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Last updated in January 2024

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 422 universities in Germany with a combined student population of approximately 2.9 million. Of these, 120 are universities, 245 are universities of applied sciences (in German ‘Hochschulen für Angewandte Wissenschaften (HAW)/ Fachhochschulen (FH)’) or similar institutions, 57 are universities of the arts (in German ‘Künstlerische Hochschulen’).

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 on 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. 1.16 million students attend universities of applied sciences.

The third major group comprises the universities of the arts, 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. 1.3% of all students attend a university of the arts. Almost all universities of the arts have the right to confer doctoral degrees and the post-doctoral ‘Habilitation’ qualification for the title of ‘professor’.

In total, German higher education institutions currently offer 21,593 study programmes, approximately 9,745 undergraduate programmes, a further 10,136 postgraduate degree programmes and 1,712 other study programmes. 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 “Staatsexamen”, a “Magister” or a “Diplom” qualification.

Higher education institutions are either state-funded or state-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 273 state-funded institutions of higher education, compared with 111 private-state approved and 38 church-state approved ones. These are predominantly small institutions offering only a very limited range of subjects, e.g. Business Administration, Media Studies, and Design. 86 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 study fees are charged at public HEIs, at least for citizens of the European Union. Many private institutions, by contrast, do take fees for their degrees.

In order to ensure the same conditions of study and to guarantee mobility within Germany, certain basic principles have been agreed upon by the federal state ministers for education and 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 their organisation and the decision-making on 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

422 higher education institutions:

  • 120 Universities
  • 245 Universities of Applied Sciences
  • 57 Universities of the Arts,

    • State (public) institutions: 273
    • non-state, state-recognised institutions: 149
      • of which private: 111
      • of which church maintained: 38

The so-called “Hochschulkompass” provides an overview of all public and government-recognised German higher education institutions.

HRK: Statistikfaltblatt – Higher Education Institutions in Figures 2023


Section 1.4 Number of Students in Higher Education

General number of students: 2.9 million (winter semester 2022/2023)

Number of students divided by type of institution:

  • Universities 1.73 million
  • Universities of Applied Sciences 1.16 million
  • Universities of the Arts 36,716

Number of foreign students enrolled in full degree programmes: 15.7% foreign students

Number of outgoing German students: 133,400 (in total)

Wissenschaft Weltoffen: Wissenschaft weltoffen kompakt 2023  (figures are for 2021/2022)
HRK: Statistikfaltblatt – Higher Education Institutions in Figures 2023


Section 1.5: Structure of Academic Year

The academic year is divided into two semesters: winter semester (September/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 (Bachelor, Master, Doctorate) are described in the “Qualifications Framework for Higher Education Degrees” (HQR), first issued in 2005 and 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 Bachelor, Master, and 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” (HQR, cf. 1.6). The correspondence is assessed during the accreditation process.


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 allows 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 they can sit the entrance exam. Further information is to be found on the Studienkolleg’s website. Usually, however, the students 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 so-called anabin database  (in Germany only).

Part-time study

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

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 prove their language proficiency in German. The assessment has to be based on a specific language certificate on an academic level comparable to C1 of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).


Students from EU countries, Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein, for example, enjoy unrestricted access to the German labour market and have practically the same rights as German students. This relates, for instance, to study fees, HEI entrance criteria, access to housing und student jobs.

DAAD: First steps in Germany

Master programmes

A Bachelor’s degree from a non-German university grants 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 about equivalency agreements in Germany, please consult the website “Academic Recognition” by the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Länder in the Federal Republic of Germany (KMK).

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 together closely with the National Academic Recognition Information Centres in the European Union (NARIC), the Council of Europe (CoE) and the European Network of Information Centres in the European Region (ENIC). The Central Office for Foreign Education (ZAB) takes up the role of both, the German NARIC and the German ENIC.

Zentralstelle für ausländisches Bildungswesen: Über die ZAB (in German only)


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).

In addition, grade distribution tables as described in the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) Users’ Guide are used to indicate the relative distribution of grades within a reference group.

HRK: German Higher Education System


Section 1.10: Tuition Fee System for International Students

Regulations on tuition fees are subject to the respective federal state’s Higher Education Law, as HEIs fall under the jurisdiction of the sixteen states (Länder). Generally speaking, HEIs in Germany do not charge tuition fees, with private institutions and certain Master level continuing education programmes (such as MBA programmes) marking an exception.


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 periods 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 are 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 for entering the second stage of advanced studies and specialisations. Degree requirements include the 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 (i.e. federal states).
    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 status, 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 or the doctorate-granting institutions, respectively, regulate the access to a doctorate as well as the structure of the procedure to determine the 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

Some of the most relevant HEI reforms and policies of recent years in Germany include the following:

  • Pact for Higher Education / Hochschulpakt
  • Quality pact for teaching in higher education / Qualitätspakt Lehre
  • Excellence Strategy / Exzellenzstrategie
  • Funding initiative “Innovative Hochschule”
  • Women Professors Programme 2030 / Professorinnenprogramm 2030


Eurydice: Germany – National reforms in higher education
BMBF: Pact for Higher Education / Hochschulpakt 2020 (in German only)
BMBF: Quality pact for teaching in higher education / Qualitätspakt Lehre (in German only)
BMBF: Excellence Strategy
Innovative Hochschule (in German only)
BMBF: The Women Professors Programme / Das Professorinnenprogramm (in German only)


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, complying with the European Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the EHEA (ESG), have undergone an assessment and are listed in the European Quality Assurance Register (EQAR). The German accrediting body is the the Accreditation Council (GAC; Akkreditierungsrat), tasked by the German federal states with deciding on the accreditation of study programmes (programme accreditation) and quality management systems (system accreditation).


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. Theaccreditation 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 institutions are listed in the database of the Accreditation Council. Furthermore, the so-called Higher Education Compass (Hochschulkompass), published by the German Rectors’ Conference, lists all study programmes offered in Germany and provides further information.


Chapter 3: Credit System in Higher Education

Section 3.1: Description of Credit System

In Germany, the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) 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)

Adhering to the ECTS, Germany recognises European Credits obtained abroad. For knowledge and skills not classified under the ECTS, for example credits obtained outside the EHEA or vocational training, there are different individual recognition procedures.

All Higher Education Institutions in Germany are bound by law to apply the ECTS.

HRK: Higher Education Compass – Recognition & Credits


Section 3.3: Additional Information

All Higher Education Institutions in Germany are bound by law to apply the ECTS.
All 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?

Each semester at a German HEI is foreseen to contain 30 ECTS, leading to 60 ECTS per academic year. Students are free to reduce or increase the number of courses taken and thus the number of credits obtained at their own choice.


Section 3.5: Number of Credits per Academic Year/Semester

  • A Bachelor’s degree at a German HEI consists of 180 to 240 ECTS, equalling a workload of three to four years.
  • A Master’s degree at a German HEI usually consists of 90 to 120 ECTS, equalling a workload of one-and-a-half to two years. There are some exceptions to the rule, with Master’s degrees requiring only 60 ECTS, i.e. one year’s workload.


Section 3.6: Number of Credits per Higher Education Cycle

In line with the ECTs, 1 credit equals 30 hours of student workload, with 1 studying hour representing 60 minutes.


Section 3.7: Description of Credit Unit

Each programme at a German HEI is monitored (cf. Chapter 2 on Quality Assurance in Higher Education above) to establish whether the credit allocation, the defined learning outcomes and the estimated workload are achievable, realistic and adequate.


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