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Chapter 1: Higher Education System

Section 1.1.: Schematic Description of the Higher Education System


Section 1.2: Description of Higher Education System

There are currently 392 universities in Germany with a combined student population of approximately 2.9 million. Of these, 120 are universities, 215 are universities of applied sciences (in German ‘Fachhochschulen’) or similar institutions, 57 are colleges of art or music.

Higher Education Institutions

Higher education institutions (HEI) are either state or state-recognized institutions. In their operations, including the organization of studies and the designation and award of degrees, they are both subject to higher education legislation.

Universities including various specialized institutions, offer the whole range of academic disciplines. In the German tradition, universities focus in particular on basic research so that advanced stages of study have mainly theoretical orientation and research-oriented components. Universities have the right to confer doctoral degrees and cater for the education and training of the next generation of academics.

Universities of applied sciences concentrate their study programmes in engineering and other technical disciplines, business-related studies, social work, and design areas. The common mission of applied research and development implies a distinct application-oriented focus and professional character of studies, which include integrated and supervised work assignments in industry, enterprises or other relevant institutions. Almost a third of students attend universities of applied sciences.

The third major group comprises the colleges of art and colleges of music offering studies for artistic careers in fine arts, performing arts and music; in such fields as directing, production, writing in theatre, film, and other media; and in a variety of design areas, architecture, media and communication. A central characteristic is the uniting of arts teaching, artistic practice and research. There is a clear difference between teaching of arts subjects, and teaching at universities and universities of applied sciences. Their core objective is to allow students to develop as artistic individuals. About one per cent of all students attend a college of arts or music. Almost all colleges of art and music have the right to confer doctoral degrees and the post-doctoral ‘Habilitation’ qualification for the title of ‘professor’.

In total, there are approximately 9,200 different undergraduate programmes and a further 9,700 postgraduate degree programmes on offer at higher education institutions throughout Germany. There are essentially two university-level academic qualifications, a Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree. In addition, there are some subject areas in which courses lead to state-certified exams, for example, medicine, law and the training of teachers.

Finally, there are still some remaining degree programmes that lead to a ‘Diplom’ qualification.

Higher education institutions are either government-funded or government-accredited. In spite of the increasing presence of private HEIs, a large number of which have been established in the last few years, public HEIs remain clearly in the majority. There are 240 government-funded institutions of higher education, compared with 152 private. These are predominantly small institutions offering only a very limited range of subjects, e. g. Business Administration, Media Studies, Design. Roughly 91 per cent of all students are matriculated at public higher education institutions.

Organisation and structure

Due to the federal system in Germany, responsibility for education, including higher education, lies entirely with the individual federal states. The states are responsible for the basic funding and organisation of HEIs. Each state has its own laws governing higher education. Therefore, the actual structure and organisation of the various systems of higher education may differ from state to state. The management structures of HEIs vary, as do the regulations governing the accreditation of new degree programmes. Currently, no fees are charged in the federal states.

However, in order to ensure the same conditions of study and to guarantee mobility within Germany certain basic principles have been agreed on by the federal state ministers for science within the framework of the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs. State governments must take these into account when formulating their laws and regulations.

HEIs have a certain degree of autonomy as regards organisation and in deciding on any academic issues. In the last two decades institutional autonomy has been increasingly broadened to include issues related to human resources and budget control.



Section 1.3: Number of Higher Education Institutions

392 higher education institutions:

  • 120 Universities
  • 215 Universities of Applied Sciences
  • 57 Colleges of Art and Music,

    • State (public) institutions: 240
    • non-state, state-recognised institutions: 152
      • of which private: 113
      • of which church maintained: 39


Section 1.4 Number of Students in Higher Education

General number of students: 2.9 million (winter semester 2019/2020)

Number of students divided by type of institution:

  • Universities 1.78 million
  • Universities of Applied Sciences 1.08 million
  • Colleges of Arts and Music 36,644

Number of foreign students enrolled in full degree programmes: 14.2% foreign students (in total, including exchange students)

Number of outgoing exchange students with credit transfer (if available): 144,9001 (in total, status of credit transfer unclear)

Number of incoming exchange students with credit transfer: see above, total number of foreign students

1Wissenschaft Weltoffen 2020 (figures are for 2016)  


Section 1.5: Structure of Academic Year

The academic year is divided into two semesters: winter semester (October – February) and summer semester (March/April to June/July). The exact beginning of the semester varies somewhat between the HEI types.


