Universities in Germany


When I first wrote about Germany’s system of higher education over a decade ago, it was already suffering from a lack of competition and inadequate public funding. I quoted a headline from the March 25, 1996 edition of the German news magazine Focus: “Disappointed students, helpless politicians: the university of the masses needs more competition.”

Humboldt University in 1850

Berlin’s Humboldt University was founded as the University of Berlin (Universität zu Berlin) in 1810. This engraving by Albert Henry Payne shows the university as it appeared around 1850. In June 2012, both Humboldt and Berlin’s Freie Universität were named “Elite Universities” entitled to special grants promoting research. (See Elitism for more.) PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

Today, Germany’s 392 Hochschulen (colleges and universities) are still overcrowded and underfunded. Only one German university (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich) was ranked in the top 50 of the Times Higher Education World Universities 2012-2013 survey (in 48th place). (The top 25 are mostly US and UK universities.)

The modern university debate has been going on since the Federal Republic of Germany came into being in 1949, but it has reached a new intensity in recent years. While an average of only 14 percent of German high school students earned the academic diploma (Abitur) that leads to college study in 1966, by the late 1990s, that figure had soared as high as 41 percent in the city-state of Hamburg.

Change Comes Slowly
Many entrenched German traditions — free college tuition and automatic acceptance to a university with just an Abitur — have been changing, albeit very slowly. Reluctantly forced into rethinking a system that is crumbling under its own weight, German universities and technical colleges, also faced with a growing budget crunch, are looking at new ways of selecting students and paying for higher education in the land that invented the modern research university. Its father, Wilhelm von Humboldt of Berlin (site of today’s Wilhelm-von-Humboldt-Universität) must be turning over in his grave.

The Berlin university named for Humboldt ranked 139 in the 2008 (London) Times Higher Education ranking of 200 world universities. By 2010, Humboldt had fallen to 178, while Göttingen was the highest ranked (43rd) German university and Berlin’s Freie Universität dropped out of the top 200. But in 2012-2013 the rankings changed once more. – See the full 2012-2013 list in Part 2.
Source: Times Higher Education – Top 200 World Universities

Most European countries charge tuition fees that would be considered an amazing bargain by Americans (usually under $1,000 per year), but Austria, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries have long offered university students the best possible deal: no fees at all. A free education (“Bildung zum Nulltariff”) has become a popular tradition in Austria and Germany. Only two of Germany’s 16 federal states, had introduced modest tuition charges by 2008, but even a modest 500-euro fee per semester caused student protests.

univ logoPrivate Universities in Germany
One attempt to strengthen and improve Germany’s university system was the introduction of private institutions of higher learning. Unlike the US, where private universities are common, Germany had no such tradition. The Universität Witten/Herdecke, Germany’s first private university, was not even established until 1980. Since then, 62 more private colleges and universities, most of them small and specialized, have been created in Germany. But the world financial crisis that began in 2007 has been especially hard on them. Although they charge annual tuition fees of 10,000-15,000 euros, all of them also depend to some degree on state subsidies, and Germany’s cash-strapped Länder have been turning off that faucet. In particular, Witten/Herdecke in North Rhine Westphalia — Germany’s oldest and largest private university — recently faced severe cutbacks, but is still going strong.

The standard German attitude towards private universities is very different from that in the US and most other countries. “Elitism” (das Elitedenken) is a dirty word in German. It was a minor miracle when the German government managed to create an “Excellence Initiative”[1] fund for higher education. Designed to encourage scientific research at selected public universities deemed “excellent,” the funding measure was finally put together in June 2005 only after lengthy negotiations between Berlin and the 16 German states. To date, nine German public universities have had their competitive “future concept” proposals accepted and will receive Excellence Initiative funding. But the program only gives the selected universities modest funding and is not enough to really create “elite” schools. It does, however, encourage much-needed competition among Germany’s universities.

