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Updated: 2020-11-11 | Duration: 6:00 min.

University types in Germany - Guide through the German higher education landscape

Information for international students about universities, universities of applied sciences, and academies of arts, music and film in Germany

When you start informing yourself about studying in Germany, you will soon realize that you can not only choose from a vast majority of study programs, but you will also come across three different types of higher education institutions, namely universities (German: Universität), universities of applied sciences (UAS; German: Hochschule für angewandte Wissenschaften) and thirdly, academies of arts, music, and film (German: Kunst-, Musik- und Filmhochschule).

 

Understanding the differences between the different types of universities can help you in your search for the right study program in Germany: Depending on what you seek to gain from your studies and on your strengths and interests, you may decide to limit your search to programs offered by one type of institution only.

 

The following article gives you an overview of the three types of institutions in Germany:

  • Universities are research-driven institutions that focus on theoretical approaches rather than practical applications. Students can pursue all levels of studies, including doctorate degrees, at these institutions.
  • Universities of applied sciences (UAS) focus on the application of research results. The curricula at these universities include project courses in cooperation with companies, mandatory internships, and classes taught by professionals from the respective industries. Only a few universities of applied sciences offer doctoral studies.
  • Academies of arts, music, and film offer artistic training and are open to students with artistic talents, for example in design, architecture, photography, or dance. On top of artistic training, some of these institutions offer scientific programs related to researching the respective arts or pedagogical programs related to arts. Pursuing doctorate degrees is partially possible.

 

We deliver you a detailed comparison of the three types of institutions. However, it is important to note that degrees from all three university types are equally as recognized in Germany and abroad.  Therefore, students should choose a type of institution according to their preferences, ambitions, and expectations toward a university education.

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, 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
Subject range

All subjects (incl.medicine, law, pharmacy, teaching)

Applicable subjects (incl. engineering, business, social sciences)

Artistic subjects (fine arts, design, architecture, theatre, music)

Teaching staff requirements Scientific qualification (doctorate degree & habilitation) Scientific qualification (doctorate degree) & work experience Artistic oeuvre; and/or scientific qualification (doctorate degree & habilitation)

 

*Exceptions exist in Hessia, Saxony-Anhalt & North Rhine-Westphalia.

What the Fachhochschule…? Navigating through the German terminology for universities

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Technische Universität, Hochschule für angewandte Wissenschaften, Uni, Hochschule…. even if you conduct your research on the German higher education system in English, you are bound to stumble over a magnitude of different terms for different types of higher education institutions in Germany. If you are confused: Don’t worry! Even German native speakers sometimes feel confused by differentiating the various university types.

 

Some of these terms that developed throughout time to reflect historical changes in the German higher education landscape are - at least nowadays - hard to distinguish from one another. The lines between different types or subtypes of universities are often rather blurry. Look, for example, at Technical Universities. They are a subtype of university, meaning they have the right to award doctorate degrees, the academic staff needs to fulfill similar requirements, and often, they do not solely focus on STEM subjects. Therefore, one might as well consider them similar to any other university and have that reflected in the name. Historically, however, the predecessors of TUs in Germany were technical academies focusing on vocational training rather than academic training, so that it did in fact make sense to distinguish the names of what used to be two very different institution types.

 

To make the terminology a bit clearer for you, we have created a little dictionary of terms for German higher education institutions:

