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 12 and 20 German universities among the Top 200. Technical University of Munich, Munich’s Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität and Heidelberg University do particularly well.
According to the German Rectors’ Conference (HRK), in 2017 students in Germany could choose between 399 higher education institutions (120 universities, 221 universities of applied sciences, and 58 art and music academies). Together they offer 19,011 courses. As part of the Bologna Process to create a uniform European Higher Education Area (EHEA) initiated in 1999, almost all courses now lead to Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. 240 higher education institutions are funded by the state, 39 by the church, and 120 privately.
Growing popularity among 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 221 strongly practice-oriented universities of applied sciences (FH) are unique to Germany. The first introduction of the right of universities of applied sciences to award doctorates in the State of Hesse, which was previously only something universities were allowed to do, was a matter of much debate.
Overall, the number of people engaged in academic pursuits is increasing: Whereas in 2005 the ratio of freshmen stood at 37 percent, over 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. Today, almost every second student comes from a non-academic home. In winter semester 2016-7 there were 2.8 million students registered at higher education institutions, among them 265,500 who gained their university entrance qualification abroad – 41 percent more than in winter semester 2006-7.
Today there are more than twice as many foreigners enrolled at German universities as in 1996. Most international students come from China, India, and Russia. This puts Germany in the top five most most popular countries for international students.
At the same time the German higher education institutions have significantly increased the number of foreign-language and international courses: Around 1,400 courses are now taught in English. In over 730 courses, an international double degree is possible. 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 years thereafter. 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
With the Excellence Initiative, between 2005 and 2017 the Federal Government and the states funded particularly outstanding research projects and facilities. In the second phase of the programme alone (2012–2017) total funding of 2.7 billion euros was provided to support 45 graduate schools, 43 clusters of excellence, and 11 institutional strategies spread across 39 universities. The subsequent Exellence strategy is initially not limited in time and will contribute 533 million euros a year from 2018 onwards. The strategy is intended to help German universities become even better on an international comparison. Promoting excellence clusters strengthens internationally competitive research areas in universities and university groups at the project level. If at least two excellence clusters are approved at one and the same university, the latter has a good chance of receiving permanent funding as a univesity of excellence.
Internationalisation remains an important topic. The German Rectors’ Conference has identified more than 33,000 international cooperation agreements concluded with parner institutions in around 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. Over one third 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.