With its ‘dual education system,’ resting on the principle of ‘unity of learning and research,’ and the emphasis on apprenticeship, the German higher education system has played an important role in shaping an economic environment wherein individual and collective responsibility, practicality and innovation are the drivers of change and progress.
Table of Contents
- 1 The German Higher Education System
- 2 The Advantages of Studying in Germany
- 3 Tuition Fees in German Higher Education
- 4 International Students in Germany – Statistics
The German Higher Education System
Although the ongoing reforms stemming from the ‘Bologna Declaration’ – aimed primarily at establishing internationally accepted degrees, enhancing the quality of study courses, and increasing employability – are in the process of doing away with stark contrasts that have existed between education systems of the European countries that have adopted it, certain distinctive features of individual systems are bound to remain in place. The German Federal Government, federal states, and higher education institutions are, within the ‘Bologna Process’ context, undertaking the largest higher education reform in decades; there’s a lot to the German higher education system however, that is time-proven to produce excellent results and should stay in place.
The German higher education system is widely regarded as being one of the best in the world; it is fairly diverse, with a variety of institutions that cover a wide range of academic profiles and confer different types of degrees.
As a general rule, German universities are recognized and held in high esteem worldwide – they perform very well in the international university rankings (usually right below the most prestigious American and British universities). One reason why German universities under-perform in rankings, relative to some of their famous American and British counterparts, may be the fact that some of the most famous independent research institutes such as ‘Max Planck,’ ‘Leibniz,’ and ‘Fraunhofer,’ which although embedded within university clusters, are seldom if ever included as integral parts during university rankings.
Competences over Education
In Germany, it is the 16 individual federal states (Länder) that are given the competences by the German Constitution and Higher Education Act, to decide on all matters pertaining to education. Respective higher education laws of individual states determine the organizational structure and specify the responsibilities of higher education institutions.
Federal states also fund the majority of higher education institutions, and therefore have regulatory control over them. There are however, institutions of higher education that are not under direct state control: Catholic and Protestant Church run higher education institutions as well as state-accredited private institutions (the majority of the latter are the so-called universities of ‘applied sciences’).
The General Division
Institutions of higher education in Germany, be they state (public) or state-accredited, are generally divided into:
- Universities of ‘Applied Sciences’ (a.k.a. “Fachhochschulen”);
- Colleges of Art and Music;
- Cooperative State University of Baden-Wuerttemberg (essentially a university of education, where training is provided for different teaching degrees);
The entire system in Germany totals nearly 400 higher education institutions, with roughly 120 universities (or their equivalents), 189 Fachhochschulen (including universities of public administrative sciences), and over 50 art colleges.
The Dual Education System
An important guiding principle of the German education system as a whole, and one in accordance with which individual higher education institutions regulate activities taking place within them, is the principle of ‘The Unity of Learning and Research,’ which is at the core of, what is referred to as the “the dual education system.”
The combining of the theoretical and practical educations (with a strong emphasis on apprenticeship), makes German higher education institutions into settings where teaching and research not only cohabitate, but prop each other up and act synergistically.
A general prerequisite (as well as the most traditional route) to enrolling into a higher (tertiary) education level institution in Germany is the passing of the final exam and being issued the so-called ‘Abitur’ (or Fachabitur certification – a document containing the grades), which enables students formally to attend a university. ‘Abitur’ is necessary for enrolling into certain higher education institutions, but there also are many exceptions. For students who plan on attending a ‘Fachhoschule,’ for example, holding an ‘Abitur’ (or a “Fachhoschulreife”) is a must. However, alternative routes exist for prospective students who do not hold an ‘Abitur,’ such as the passing of the ‘aptitude test’ known as the “Begabtenprüfung,” which consists of a written and oral examination.
The Advantages of Studying in Germany
German Universities have had a great allure for students from all over Europe (and beyond) for at least the last couple of centuries. One only need check which universities, up until a hundred years ago, most of the Nobel prize laureates were associated with, and the likes of Heidelberg and Tübingen would figure among the most prominent.
Not that the German universities ever lost the attraction they used to garner in the past, but there has been, in the last few decades marking the current age of globalization, a notable increase in the options available to international students, who now can enroll in studies at universities in many far flung places of the globe.
There’s no denying, however, that an increasing number of young people from all over the world are setting their sights on Germany, as the end destination for the pursuit of their higher education goals (particularly Master and Ph.D. studies).
The reasons for this upsurge in interest are not difficult to find:
The Global Importance of Germany:
With its central location in the heart of the continent (it shares a border with nine different countries), Germany is the hub of Europe; to use a cliché: All roads lead through Germany. It is the economic and technological powerhouse of the united Europe, that is increasingly coming to occupy the place it justly deserves in the world political arena.
The Interactive Web of Academia, Research and Industry:
German universities, dispersed all over the country, form a web of higher education institutions (numbering over 300) with the density unparalleled anywhere in the world. Conveniently located near focal points of interaction between industrial plants and scientific/technological research centers, these universities provide opportunities that seldom exist elsewhere for students: find employment upon graduation and live & work in the same city where they studied.
Academic standards at German universities are top-notch; not only are the renowned technical institutes, such as TU Darmstadt, RWTH Aachen, and others, ranked as some of the best in the world, but the study courses offered in a variety of other disciplines such as: medicine, law, social sciences, arts etc., are highly acclaimed internationally.