Section 1.6: National Qualifications Framework (or Similar)

The higher education degrees (Ba, Ma, Doctorate) are described in the “Qualifications Framework for Higher Education Degrees” (HQR), first issued in 2005, revised in 2017. It is linked to the Qualifications Framework of the European Higher Education Area. The HQR is the relevant framework for the accreditation of Bachelor and Master programmes (cf. 1.7).

Moreover, there is a German overarching framework for all educational sectors (level 1-8), corresponding to the European Qualifications Framework, placing Ba, Ma, Doctorate at levels 6, 7 and 8 respectively.


Section 1.7: Learning Outcomes in Higher Education

Learning outcomes on programme as well on degree level need to correspond to the learning outcomes described in the “Qualifications Framework for Higher Education Degrees” (cf. 1.6). The correspondence is assessed in accreditation.


Section 1.8: Admission Requirements to Higher Education

Bachelor programmes

Foreign higher education entrance qualifications
If a student has gained a higher education entrance qualification outside of Germany or at a German school abroad, the foreign academic qualification has to be recognised in Germany as suitable for entry to higher education. The main condition is that the foreign school-leaving qualification would allow to enter higher education in the country of origin. If the certificate is not recognised as an equivalent, students have to attend a preparation class and do a final entrance exam at a Studienkolleg. In some countries, Studienkollegs have an outpost where you can sit the entrance exam. You will find information about this on the Studienkolleg’s website. Usually, however, you will need to come to Germany to the Studienkolleg in order to write the entrance exam. Details on recognition of certificates are available on the anabin database: www. (in German only)

Part time study
A part time study abroad (two or three semesters) might be accepted as an equivalent to admission also.

Language proficiency
All foreign students who did not receive their higher education entrance qualification at a school where German is the language of tuition have to proof their language proficiency in German by specific language certificates on an academic level comparable to GER C1.

Students from EU-countries, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein have the same status as German students.

Master programmes

A bachelor´s degree from a non-German university opens the access to a master programme at a German university according to the Lisbon Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning higher education in the European Region. This treaty is also signed by a number of non-European countries. In addition, Germany signed specific agreements with certain countries on access to master and doctoral programmes.

For more information consult the following website:

The Central Office for Foreign Education (ZAB) is the central authority for the evaluation of foreign qualifications in Germany. These include school-leaving certificates and academic degrees. The ZAB provides services for educational institutions, public authorities and individuals. The ZAB works closely together with the national information centres of the member countries of the European Union (NARIC), the Council of Europe and UNESCO (ENIC). The Central Office for Foreign Education (ZAB) is the German NARIC and ENIC.


Section 1.9: Grading System

The grading scheme in Germany usually comprises five levels (with numerical equivalents; intermediate grades may be given):

  • “Sehr Gut” (1) = Very Good;
  • “Gut” (2) = Good;
  • “Befriedigend” (3) = Satisfactory;
  • “Ausreichend” (4) = Sufficient;
  • “Nicht ausreichend” (5) = Non-Sufficient/Fail.

The minimum passing grade is “Ausreichend” (4). Verbal designations of grades may vary in some cases and for doctoral degrees.

In addition, grade distribution tables as described in the ECTS Users’ Guide are used to indicate the relative distribution of grades within a reference group.


