Higher Education

Universities and Fachhochschulen

Higher Education

Germany has more than 220 higher education institutions, including state universities (traditional and technological), private universities and a large number of specialized establishments (such as colleges of arts). Anyone who passes the Abitur is guaranteed entry to one of the institutions.

The duration of a higher education course depends on the institution, the degree pursued and – most importantly – on the students themselves. Theoretically most studies should take four to six years, but most students take longer than this and complete their higher education at the age of almost 28 (compared to 25.5 in the US and 22.8 in the UK).

These very long study times are now perceived as a problem in Germany, as they prevent students from entering the job market early and gaining practical experience. Many German students start their first job at an age at which students in other countries have already a several years’ experience - or reached management positions!

There are various explanations for the long study times; a principle reasons is the great degree of freedom most students in Germany enjoy. Unlike many other countries, there are almost no “preset” study schedules. Students have massive choice in the courses they take and the order in which they take them. The downside to all this freedom and flexibility is that you have to organize most of your studies yourself – which isn’t exactly easy given the complicated requirements and the bureaucratic setup of most universities. Many foreign students (and quite a few German ones) feel completely lost and disoriented during their first year at university. It is quite easy to waste a lot of time on unnecessary or ineffective studies.

Another problem is that many state universities are overcrowded, lecture halls packed to the rafters and courses heavily oversubscribed. This situation has been worsen by budget cuts that many universities have been forced to make. Nevertheless, in international comparisons German universities still score well in terms of results. The length of studies means most German students leave higher education in a much more mature state than their international counterparts; but after surviving German university bureaucracy, this isn’t surprising!

Entering university

Only students with the highest Abitur grades may choose the university they wish to attend. All others are allocated places by the Central Office for the Allocation of Study Places ( Zentralstelle für die Vergabe von Studienplätzen, ZVS). However, many fields of study have access restrictions. For example, if you wish to study medicine, you need a minimum grade point average in your Abitur (high school degree). If you fail to gain admission on your first attempt, you can improve your chances by reapplying a term or a year later (waiting times are also considered as a factor in the decision).

If you wish to study in Germany but have no German educational qualifications, your prospects will depend largely on whether your qualifications were awarded inside or outside the European Union. All EU qualifications (including British A levels and the International Baccalaureate) are recognised as equivalent of the Abitur for university admission. Other qualifications may require additional certification for recognition. These certifications are given out on a state level, and each German state has a different policy for evaluating foreign qualifications. In recent years, however, the government (anxious that the country will suffer academic isolation) has taken measures to attract more foreign students, easing the recognition of foreign qualifications in many areas.


If you do not get accepted to a German university or are looking to study for a shorter period of time, consider entering a German Fachhochschule. These institutions offer a more practical education than the universities, and studies normally only last for 3 years. Although a degree from Fachhochschule is not regarded as equivalent to a German university title, it is often sufficient for entering the job market with a good perspective of employment.

For more on German universities and trade schools, visit our website on international education, InternationalDegrees.org .

Further reading

Does this article help?

Do you have any comments, updates or questions on this topic? Ask them here:

Other comments

  • Klaus, 01 April 2008 Reply

    Cost of German universities

    The lenghts of studies at German universities is now gradually improving. There are two main reasons for this:
    a) Many German universities have started charging fees. If you go over the maximum study length, these fees can get pretty high so students try to finish their studies within the time limits
    b) Many universities are now introducing bachelors and Masters degrees. Given that a Bachelor is a little less and a Masters a little more than a German "Diplom" (well, roughly..), this also means that some course plans have been revised.