Funding of Research:
The three preeminent funding sources for research projects at German universities are: German Government, the industrial sector, and the European Union; having this giant pool of funding to draw from, researchers from a wide variety of disciplines have virtually limitless possibilities to conduct research and come up with innovative solutions in their respective fields.
Availability of Courses in English and International Recognition of Credentials:
Although the vast majority of courses offered by German universities are predominantly German taught, there are, due to a growing demand and a steady rise in the influx of foreign students, various universities that are switching to English taught courses, today numbering a total of over 350 university courses taught in English. These courses, offered across the spectrum of disciplines, are internationally recognized, a fact which lays to rest whatever concerns foreign students may have about the validity of their degrees earned in Germany.
Low Tuition Fees and Living Costs:
The vast majority of universities and colleges in Germany are state-financed, thus making the tuition fees at these institutions highly subsidized. Until fairly recently, higher education in Germany was virtually free – the tuition fee would be entirely waived for all students. However, some changes have taken place in this regard recently; a relatively low tuition fee is now charged (the amount, rarely exceeding €500 per semester, is set by respective Federal States) on the excuse of it being necessary to maintain the facilities and the general quality of services. With tuition fees significantly lower than in most other developed western countries, and with many student benefits and discounts available across the board, the total living costs for students in Germany can be kept well below €1000 per month.
Tuition Fees in German Higher Education
It wasn’t before fairly recently – a 2005 federal court ruling paving the way for it – that a number of universities in certain federal states of Germany started charging tuition fees. Higher education had essentially been free in Germany prior to it. The vast majority of German colleges and universities being state-funded, made tuition fees at these institutions highly subsidized; thus, the prevailing practice was to waive them across the board.
But with the advent of legislation permitting them, tuition fees were introduced by a number of federal states (rarely in excess of €500 for a semester – pretty low in comparison to what they are in the U.S. and U.K.) on the justification of them being needed for the maintenance of the university facilities and provision of high quality services.
However, what many refer to as the ‘tuition fee experiment’ seems to have gone wrong; most of the federal states (Länder) that initially opted to charge tuition fees have in the meantime abolished them (primarily, as a consequence of a public outcry against them). As things currently stand, it’s only two of the federal states that still have them in place: Lower Saxony and Bavaria; both of these states are expected to follow suit and abolish them too, thus turning Germany into somewhat of a ‘contrarian,’ in the face of the global pull towards increasing tuition fees where they are in place, and introducing them where they are not.
Tuition fees in the German tertiary education system are modest by any stretch; this in conjunction with various student benefits and discounts, significantly reduces the overall cost of living for students and makes Germany into one of the prime destinations for international students worldwide. There is a marked increase in the numbers of youths opting for Germany for both undergraduate and postgraduate studies; with supreme quality education at affordable cost, widespread use of the global ‘lingua franca’ – English, and cheap easyJet-like airfares, Germany has never looked so attractive.
Master’s and Ph.D. courses are, however, liable for some additional costs (still, relatively low) which may vary between €650 and several thousand Euros per semester; prospective international postgraduate students are advised to conduct their own research and weigh their options.
Tuition fees a.k.a. Studiengebühren (where they are in place) usually get charged alongside semester contributions a.k.a. Semesterbeitrag (include: administration fee, AstA, ‘Studentenwerk’ services, and the ‘Semesterticket’ i.e. free public transportation around the city); in addition, a small enrollment/confirmation fee of €100 is charged, in order to have the student ID issued to a student (the ID provides various concessions e.g. for bank accounts, occasionally phone companies, tickets for cinema, theater, different events etc).
Another fee to be reckoned with – in case a student exceeds (by four semesters) the time it normally takes to wrap-up his/her studies – is €500 per semester charged from then on out.
International Students in Germany – Statistics
Germany is one of the world leaders in terms of being the country of choice for international students to study or continue their education in; and the reasons for this are many: from the desire to acquire specialized knowledge and improve their language skills, to the expectation that after completing their studies they will have more career opportunities back in their home country or in Germany. Quality teaching, security, great standard of living and low tuition fees, alongside the appeal of the local culture have made Germany an attractive study destination for people all over the world; it is currently ranked fourth in the world, after the US, Great Britain and Australia.
Young students from developing countries, Eastern European countries and countries in transition are particularly interested in studying in Germany and are more likely to recommend their friends pursue studies in Germany after having a great experience in Germany themselves. One of the strongest motivators is the financial one; tuition fees in German universities are very low compared to North America and other developed countries, so it’s liberating not to have to mortgage their future.
In a survey on the internationalization of German universities conducted by the German National Association for Student Affairs (in German: the Deutsches Studentenwerk or DSW for short) the number of students from abroad coming to study in Germany has increased every year since 1997. The number of international students rose from 100,033 in 1997 to 189,450 in 2006.
German students find studying abroad an attractive option as well and are more likely to study overseas than their peers in other industrialized nations. According to the DSW survey there were 75,800 Germans studying abroad in 2006.
Where are the students coming from?
Most students in Germany came from the rest of Europe (51%) followed by Asia (31.9%), while a small percentage came from Africa and America. Only 0.2% came from Australia.