The German academic landscape is highly diverse: There are famous universities in major cities such as Berlin and Munich, along with excellent higher education institutions in Aachen, Heidelberg, and Karlsruhe. Medium-sized universities with a strong focus on research and smaller colleges with an outstanding reputation form the nucleus of the academic world. Whether the international Shanghai Ranking, the QS World University Rankings, or the Times Higher Education World University Rankings – each lists between 10 and 12 German universities among the Top 200. Munich’s Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Heidelberg University and Technische Universität München (TUM) do particularly well.
According to the German Rectors’ Conference (HRK), in 2015 students in Germany could choose between 399 higher education institutions (121 universities, 220 universities of applied sciences, and 58 art and music academies). Together they offer 17,731 courses. As part of the Bologna Process to create a uniform European Higher Education Area (EHEA) initiated in 1999, 87.4 percent of all courses now lead to Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. 238 higher education institutions are funded by the state, 40 by the church, and 121 privately.
Most popular non-English-speaking host country for international students
In terms of structure and purpose, the higher education landscape is basically divided up threefold. We distinguish between universities, universities of applied sciences and academies of art, film and music. Whereas the classic universities offer a wide range of subjects, the technical universities (TU) concentrate on basic research in engineering and natural science disciplines. In 2006 the nine leading technical universities formed the TU9 Initiative. The universities regard themselves not only as teaching institutes but as research centres too, and as such even today embody Wilhelm von Humboldt’s educational ideal of the unity of research and teaching. The universities’ primary objective is to promote young academics, pass on substantiated specialist knowledge, and train academics to work and research independently. The 220 strongly practice-oriented universities of applied sciences (FH) are unique to Germany. The introduction of the right of universities of applied sciences to award doctorates, which at present only universities are allowed to do, is currently under discussion.
Overall, the number of people engaged in academic pursuits is increasing: Whereas in 2005 the ratio of freshmen stood at 37 percent, around half of young people in Germany now take up higher education. The Federal Training Assistance Act (BAföG) enables them to complete a degree course independently of their family’s financial situation. Nonetheless, educational success remains closely linked to social background – only 23 percent of children from non-academic households embark on a degree. In 2014 there were 2.7 million students registered at higher education institutions, among them 301,350 with a non-German passport: 218,848 students who gained their university entrance qualification abroad and 82,502 foreigners with a German entrance qualification (Abitur).
Since 2011 the total number of students has risen by 18 percent, the number of international students by almost 20 percent in the same period. Today there are twice as many foreigners enrolled at German universities as in 1996. Most international students come from China, Russia, and India. This makes Germany the most popular non-English-speaking host country for international students. Only the USA and Great Britain are more attractive. The technical universities have a particularly good reputation for training engineers – 25 percent of freshmen there are international students.
At the same time the German higher education institutions have increased the number of foreign-language and international courses to 1,104. The multitude of structured doctoral courses is particularly attractive for international doctoral students. The fact that for the most part most German higher education institutions do not charge tuition fees gives them a further advantage.
The Federal Government and the states are tackling the increasing numbers engaged in academic study together: In late 2014, as part of the Higher Education Pact 2020, they resolved to finance up to 760,000 additional university entrants in the coming years. For the entire duration of the Higher Education Pact from 2007 to 2023, the Federal Government will provide 20.2 billion euros, and the states 18.3 billion euros.
Initiatives for more excellence and greater internationalisation
Since 2005 the Federal Government and the states have been funding particularly outstanding research projects and facilities through the Excellence Initiative. In the current stage of the programme (2012–2017) 45 graduate schools, 43 clusters of excellence and 11 institutional strategies spread across 44 universities are receiving funding. The volume of funding in this period totals 2.7 billion euros. A similar level of funding is intended after 2017 as well.
Internationalisation remains an important topic. A 2014 joint study by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), the German Rectors’ Conference, and the Humboldt Foundation identified around 31,000 international cooperation agreements concluded by almost 300 higher education institutions with 5,000 higher education partners in 150 countries, among them many programmes leading to double degrees. Many higher education institutions are involved in the development of German study courses and the founding of higher education institutions based on the German model, which exist in Egypt, China, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Oman, Singapore, Hungary, Vietnam, and Turkey.
Increasing foreign mobility among German students is likewise being funded. Among 30 percent already spend time studying abroad. In future it is intended that every second German graduate of a higher education institution gain experience abroad while studying. Scholarships such as the Erasmus+ programme support these valuable study visits.