German term English translation Meaning Additional info
Hochschule Higher education institution General term for all higher education institutions, i.e. all three university types Colloquially, Hochschule is often used to talk about UAS only
Universität (Uni) (Research driven) university Term for one of the three university types: More theory-driven university Colloquially, Uni is often used as a general term to talk about all university types
Technische Universität (TU) Technical university Sub-type of a research-driven university: Focus on the STEM subject group Check out this article to learn more about technical universities in Germany
Pädagogische Hochschulen (PH) University of education Sub-type of a research-driven university: Focus on educational and pedagogical subjects Many PHs were integrated into regular universities. Today, you find PHs in the state of Baden-Württemberg
Hochschule fĂĽr angewandte Wissenschaften (HAW)/Fachhochschule (FH) University of applied sciences (UAS) Term for one of the three university types: More practical oriented university Both terms are used interchangeably. HAW was introduced to reflect the equality of UAS and universities after the Bologna reforms in 1999
Technische Hochschulen (TH) Technical university of applied sciences Sub-type of the university of applied sciences: Focus on the STEM subject group The RWTH Aachen is a research-driven university but carries the term TH in its name. In other cases, TH denotes universities of applied sciences
Duale Hochschulen Dual studies institution Offer a combination of vocational training and academic education This subtype developed out of vocational academies (German: Berufsakademie), which reveals its dedication to the professional training of its students

 

This table gives you an overview of the most common - and most often confused - terms. It is, however, incomplete. There, for example, is a plentitude of additional university subtypes (theological universities, specialized universities) or subtypes of UAS (such as universities for public administration). You can find more detailed information in the articles we wrote on each university type, which are presented in the next chapter.

 

It is noteworthy that this terminology reflects the history of the German higher education system. For example, what is now called technical university (German: Technische Universität), used to be called “Technische Hochschule”, which today denotes technical universities of applied sciences. This reflects the development of universities of applied sciences as an independent and important branch of the German higher education system.

 

Do you want to know even more about German university terminology? Find out how the term “college” translates into the German higher education system here.

 

If you don’t feel like diving too deep into the nitty-gritty aspects of the vocabulary, that is perfectly alright. The main takeaway we want to convey is that there are three different university types in Germany with various subtypes and that they can be distinguished - among other things, of course - by their German names and terms.

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Further Reading

Technical Universities in Germany: A Guide for International Students (2020/21)

The what-is-what of German universities: A quick overview

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Next, let us fill those terms with a little more definition. The following paragraphs fill you in on what is typical for each of the three university types. Note, however, that a clear cut distinction between the practices of each university type is often not possible: In reality, you will for example find practical elements and practical training as part of courses at research-driven universities, and will undergo rigorous academic training and learn theories at a UAS. So it is always recommendable to check out individual study programs and curricula, as well.

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University type 1: University (German: Universität)

Universities of this type are best described as research-oriented and focus on scientific and theoretical academic training. Students can study all kinds of subjects at universities, including those that end in a state examination such as medicine, law, or teaching. At different subtypes of universities, such as technical universities, there is a focus on certain subject groups only.

 

You can pursue all degree forms at universities, including the state examination and doctorate degrees. To learn more about this type of higher education institution, how to get into a university, and all the important ins and outs, continue reading here.

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University type 2: University of applied sciences (German: Fachhochschule / Hochschule fĂĽr Angewandte Wissenschaften)

The name of this university type indicates the focus of these institutions: They focus on the practical application of scientific insights and research results. Students here can expect an application-oriented academic training that integrates practical phases, such as research projects in cooperation with companies or internships, into the course structure. Similarly, professors at UAS have practical work experience in relevant industries and fields.

 

Often, UAS focus on certain subject groups, such as technical subjects and engineering, media, economics, or social sciences. Certain subjects, such as medicine, pharmacy, veterinary medicine, dentistry, teaching, or law cannot be studied at UAS. Degree types offered are typically bachelor’s and master’s degrees only. To learn about UAS in more detail, please read this article.

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University type 3: Academies of arts, music and film (German: Kunst-, Musik-, und Filmhochschule)

Instead of focusing on theory- or application-oriented scientific training, students of the academies of arts, music, and film develop their artistic talent in various fields with instructions of professional teachers and artists. Therefore, as one entrance requirement, applicants typically need to portray artistic talent, by handing in a portfolio with work samples and/or taking part in an entrance examination.

 

On top of fine arts subjects (including design, architecture, or film), these academies also teach pedagogical or scientific, arts-related subjects and some offer the possibility to obtain a doctorate degree. Students often graduate with bachelor’s or master’s degrees, some academies offer specific fine arts degrees. To learn more about entrance requirements and the scientific-artistic training offered, check out this article.

