They are furthermore intellectual hubs for educational sciences and you have the chance to pursue a doctorate there, too.
Access to these universities may be a bit more tricky for international students: The six universities of education only offer a total of three English language programs, so that good German skills are one of the requirements to profit from most of the offers at these universities. Furthermore, since the state of Baden-Württemberg charges international students from outside the EU tuition fees of 1,500 € per semester, it is less affordable than many other study options in the realm of educational sciences.
University of Public Administration
Higher education institutions of public administrative science (German: Verwaltungshochschulen) have the goal to recruit and train the necessary state personnel that take over various roles of public administration and the organization and preservation of public life. Most of them can be subsumed as a subtype of universities of applied sciences. But there are three universities of administrative science that fit the type of research university and for example, have the right to award doctorate degrees.
There are actually three universities of public administrative science but we are going to treat them as though they were different cases because they train very different state personnel.
Firstly we have:
German University of Administrative Sciences Speyer - This university offers programs at a master’s level or for in-service personnel. There is the opportunity to obtain a Ph.D. Research and subjects focus on social sciences, public law, and public administration.
The two other respective universities are:
- Helmut-Schmidt University of the National Armed Forces - Offers academic education to German military personnel and the opportunity to obtain a Ph.D. Studies are offered in the fields of economics, social sciences, humanities, or engineering.
- University of the National Armed Forces Munich - Encompasses a university and a university of applied sciences and trains primarily German military personnel. Bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees are offered in subject groups such as engineering, security sciences, social sciences, or educational sciences.
Other specialized universities
Other than the universities of technology, education, or religious studies and theology, there are other examples of thematically specialized universities. While they all stand for high-quality academic training, the target groups and subject orientations may differ widely. Often, specialized universities tend to be a bit smaller in size than the general universities and may include unique admission procedures or requirements. To give you some examples:
- Hannover Medical School, an example of a public medical university in Germany.
- Bucerius Law School, private university in Hamburg that offers degrees in the field of law and legal studies. Offers state examination as well as other degrees.
- German Sport University Cologne, studying sports is often connected to a rigorous sports entrance test.
- Frankfurt School of Finance & Management, a private Business School located in Frankfurt.
When you research universities in Germany, you may come across the term universities of excellence. This does not refer to a subtype of university but rather is a status that can be awarded to outstanding universities in Germany. Under the umbrella of the so-called excellence strategy, the German government identified 11 universities as excellent universities, meaning they receive funding also with the goal to enable them to compete well internationally.
On top of that, this government initiative also funds research clusters for excellent research, so-called clusters of excellence. Especially for students looking for programs on a master’s or doctoral level, it makes sense to identify excellence research clusters that correspond to one’s own interests, since these clusters indicate the fields in which a respective university portrays especially strong research activities.
How to gain admission to a German university
In order to get admission to a German university, applicants to all levels of studies basically need to fulfill three criteria:
- A previous degree that qualifies for the next level of studies.
- An English or German language certificate.
- Additional admission requirements for the specific program.
Let’s clarify what these three criteria include for each level of study:
|Bachelor’s level||Master’s level||Doctoral level|
|Degree requirement||Secondary school leaving certificate that is considered equivalent to German A-Levels. Often, students need to visit a so-called Studienkolleg.||
A first academic degree that is equivalent to a bachelor’s degree in Germany. Often, the first academic degree needs to be related to the subject of the master’s degree. All info here!
|A scientific master’s degree, often with good grades.|
|Language requirement||Good English or German language skills (depending on your chosen language of study) proven with an accepted language certificate. See more info here.|
|Additional admission requirements||
Depends on each program, typically most relevant:
- secondary school GPA,
Depends on each program, often:
- letter of motivation,
Depends on the format of the doctorate, often:
- novel & unique Ph.D. proposal,
|Application process||Directly to the university or via uni-assist, in some cases via “hochschulstart”.||Directly to the university or via uni-assist.||Directly with a potential supervisor, a graduate school, or a research project.|
Whether you have to go to a Studienkolleg (which is a basic foundation year to prepare you for university studies in Germany) or not, depends on where you obtained your secondary school leaving certificates: For most countries outside the EU, high school diplomas are not considered equivalent to the German A-levels, which is why students from these countries need to visit a Studienkolleg to qualify for university studies. You can find out what applies to your case under this link.
Note that there are different tracks of Studienkolleg, one track qualifies you for studies at a university (so-called Universitätskollegs), the other one for studies at a university of applied sciences (so-called Fachhochschulkollegs). It is therefore important that you make a decision regarding your preferred type of institution before enrolling at a Studienkolleg.
One important aspect to consider when it comes to the admission process to German universities is that it typically does not include entrance tests or interviews. Therefore, your physical presence in Germany is not needed to get admitted to a German university. This makes the application process quite comfortable for international applicants. An exception is made when applying to studies on a doctoral level, for which (virtual) entrance interviews are often conducted.
What are the best universities in Germany?
Providing an answer to this question is actually not that easy, since what counts as the best university in Germany lies in the eye of the beholder. One strategy may be to put your trust in the various international or national rankings and choose a study program at a university that scores highly. Alternatively, you may decide to choose a university that gets funded under the excellence initiative in Germany. If you are looking to study at a Technical University specifically, you might be interested in the highly reputable universities that cooperate in the TU9 alliance.
Other than university reputation, you might want to take into consideration your interests, skills, and expectations toward university education. With the information provided on the three university types in Germany, you may realize that you are predestined to choose a research university rather than a university of applied sciences or vice versa.
At MyGermanUniversity, we recommend a third strategy to international students: The best German university for you is going to be the one that offers a program you love. You can get an internationally recognized degree at all German universities and at all types of higher education institutions in Germany. There is no harsh or decisive hierarchy between the degrees. Therefore, we recommend the following: Use the MyGU StudyFinder to find a program that fits your interests, your career ambitions, and that you can get admission to. If you enjoy what you study, you will do it with more success and will be able to make the most out of your time in Germany!