1. Full German name: Die Exzellenzinitiative des Bundes und der Länder zur Förderung von Wissenschaft und Forschung an deutschen Hochschulen (The Excellence Initiative of the Federal Government and the States for Promoting Science and Research at German Universities)

Another successful German private university is the former International University Bremen, now known as Jacobs University Bremen. Created in 1998, the university was saved from bankruptcy in 2006 when it received a major endowment of 250 million euros from a former student, the German billionaire entrepreneur Klaus Johann Jacobs (who now lives in England). In 2007, the English-language university with a student body of about 1,200 changed its name to honor its benefactor. Such private endowments are not common in Germany, although Germany’s private universities would like it to become a German tradition.

None of Germany’s private universities have made it onto the Times Higher Education list of top universities in the last several years. (See the latest rankings for 2012-2013.)

The German Tuition Debate
Proposals to introduce even modest tuition fees at German public universities have produced intense debate in Germany. American university students would love to pay only about $650 per semester! But Germans are shocked at the thought of paying anything, much less $650 per semester. Students used to paying only their living expenses would be expected to come up with about $1300 (1000 euros) additional a year for tuition fees. Proponents say this would force German students to complete their studies in less time. Detractors claim the opposite would be the case, as the students would have to take more time to raise money for their fees, and fewer young people would have the chance to go to college. As it is, 60 percent of western, and 48 percent of eastern German students work part time to help cover their living expenses.

Related Blog Posts: See links to German Way Expat Blog posts about free university study in Germany below.

German students are notorious for long study times. A 1990s proposal in the state of Baden-Württemberg to charge students a penalty for taking too long did not even go into effect until the 13th or 14th semester! Most US college students finish their studies in four or five years — 8 to 10 semesters. The Baden-Württemberg proposal wouldn’t affect students until their seventh year, an estimated 16 percent of the 230,000 students studying at the state’s universities.

Another radical departure from past German practice comes in the form of a proposal to have each of Germany’s universities select its own students. This practice, the norm in the US, is now quite rare in Germany. In 1997, a small Bavarian college of business administration became the first German college to have the right to select students for admission. Students in Germany have traditionally applied for college in a universal selection process known as the ZVS (zentralgelenkte Vergabe von Studienplätzen, “centrally-controlled college admissions”). The Catholic University in Eichstätt was allowed to conduct a two-year experiment in selective admission. Actually, the trial run was granted to just the university’s separate College of Business Administration (WWF) at a separate campus in nearby Ingolstadt.

Some German universities, including Ingolstadt, have become increasingly dissatisfied with the caliber of students admitted through the ZVS process. They have advocated a new method similar to American university admission practices, in which students apply to a specific college which then itself determines the students that it will accept. The private German university Witten/Herdecke added another unique element to the selection process: applying students have to pass three oral interviews by a hearing board that includes business people and other non-academics. A potential student only gets to this interview process after his or her essay on a specific topic has been judged satisfactory.

The semi-private business school in Ingolstadt (WWF) has adopted a simplified version of the Witten/Herdecke selection process. Ingolstadt, a relatively new school founded in 1989, requires only one 30-minute interview, among other selection steps to admission. Although they realize that no process can guarantee better and more successful students, Ingolstadt and other German universities would like to see a better method than the old ZVS — even if it does go against the traditional German prejudice against elitism of any kind. Most of the arguments heard against any new selection process usually focus on the revered German word Chancengleichheit or “equal opportunity.”

But Ingolstadt, a small college with only about 600 students, pushed for the new selection process because they were having problems attracting good students to their new “International Business Administration” program. Many of the students forced into the school by ZVS did poorly and did not stay long. The school, thanks in part to strong student support, was able to persuade the Bavarian authorities to go along with their new selection proposal. This in a state that is probably the most conservative and traditional in all of Germany, and which gives its universities 80 percent of their support (the other 20 percent comes from the Bavarian Catholic church). Many people are watching this experiment very closely. Will the German system of higher education finally begin the important reforms that most observers consider essential?

Next | The Top-Rated Universities in Austria, Germany, Switzerland

Related Pages


Legal Notice: We are not responsible for the content of external links.

Leave a Reply