When learning about the three university types of the German higher education system, you should also consider that in Germany, the education system is organized federally. This means each of the 16 states of Germany (German: Bundesland) decides the legal regulations of its higher education landscape. In consequence, the sub-groups under these three university types, as well as the legal frameworks, may vary from Bundesland to Bundesland.

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Geeky Stuff Box

The right to award doctorate degrees (German: Promotionsrecht)

One field in which the Bundesland-specific differences come to play is when it comes to the question of which university types have the right to award doctorate degrees. Traditionally, this right is reserved for universities only. If you are looking to pursue doctoral studies in Germany, you are most likely to study at this type of institution. Universities offer doctoral studies all throughout Germany. On top of that, there are quite a lot of academies of arts, music, and film that offer scientific doctoral studies, as well.

 

Only some states in Germany extended this to universities of applied sciences. For example, Hessia granted some UAS the right to award doctorate degrees to some especially research-oriented UAS under certain conditions in 2016. Similar rules have been applied in Saxony-Anhalt since 2020. Furthermore, in 2019, North Rhine-Westphalia created a doctoral college for UAS that can award doctorate degrees. Whether these three states’ regulations will inspire other states to reform the right to award doctorate degrees currently is a heated discussion in Germany and remains to be seen. We will, of course, keep you posted!

A closer look: What are the differences between the university types in Germany?

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Before you familiarize yourself with the various unique aspects of each university type, there is one important point all state-accredited higher education institutions in Germany have in common: They offer you high-quality education that is recognized throughout Germany and internationally. Whether you get your degree from a UAS or a university: It will be recognized as equally as good and valid.

  University University of applied sciences Academies of arts, music, and film
Focus Research-oriented, scientific, theoretical Application-oriented, scientific, practical Practical & artistic training, scientific & 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 (bachelor’s degrees qualify to work or to study for a master’s; master’s degrees qualify to work or to pursue a doctorate)

Yes - note that exclusively artistic degrees do not qualify for scientific doctoral studies
Subject range

All subjects (incl. state-regulated professions such as medicine, law, pharmacy, teaching)

Applicable subjects (engineering, business, social sciences, and many more)

Artistic subjects (fine arts, design, architecture, theatre, music), pedagogical & scientific tracks

 

Facts & Figures
No. of institutions (2019/20) 129 243 52
No. of students (2019/20) 1'777,758 (incl. foreign students: 268,044) 1'076,744 (incl. foreign students: 131,398) 36,547 (incl. foreign students: 12,159)
No. of doctoral students (2019) 181,741 (incl. foreign students: 41,995) 148 (incl. foreign students: 24) 889 (incl. foreign students: 201)
Average no. of students/ institution 13,781 4,431 703

 

Application & Teaching Style
Application process

Based on application documents, typically no interview/entrance test needed

Typically based on portfolio, work samples & entrance tests
Course elements Big lectures, smaller sized seminars; research-driven or scientific-theoretical thesis to finish the degree Smaller sized seminars; practical projects/internships; the thesis is often written in cooperation with companies Practical training and lectures by scientific and artistic teachers; small-group seminars and one-on-one training; creative elements
Teaching staff requirements Scientific qualification (doctorate degree & habilitation) Scientific qualification (doctorate degree is sufficient) & work experience outside academia Impressive & outstanding artistic oeuvre; and/or scientific qualification (doctorate degree & habilitation)

 

Target groups
Typical career examples Production & communication of knowledge: researchers, analysts, consultants; physicians, lawyers, engineers, etc. Highly qualified specialists in their fields: engineers, event managers, media managers… the list can go on and on! Creative contributors to the fields of arts & culture: independent artists, media designers, arts & pedagogy, museums, and more
Ideal for Theoretically minded students looking for research-oriented academic training. Ideal for everyone who is planning to work as a researcher Those who enjoy solving real-world puzzles & using their knowledge to produce tangible results. Great opportunity to network with employers Ongoing artists & creative minds looking to further develop & professionalize their craft in artsy and culturally stimulating environments

 

*Exceptions exist in Hessia, Saxony-Anhalt & North Rhine-Westphalia.

