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Dynamic Academic Landscape

Study opportunities with international appeal: The German academic world is diverse and excellent – and not only in the major cities.
Dynamische Hochschullandschaft
© Robert Kneschke/

The German academic landscape is highly ­diverse: There are famous universities in major cities such as Berlin and Munich, but also 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. Many German universities feature in international rankings: The top 200 in the Shanghai Ranking include ten German universities, the QS World University Rankings include 12, and the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 23. Munich’s Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, the Technical University of Munich and Heidelberg University do particularly well.

According to the German Rectors’ Conference (HRK), in 2019 students in Germany could choose between 394 higher education institutions (121 universities, 216 univer­sities of applied sciences, and 57 art and music academies). Together they offer 19,839 different 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. A total of 240 higher education institutions are funded by the state, 39 by the church, and 115 privately.

Research and teaching: high standards and a focus on practice

There are basically three types of higher education institutions: universities, universities of applied sciences, and academies of art, film, and music. They differ in terms of their structure and purpose.

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 216 strongly practice-oriented universities of applied sciences (FH) are unique to Germany. When in 2016 the State of Hesse first granted univer­sities of applied sciences the right to award doctorates, which was previously only something universities were allowed to do, it 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, in 2019 around 56 percent of young people in Germany took up higher education. The Federal Training Assistance Act (BAföG) enables them to complete a degree course independently of their family’s financial situation. Around half of all university students come from a non-academic home. In the winter semester 2018-9 there were around 2.9 million students registered at higher education institutions.

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 is providing 20.2 billion euros, and the states 18.3 billion euros.

Initiatives for more excellence and stronger internationalisation

With the Excellence Initiative, the Federal Government and the individual Bundesländer are strengthening top-level university research. The Initiative funds Clusters of Excellence in specific fields of research as well as so-called “German Universities of Excellence”. It links up to the previous Excellence Initiative of 2005 to 2017, when the Federal Government and the states funded particularly outstanding research projects and facilities with a total volume of 4.6 billion euros.

The Excellence Initiative consists of two parts. With the Clusters of Excellence, internationally competitive fields of research at universities are given funding on a project-by-project basis. These clusters enable interdisciplinary collaboration among academics for a specific research objective. The funding gives them the opportunity to focus intensively on their research objective, to train up-and-coming specialists and to recruit international major players in the field. No less than 57 Clusters of Excellence were selected for an initial, seven-year round of funding. The annual volume of funding for the Clusters of Excellence is 385 million euros.

Universities with at least two Clusters of Excellence were able to apply for the title of German University of Excellence. Since the end of 2019, ten Universities of Excellence throughout Germany and the Berlin-based Consortium of Excellence, which comprises the Freie Universität, the Humboldt-Universität, the Technischer Universität and the Charité University Hospital, have been set to receive total funding of around 148 million euros every year for seven years initially. The core objective of the Excellence Initiative is to strengthen Germany as a centre of academia for the long term on an international level and to further boost its visibility.

Internationalisation is essential to the German higher education world as a whole. The German Rectors’ Conference has identified more than 37,000 inter­national cooperation agreements concluded with partner institutions in more than 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.

Foreign mobility among German students is likewise being funded. Around one third already spend time studying abroad, and in future it is intended that half of all German graduates of a higher education institution gain experience abroad while studying. Scholarships such as the Erasmus+ programme support these valuable study visits.