Germany has 104 universities. The German system is peculiar in being very egalitarian. In principle, all universities are equal. There are differences, of course. Internationally, the old universities such as Heidelberg are the ones that are more recognized. But there is no layer of élite institutions in the US, UK or French fashion, which would apply stricter entry criteria or be noticeably financially better off. This is the fruit of the immediate post-war policy of the German government, which sought to provide for equal development of all German regions.
Why study in Germany?
One big advantage is the very low cost. Some German universities charge a tuition fee, but this is quite low, around 500 euro per semester. Also, German universities quite often offer programmes in English, especially at the graduate level.
German economy is strongly innovation-driven and to sustain this, the government provides generous research financing. This makes Germany a popular destination for PhD students and post-doc researchers who seek well-equipped laboratories or excellent IT support.
Many courses are obviously only accessible to German-speaking applicants. Another disadvantage is the mass-based character of the public universities. On the one hand, this means that due to low overhead costs they can offer large dorms at acceptable costs or cheap student canteens. On the other hand, you will not be able to avoid crowded lecture halls and an often inflexible bureaucracy. In addition, Germany has a very hierarchic university system – while PhD students often struggle with big workload and small pay, professors are paid very well and normally are impossible to fire. A full professorship is not just an academic title but a state-provided job, practically for life. This can sometimes mean that a PhD researcher will not have as much interaction with his supervisor as he would wish. The professor might regard this as too much hassle and nobody can effectively force him to do his work.
A German university is accredited by its federal state. Many are also accredited by the supreme body for research coordination in Germany, Wissenschaftsrat.
Reputation and rankings
Internationally, the highest reputation is enjoyed by the oldest university, Heidelberg, or the traditional universities located in the large cities (Humboldt University in Berlin or Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich). For Germans, however, this usually does not play a role since in principle all universities are equal. For PhD students, what matters is the quality and reputation of the specific university department.
This is the kind of information one can get from rankings. The best-known is CHE-Ranking. Started in 1998, it was originally published by the consumer organization Stiftung Warentest, today it is published by the newspaper Die Zeit. It evaluates German as well as selected European universities.
How to apply
Most universities process applications through the central system called Uni-Assist. But even the universities that are members of the system don’t necessarily use it for all courses and administer some applications directly. The best course of action is to check with the university you are applying to.
Costs, scholarships and financial aid
For Germans and other EU citizens, study is very cheap. Some federal states have introduced fees, but these are low, about 500 euro per semester. In many places, however, you don’t pay a tuition fee at all. You can find more detailed information on the web of the German academic agency DAAD. Graduate students will also find it useful to look at Erasmus Mundus.
Did you know...
Germany has a strong tradition of academic freedoms. Universities are very independent of political influence. On the other hand, they are generously financed by the state. University professors are public employees, with excellent pay conditions and many other advantages.
As well as public universities, Germany also has a few private and church-affiliated institutions.