German universities play an important part in the European educational system. The reason for this is the country's economic rise in the second half of the 20th century and the developed culture of higher education. The university system in Germany emerged in the 15th century and to this day it remains one of the most famous and effective. One distinctive feature of German tertiary education in the last decade is a special emphasis on practical skills, whether it be student projects or internships.

Platz der Republik, Berlin, Germany

List and ranking of universities in Germany

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Advantages of German universities

  • Free education. Tuition at public German universities is free. The main exception for foreign students being the universities of Baden-Württemberg, where tuition costs 1,628 USD per semester. In other regions of Germany, students pay only administrative fees (about 217 USD per semester), which covers the cost of transportation, membership in student communities, library membership and much more. Thus, students have the opportunity to get a high-quality and prestigious education for little money.
  • Bachelor’s in English. It is not necessary to know German in order to study here. Some universities offer various undergraduate programs in English.
  • Financing of higher education. Germany spends more on higher education (17,041 USD) than European countries on average (15,174 USD), moreover, as much as 43% of the funding goes to the development of research centers[1].
  • Architectural monuments. A significant part of higher education institutions in Germany was established during the Middle Ages. For example, one of the buildings of the University of Tübingen is the main attraction of the city — the Hoentübingen Castle, which was built back in the XI century. Classes still take place in these old buildings.

Disadvantages and features of German universities

  • High entrance requirements. Even for admission to the preparatory year of study, students are required to confirm their knowledge of the German language at a level not lower than B2. According to the reviews of all applicants, the entrance exam at Studienkolleg is unexpectedly difficult, and, as a result, not everyone succeeds in passing it the first time. This entails the loss of the whole academic year since documents can be submitted again after six months or even after a year if the selected university has only one set of deadlines.
  • Assessment of previous education. German universities pay close attention to the subjects passed at the baccalaureate level and their relevance to the master's program. Most of the refusals upon admission occur precisely because of the inconsistency of the previous education of the applicant with the profile of the program.
  • Translation and legalization of documents. German universities set strict requirements for accepted translations of application documents, as well as their legalization in different authorities. These rules must be followed in order not to receive a refusal due to technical inaccuracy alone.
  • Limited number of English programs. German universities offer an extremely limited number of undergraduate programs in English, thereby creating huge competition for admission.
Heidelberg, Germany
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Requirements for admission to German universities

ProgramMin. ageDurationMin. cost/yearAvg. cost/yearMin. language levelExams
Studienkolleg (public)16+1 yearFree326 USDB2TestDaF
Studienkolleg (private)16+1 year3,256 USD32,563 USDB1TestDaF
College15+1-2 years434 USD779 USDB2IELTS / TestDaF
Bachelor’s (public)17+3-4 yearsFree3,256 USDB2IELTS / TestDaF
Bachelor’s (private)17+3-4 years6,513 USD13,025 USDB2IELTS
MBA22+1-2 years37,990 USD43,417 USDC1IELTS / TestDaF
Master’s22+2 yearsFree9,378 USDC1IELTS / TestDaF
Doctoral studies24+3-4 yearsFree7,598 USDC1IELTS / TestDaF

Students who come from countries where the education system isn’t equivalent to German’s have to attend Studienkolleg before applying to the university. There are two kinds of Studienkollegs: Universitätskollegs prepare students for all types of higher educational institutions, and Fachhochschulkollegs prepare students only for universities of applied sciences.

The official website of the German Center for International Education uni-assist allows prospect students to check the equivalence of their diploma. And here is a list of all Studienkollegs in Germany.

Documents for admission to Studienkolleg
  • Application;
  • Passport / ID;
  • Notarized translation of school leaving certificate;
  • CV;
  • Proof of language proficiency.

Documents are usually submitted through the uni-assist (if a university is not connected to the system admission procedure can differ). Students can send applications until mid-July for the winter semester and until mid-January for the summer semester.

You don’t need to attend Studienkolleg in order to pass the final exam, it is possible through self-preparation (externe Feststellungsprüfung).

The following documents will be needed:

  • Document explaining the reason why a student can’t attend Studienkolleg;
  • Evidence of high academic performance at school;
  • Language certificate;
  • Evidence of paid administrative fee (163-217 USD).

A final examination could be taken in Germany or remotely at one of the Goethe Institutes or DAAD centers. Students can find all the details on corresponding websites.

