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A Guide to German Higher Education System

A Guide to German Higher Education System
Amarnath pratapwarOct 6, 2022

German higher education enjoys a stellar reputation for excellence and credibility worldwide. Although a non-English speaking country, Germany provides a variety of English-taught courses for international students. Thus, every year several international students apply to German universities. As of 2021, 416,437 international students are studying in Germany. They are either enrolled in a public or private university (or a religious-funded university). These universities are further divided into categories based on their fields of specialization.

  • Academic universities
  • Universities of applied sciences or Fachhochschulen
  • Colleges of art and music
  • Universities of cooperative education or Duale Hochschulen

There are a total of 422 universities in Germany as of 2020/21 statistics. 108 of them are academic universities, 210 are universities of applied sciences, and 52 are colleges of art or music. The remainder 52 belong to neither of these categories. 

Depending on the type of university, you can pursue either a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral level education in Germany. The following article talks about the German higher education system and its academic framework.

Overview of the German higher education system 

German university types Academic universities, universities of applied sciences, colleges of art and music, and universities of cooperative education
Total number of universities in Germany  422
Funding source Public funded, private, and religious funded universities
Degrees offered  Bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral 
Number of semesters in an academic year 2 semesters (6 months each) to 3 semesters (4 months each)

Types of German universities

As discussed above, German universities are divided into four types based on their areas of specialization 

  1. Academic universities
  2. Universities of applied sciences
  3. Colleges of art, film, and music
  4. Universities of cooperative education or Duale Hochschulen

Currently, 2.95 million students, including 416,437 international students, are enrolled at these German universities. 1.72 million of them are enrolled in academic universities. 38,366 students are attending colleges of art, film, and music, compared to 1.1 million students who are enrolled at universities of applied sciences. There are very few students attending universities of cooperative education. A visual representation of the number of students at each sort of university is shown in the chart below.

In terms of quality, all institutions in Germany are equivalent. Therefore, a student can choose any kind of university depending on the area of study. The most commonly offered subject groups are

  • Medical studies 
  • Engineering
  • Natural sciences and mathematics
  • Veterinary medicine 
  • Agriculture, forestry, ecology, nutritional sciences
  • Law, economics, and social sciences
  • Humanities, linguistics, and cultural studies
  • Art and music

Academic universities

An academic university in Germany mainly teaches theoretical knowledge and research methodologies. It offers a wide range of subjects and delivers all three levels of higher education: bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral. Some academic universities focus solely on a single discipline. For example, University Targu Mures Medical Campus Hamburg (UMCH). It offers only medicine-related courses and is one of the largest medical universities in the country. 

Universities of applied sciences

Otherwise known as “Fachhochschulen”, these universities focus on academic research and technological inventions. Their teaching emphasizes application more than theory. They typically provide a wide range of courses in fields like engineering, business, technology, media, and social work. Academic programs at Fachhochschulen include work placement for one or more semesters in companies in Germany or abroad. A few of these universities also offer doctoral programs. 

Below is a list of some popular universities of applied sciences in Germany

Note: In Germany, only academic institutions and universities of applied sciences offer Ph.D. programs.

Colleges of art, film, and music

These institutes provide German higher education in the field of music, film, and visual arts. Their courses cover subjects including acting, dance, interior design, music, architecture, and fine arts. Art colleges in Germany, require students to demonstrate their talent by passing an admission exam. If you are very talented, you might be admitted to these universities without the prerequisites. Some art colleges only offer certain courses in design, music, or film, while others offer them all.

Universities of cooperative education 

These universities also go by the name Duale Hochschulen and provide integrated/dual degree programs. They are perfect for students who want to learn practically and launch their careers right away. Many of the programs at Duale Hochschulen are sponsored by companies for their employees. Depending on the type dual study programs can be career-integrated, training-integrated, or practice-integrated.

Types of degrees offered

Germany is a member of the European Higher Education Area and follows the Bologna Process. Hence, it offers higher education degrees at three levels.  

Bachelor’s level

A bachelor’s/undergraduate degree is the first higher education qualification at a German university. Mostly it lasts for a period of six semesters (3 years) to 8 semesters (4 years) depending on the university type and the course. You can choose to study bachelor’s degree as 

  • Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) 
  • Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.)
  • Bachelor of Engineering (B. Eng.) 

A bachelor’s course can be pursued as a single degree with one major and two minor subjects or joint degrees that comprise two subjects. It covers the fundamentals of an academic subject and is enough to be hired for entry positions. There are over 10,500 bachelor’s programs available in Germany. 

Master’s level 

The second higher qualification degree at a German university is a master’s/post-graduate degree. German universities offer 9,500 postgraduate degrees in a range of academic subjects. Many students choose to do their master’s after bachelor’s to expand their knowledge in the chosen subject. German universities offer master’s degrees such as a Master of Arts (M.A.), Master of Science (M.Sc.), Master of Engineering (M.Eng.), and Master of Business Administration (MBA). The degree can last for 3 to 4 semesters depending on the subject area. It can be either theses-based or a non-thesis-based master’s degree.  

Note: The traditional Diplom and Magister Artium in Germany are gradually being replaced by bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

Doctoral level 

Doctorate or Ph.D. is the third higher education level offered in Germany and is also the highest educational level. This degree is suitable for students who are interested in in-depth research. A master’s degree is mandatory to pursue a doctorate. A doctoral degree can last for a period of usually two to five years. You need to write a doctoral dissertation, or thesis to be awarded a doctorate degree. 

Public vs. private vs. religious funded German universities

German higher education system can also be stratified on different funding strategies. Based on their funding source, German universities can be divided into

Public universities in Germany receive government funding. They are referred to as “state-funded universities”. They make up 60% (279) of higher education institutes in Germany and are known for their free education. Most of them follow Numerus clausus and offer a limited number of seats. 

Private universities are state accredited but not funded by the government. There are a total of 120 private universities in Germany which make up 30% of the total number. They are granted a large amount of freedom to establish their own admissions and application procedures as well as policies. They are also regarded for their strong connections to industry and global outlook. It is easier for graduates of private universities to obtain employment abroad. Plus, they also give each student individualized attention. The majority of them have a good teacher-to-student ratio.

Some popular private universities in Germany are

Only 10% of universities in Germany belong to religious organizations i.e., they are run by the churches. They are approved by the state and mostly offer courses in theology, philosophy, social work, or education.

German academic years and semester pattern 

An academic year at most German universities consists of two semesters: a winter semester (October to March) and a summer semester (April to September). Each semester lasts 6 months long. Some private universities prefer to divide the academic year into trimesters so that one academic year contains three different study blocks. Since a semester also includes semester breaks, examinations, and internships, the actual period of study can be less than this. Attendance is monitored at many universities in Germany. Students must meet a minimum standard for them to be qualified to take the exam and pass the course.

The state government in Germany conducts Staatsexamen examinations for law, architecture, or medical degrees. These are regulated professions in Germany. For other courses, the examinations are conducted by the respective universities. 

If you want to know more about German universities and their education system, get in touch with us.

Find Related Blogs


The four types of universities in Germany are academic universities, universities of applied sciences, colleges of art and music, and universities of cooperative education.

The duration of a semester at a German university is typically 6 months if the academic year is divided into two semesters. If the duration of a semester is 4 months then it is called a trimester.

The universities of applied sciences in Germany offer three levels of degrees: bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral level. 

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