Sources: Statistisches Bundesamt, see here and here; Statistikportal.

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Further Reading

Master’s Degrees in Germany for International Students (2020/21)

Public vs. Private universities in Germany

two cars next to each other

The German education system is (in contrast to other countries) traditionally characterized by public institutions. This is because education in Germany is considered a public good that is paid for by the state. So for all three university types, the majority of institutions are run by the state and therefore public.

 

On top of public universities, there are also higher education institutions that are run privately, or in some cases by the church. The private and church-run universities that are accredited by the state provide you with high-quality education just like public universities do, so they are safe to choose for your studies

In 2019, Germany had:

  • 21 private universities,
  • 3 private academies of arts, music, or film,
  • 92 private UAS.

One of the big differentiating factors between private and public institutions is when it comes to tuition fees. While public universities are typically free of charge, private universities do charge tuition fees in Germany. For more information on studying for free at a public university (of any of the three university types), read this article.

Which university type is the best (for me)?

african woman thinking about something

Now, with this information, you should be able to make an informed decision regarding the university type that you will choose for your studies in Germany. Let’s address some of the doubts you might still have and walk you a little bit through the decision process.

 

First things first: We are convinced that no university type is better than the other. Instead, we want to encourage you to ask: Which university type is best for me? Take a moment to think about your talents or interests: Do you have an analytical mind and enjoy solving theoretical puzzles? Great, then go to a university! Do you enjoy improving real-life processes? Then a UAS is the better fit for you! Are you the next Picasso or Jimi Hendrix? Go to an academy of arts or music!

 

We frequently experience that some international students have doubts regarding whether they can choose a UAS in Germany and get the internationally recognized high-quality education that is associated with German universities. One aspect that fuels this doubt is that you will not find UAS in international rankings. The reason for that is simple: Many of these rankings are based on a university’s research output, which is lower at UAS: Professors at these institutions do conduct application-oriented research but are also required to commit significant amounts of their time to teach, so naturally, the research output is smaller.

 

However, depending on what you expect from higher education, there are good reasons to choose UAS over universities: Students who are striving in smaller-sized classrooms, often with closer contact with professors might feel more comfortable at a UAS. We do especially recommend UAS to international students who plan on using their studies in Germany as a preparation to enter the German job market: Since students here cooperate with German companies throughout their studies, it is often easier for them to get a foot-in-the-door and build a professional network. Graduates of these institutions generally have great chances at the job market.

 

Last but not least, keep in mind that it is possible to transfer from one university type to another: A bachelor’s degree from one institution qualifies you for a master’s degree at another, and a master’s degree from a UAS allows you to pursue doctorate studies at any university in Germany. When changing university types, it may be that you are required to make up for certain missed courses or a lack of practical experiences by taking some extracurricular courses at your new university. Since the distinctions between the university types aren’t always very clear either, it is also recommendable to check out individual programs and course structures. To do so, you can use our Study Finder!

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Summary Box

University types in Germany

There are three types of higher education institutions in Germany: Universities, universities of applied sciences, and academies of arts, music, and film.

  • Universities are theoretically-oriented, offer studies in all subject fields, and provide the opportunities to pursue degrees at all levels of study, including doctorate degrees.
  • Universities of applied sciences are practically-oriented, offer studies foremostly in applicable subject fields and typically only provide the opportunity to pursue bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
  • Academies of arts, music, and film are artistically-oriented, offer studies in fine arts, and are open to students with artistic talent. Students can pursue bachelor’s, master’s, and often doctorate degrees and specific fine arts degrees.

All three types of institutions are equally recognized in Germany and internationally. Often, a clear-cut-distinction between the types is not possible, therefore, it is recommendable to check out study programs independent of the university type, as well.