Documents for admission to the university
  • Application;
  • Passport / ID;
  • Notarized translation of school leaving certificate or diploma;
  • Proof of language proficiency;
  • Result of the final test in Studienkolleg or grade transcript if the student attended their native country’s university before applying (instead of Studienkolleg);
  • Proof of sufficient funds (9,552 USD/year, since 2020 — 11,110 USD/year);
  • Health insurance;
  • Letters of recommendation;
  • Motivational letter;
  • Resume.

Students who apply to programs regulated by national quotas require additional registration.

Deadlines can vary if a university practices the VPD system (Vorprüfungsdokumentation) — pre-assessment of certificates and diplomas. This procedure can take up to 6 weeks[2].

TestAS — is a special examination created for international applicants. It includes a language test, general core, and area-specific modules (business of engineering). Make note that this test doesn’t count as proof of language proficiency. All participants will receive 2 extra points during the admission procedure. Students with high results (100 points or more) will get additional 10 bonus points. Check if your university admits TestAs results before applying.

Hochschule, München

Types of educational institutions in Germany

There are two types of higher educational institutions in Germany: vocational colleges (Berufsakademien and Fachschulen) and universities (Universitäten). The second group also includes equivalent to university institutions (gleichgestellte Hochschulen):

  • universities of applied sciences (Fachhochschulen)
  • technical universities (Technische Universität)
  • schools of fine arts and music (Kunst- und Musikhochschulen)
  • medical universities (Medizinische Hochschulen)
  • theological universities (Theologische Hochschulen)
  • pedagogical universities (Pädagogische Hochschulen).

Colleges in Germany

  • Berufsakademien / Hochschule dual provide student education. Training programs consist of theoretical and on-the-job training. The main difference from the university is that student’s work experience is a vital part of the educational process — programs are developed jointly with the employer. Training takes two years on average. The theoretical part lasts about three months, and the rest of the time is devoted to practice at the workplace. Besides possible scholarships, students receive a salary of 400 to 1,737 USD per month. After the final exam, graduates receive a diploma, or in some cases a bachelor's degree, if the university has the appropriate accreditation.
  • Fachschulen / Fachakademien provide further education for students who have already graduated from a specialized college. Some universities also require experience in a selected field. Fachschulen offer programs in the following areas: agricultural economy, design, technology, business, social work. Training lasts 1-2 years, there are full-time and part-time programs. Fachakademien are located in Bavaria and perform the same functions.
Hochschule, Dresden
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Public and private universities

Although state universities still make up the majority of German educational institutions, the popularity of private universities is growing every year. If in 2005 only 3% of students were studying in private institutions[3], now this number has grown to 8%[4].

Accreditation of private universities in all states (länder) is carried out by the Science counsel (Wissenschaftsrat), which ensures that the programs, structure of education and qualifications of teachers follow German educational standards. Special associationVerband der Privaten Hochschulen — represents the interests of private educational institutions.

The study conducted by the German company Stifterverband in collaboration with McKinsey[5] suggests dividing private universities into five categories:

  • Aufwerter (“upgraders”) offer basic continuing education programs for college or majors. With globalization and technological progress, many professions require extra qualifications related to using new devices or developing soft (social or communicational) skills.
  • Flexible (“flexibles”) universities cater to students with time limitations. They offer a variety of online courses and programs with flexible schedules, allowing students to study and work at the same time. A combination of online and offline learning is called blended studies.
  • Berufsorientierte (“professionals”) make up the largest of all the groups represented[6]. Universities in this category work with companies and enterprises. Their programs are practical and often include internships in a partner organization.
  • Spezialisten (“specialists”) combine learning with research. Universities of this type often offer international exchange and doctoral programs, allowing students to receive a high-quality academic education. The most popular areas here are economics, law, and sociology. This group includes Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, the Handelshochschule in Leipzig, the European Business School in Oestrich-Winkel, the WHU Otto Beisheim School of Management in Falland and Bucerius Law School in Hamburg.
  • Humboldtianer (“humboldtians”) — the fifth group, named after Friedrich von Humboldt — German statesman, diplomat, philosopher and linguist who founded the Humboldt University in Berlin (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin). Throughout his life, he preached the ideal of higher education — the optimal combination of knowledge in several academic and scientific fields. Universities of this group are considered truly elite educational institutions. They provide multidisciplinary training and prepare students for work in business, politics, and education. Three private universities qualify as "Humboldtian": Zeppelin Universität, Jacobs University Bremen and Universität Witten Herdecke[6].

The main advantages of private universities include fewer students, better funding, more attentive administration, a focus on the labor market and the absence of a numerus clausus system (special quotas mainly for medicine-oriented programs).

The main disadvantage is the tuition fees: undergraduate programs cost on average 564 USD/month, and master's programs — 782 USD/month. Many universities introduce scholarships and special deferred payment schedules to help students.