Section 1.10: Tuition Fee System for International Students

Regulations on tuition fees are subject to the respective state higher education law, as HEI fall under the jurisdiction of the sixteen states (Länder). Generally speaking, HEI in Germany do not charge tuition fees, the only exception being Master level continuing education programmes (such as MBA programmes). In the winter semester 2017/18 the state of Baden-Württemberg introduced moderate fees for international students (non-EU), a number of exemption rules do apply.


Section 1.11: Graduation Requirements and/or Qualification Awarding Requirements

The following regulations apply to all three types of institutions. Bachelor’s and Master’s study programmes may be studied consecutively, at various higher education institutions, at different types of higher education institutions and with phases of professional work between the first and the second qualification. The organisation of the study programmes makes use of modular components and of the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) with 30 credits corresponding to one semester.

Bachelor’s degree (level 1 of HQR, cf. 1.6)
Bachelor’s degree programmes lay the academic foundations, provide methodological competences and include skills related to the professional field. The Bachelor’s degree is awarded after 3 to 4 years.
The Bachelor’s degree programme includes a thesis requirement. Study programmes leading to the Bachelor’s degree must be accredited according to the Interstate study accreditation treaty.
First degree programmes (Bachelor) lead to Bachelor of Arts (B.A.), Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.), Bachelor of Engineering (B.Eng.), Bachelor of Laws (LL.B.), Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.), Bachelor of Music (B.Mus.) or Bachelor of Education (B.Ed.). The Bachelor’s degree corresponds to level 6 of the German Qualifications Framework (GQF) / European Qualifications Framework (EQF).

Master’s degree (level 2 of HQR, cf. 1.6)
Master is the second degree after another 1 to 2 years. Master’s programmes may be differentiated by the profile types “practice-oriented” and “research-oriented”. Higher education institutions define the profile.

The Master’s degree programme includes a thesis requirement. Study programmes leading to the Master’s degree must be accredited according to the Interstate study accreditation treaty.
Second degree programmes (Master) lead to Master of Arts (M.A.), Master of Science (M.Sc.), Master of Engineering (M.Eng.), Master of Laws (L.L.M.), Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.), Master of Music (M.Mus.) or Master of Education (M.Ed.). Master´s programmes which are designed for continuing education may carry other designations (e.g. MBA). The Master’s degree corresponds to level 7 of the (GQF) / (EQF).

Integrated “Long” Programmes (One-Tier): Diplom degrees, Magister Artium, Staatsprüfung
An integrated study programme is either mono-disciplinary (Diplom degrees, most programmes completed by a Staatsprüfungor comprises a combination of either two major or one major and two minor fields (Magister Artium). The first stage (1.5 to 2 years) focuses on broad orientations and foundations of the field(s) of study. An Intermediate Examination (Diplom-Vorprüfung for Diplom degrees; Zwischenprüfung or credit requirements for the Magister Artium) is prerequisite to enter the second stage of advanced studies and specialisations. Degree requirements include submission of a thesis (up to 6 months duration) and comprehensive final written and oral examinations. Similar regulations apply to studies leading to a Staatsprüfung. The level of qualification is equivalent to the Master’s level.

  • Integrated studies at Universitäten (U) last 4 to 5 years (Diplom degree, Magister Artium) or 3.5 to 6.5 years (Staatsprüfung). The Diplom degree is awarded in engineering disciplines, the natural sciences as well as economics and business. In the humanities, the corresponding degree is usually the Magister Artium (M.A.). In the social sciences, the practice varies as a matter of institutional traditions. Studies preparing for the legal, medical and pharmaceutical professions are completed by a Staatsprüfung. This applies also to studies preparing for teaching professions of some Länder.
    The three qualifications (Diplom, Magister Artium and Staatsprüfung) are academically equivalent and correspond to level 7 of the German Qualifications Framework/European Qualifications Framework.
    They qualify to apply for admission to doctoral studies. Further prerequisites for admission may be defined by the Higher Education Institution, cf. Sec. 8.5.
  • Integrated studies at Fachhochschulen (FH)/Hochschulen für Angewandte Wissenschaften (HAW) (Universities of Applied Sciences, UAS) last 4 years and lead to a Diplom (FH) degree which corresponds to level 6 of the GQF / EQF.

While most of the FH/HAW/UAS are non-doctorate granting institutions, qualified graduates may apply for admission to doctoral studies at doctorate-granting institutions, cf. Sec. 8.5.
Integrated studies at Kunst- and Musikhochschulen (Universities of Art/Music etc.) are more diverse in their organisation, depending on the field and individual objectives. In addition to Diplom/Magister degrees, the integrated study programme awards include certificates and certified examinations for specialised areas and professional purposes.

Doctorate (level 3 of HQR, cf. 1.6)
Universities as well as specialised institutions of university standing, some of the FH/HAW/UAS and some Universities of Art/Music are doctorate-granting institutions. Formal prerequisite for admission to doctoral work is a qualified Master’s degree (UAS and U), a Magister degree, a Diplom, a Staatsprüfung, or a foreign equivalent. Comparable degrees from universities of art and music can in exceptional cases (study programmes such as music theory, musicology, pedagogy of arts and music, media studies) also formally qualify for doctoral work. Particularly qualified holders of a Bachelor’s degree or a Diplom (FH) degree may also be admitted to doctoral studies without acquisition of a further degree by means of a procedure to determine their aptitude. The universities respectively the doctorate-granting institutions regulate entry to a doctorate as well as the structure of the procedure to determine aptitude. Admission further requires the acceptance of the Dissertation research project by a professor as a supervisor.
The doctoral degree corresponds to level 8 of the GQF / EQF.


Section 1.12: Relevant Current and Prospective Reforms in Higher Education

Change within the accreditation system as of 1 January 2018.


Chapter 2: Quality Assurance in Higher Education

Section 2.1: Quality Assurance Body in Higher Education

There are several quality assurance agencies based in Germany that have undergone assessment and are listed in the European Quality Assurance Register

The accrediting body is the Accreditation Council (Akkreditierungsrat):


Section 2.2: Quality Assurance System

Accreditation is obligatory for Bachelor and Master programmes. Institutions can choose between programme accreditation, system accreditation (i. e. the accreditation of the internal quality management system in teaching and learning, comparable to a “self-accrediting” institution) or alternative forms of accreditation that have to comply with the Interstate study accreditation treaty and the Specimen decree of the treaty. Internal quality assurance, therefore, is performed in different ways but on a regular basis. The accreditation period is 8 years for all types of accreditation.


The necessity for programme authorisation differs according to the federal state (Land) where the institution is based.
All accredited study programmes and universities are listed in the database of the Accreditation Council ( Furthermore, the website lists all study programmes offered in Germany and gives information on status.


Chapter 3: Credit System in Higher Education

Section 3.1: Description of Credit System

In Germany, the European Credit Transfer System is used, appointing 1 credit to 30 hours of student workload; i. e. 30 credits per semester or 60 credits per year.


Section 3.2: Credit Transfer System(s)

ECTS – European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System.


Section 3.3: Additional Information

All the valid information on the credit system and learning outcomes can be found in the ECTS Users Guide 2015:


Section 3.4: Application of Credit System in Higher Education Institutions Obligatory?



Section 3.5: Number of Credits per Academic Year/Semester

30 ECTS per semester, 60 ECTS per academic year.


Section 3.6: Number of Credits per Higher Education Cycle

  • 180-240 ECTS for a Bachelor’s degree
  • 60-120 ECTS for a Master’s degree
    (cf higher education system)


Section 3.7: Description of Credit Unit

1 Credit = 30 hours of student workload, 1 hour = 60 minutes.


The programme is monitored to establish whether the credit allocation, the defined learning outcomes and the estimated workload are achievable, realistic and adequate.

Last updated in 2020


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