Hertie School of Governance, Berlin

Groups and associations of universities

Exzellenzinitiative ("best initiative") is a program created by the German Ministry of Education and the German Research Society (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft)[7]. Its goal is to foster advanced research and strengthen international cooperation at universities. As part of this program, the so-called elite universities (Eliteuniversitäten) are regularly selected. They receive additional funding from the state for the development of research work and collaboration. The selection process evaluates existing projects and partnerships. The status of an elite university should be reviewed and reaffirmed every seven years.


11 higher education institutions included in this list can be considered some of the best research centers in Germany[8]:

U15 is an association of the largest scientific and medical universities in Germany. Its goal is to create a network of the most innovative and elite research educational institutions. 31% of all international students in Germany study at U15 universities in undergraduate and graduate programs, and 43% — in doctoral programs[9].

Members of the U15

TU9 is an association of nine leading German technical universities[10]. Created in 2003 as an informal association, TU9 officially exists since 2006. The purpose of the association is the cooperation of participating universities and training of qualified engineering personnel.

Members of the TU9
Technische Universität Dresden

Free universities in Germany

Although most programs at German universities are free, this rule does not apply to them all. The cost of living in Germany can also be quite high for international students. Because of this, the German government and international student organizations offer applicants a large number of scholarships and grants. Government-sponsored are DAAD scholarships and The Deutschlandstipendium. The DAAD (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst) is the world’s largest funding organization for the international exchange of students and researchers. In 2016, the DAAD funded more than 131000 German and international scholars worldwide. The funding opportunities range from a year abroad for undergraduates to doctoral programs, from internships to visiting lectureships, and from information gathering visits to assisting with the establishment of new universities abroad. The Deutschlandstipendium is a Germany-wide scholarship program available to gifted students at state and state-recognized universities since 2011. Every month students receive 326 USD — one half is sponsored by the government, the other one — by private investors.

Among the most well-known private scholarships are The Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Heinrich Böll Stiftung, Bayer Foundations, and Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung.

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Best universities in Germany — Top 5

  • The Technical University of Munich (Technische Universität München) from its very foundation in 1898 has played an important role in the development of German technology and science. According to the European Commission rating, Munich University is among the five universities (alongside such famous universities as Cambridge and Oxford) with the greatest academic influence in the world. Currently, MUT conducts advanced research in the field of biotechnology and particle physics.
  • Heidelberg University (Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg) is the first in Germany and one of the oldest higher education institutions in Europe. The university was founded in 1386 by decree of Pope Urban VI. Many famous personalities worked here at different times, for example, the philosopher G. Hegel, the founder of sociology M. Weber and the geophysicist A. Wegner. Today, the strongest areas in the university are German studies, physics, and medicine.
  • The University of Munich (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München) is also one of the oldest universities in the country: it was founded in 1472 in Ingolstadt on the orders of Ludwig IX. In the 19th century, a higher educational institution was moved to Munich. Such well-known scientists as M. Planck and V. Heisenberg, who influenced the development of physics in the 20th century, conducted research activities here. Today, the Department of Physics at the University of Munich continues to have worldwide recognition. Among the humanitarian areas in the university, philosophy is considered one of the best.
  • The University of Freiburg (Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg), like many of Germany's oldest universities, appeared in the 15th century. It was the cultural center of the 20th century and many Nobel laureates made their discoveries here. Currently, the strongest disciplines at the University of Freiburg are medicine and pharmaceuticals. The university conducts a significant part of research in these areas.
  • The University of Gottingen (Georg-August-Universität Göttingen) was founded in 1737 as a secular higher education institution. He was one of the first institutions where the privileged place of theology was disputed, thereby affirming the equality of all disciplines. The university has a record number of Nobel laureates: 45 scientists from the University of Gottingen received this prestigious award. The best disciplines in the university are considered biology and psychology.
Geschwister-Scholl-Platz fountain

Interesting facts about German universities

  • Research Center of the Technical University of Munich (Technische Universität München) operates on the basis of the oldest active brewery Weihenstephan (Bayerische Staatsbrauerei Weihenstephan). Founded in 1040, the brewery is distinguished not only by observing brewing traditions but also by new discoveries in the field of beer science.
  • Faculty of Education and Psychology of the University of Munich (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München) was nicknamed “Schweinchenbau” (pig building) by German students and teachers for its bright pink color.
  • Humboldt University of Berlin (Humboldt-Universität) is proud of its rich history: Karl Marx studied here, Robert Koch taught lessons and Albert Einstein read lectures.
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