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A simple guide to the higher education system in Germany

What’s the difference between a ‘university’ and a ‘university of applied science’? Can international students get scholarships? Do you need to know German? Do you need to take the GRE?
BY Uma Asher |   24-10-2017
Mixed group of university students huddled over notes, with one of them looking directly at the camera and smiling
Students at Karlshochschule International University in Karlsruhe, Baden-Württemberg (file photo, used under CC license)

Indians are increasingly curious about studying in Germany. India accounts for only about 4% of international students in Germany, but it is the second-largest source of international students at German universities. The number of Indian students there has more than doubled in the last five years.

What do international students study in Germany?

International students account for more than 12% of students at German universities. Around 84% of international students are enrolled in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs. The next most popular category of subjects is law and social sciences (nearly 9.5%), followed by human medicine (2%), language and cultural sciences (just under 2%), and then agriculture, forestry, food sciences, veterinary medicine, art, music, sports sciences, and other subjects.

The top institutions for international students include the technical universities of Chemnitz, Munich, Darmstadt, Hamburg-Harburg, Kaiserlautern, and Dresden. Others in the top 10 are the Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule Aachen (RWTH Aachen), and the universities of Duisburg-Essen, Magdeburg and Stuttgart.

Bar chart showing proportion of international to domestic students in Germany from 2009 to 2016

Why study in Germany?

Aspirin, toothpaste, cars, and MP3s are just a few examples of the German tradition of innovation. German researchers, writers, and economists have received 25 Nobel prizes in the last 25 years.

From a student’s perspective, higher education in Germany is affordable, as most universities charge no tuition fees. Thanks to strong ties between education and industry, a German education ensures relevant training that prepares students for careers. German universities have an international focus, and offer programs in English at least at the higher levels.

German degrees are internationally recognized, and the country is the third most popular study destination after the US and UK.

Bar chart showing absolute numbers of Indian students in German universities increasing from 2009 to 2016

3 main types of institutions

Most degrees in Germany are granted by one of these types of institutions. Where you apply depends on your field and level of study.

University. Known as Universität (pronounced ‘oo-ni-vair-si-tet’, plural Universitäten) in German, this type of institution may be designated a Technische Universität (pronounced ‘tech-ni-sheh’, abbreviated as TU) or university of technology. These schools have a strong focus on research, and offer bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD degrees, as well as postdoctoral programs.

University of applied science. The German word for type of institution is Fachhochschule (pronounced ‘faakh-hoakh-shoo-leh’, abbreviated as FH, plural Fachhochschulen), and focuses on a field of academic study – for example, business studies or technology. These schools focus on imparting professional skills, and award bachelor’s and master’s degrees, but not PhDs. Practical training and internships are part of the program. They may, however, have ties with PhD-granting universities. These institutions may also require professors to have some years’ experience outside of academia.

College of art and music. These schools offer degrees in fine arts, performing arts, industrial and fashion design, graphic arts, and so on.  Colleges for modern media train students to become film and television professionals. Unlike other universities, instruction here may only be in German – you will need to check with each school before applying.

Germany has its own ranking system based on criteria such as student and staff perceptions of teaching quality, the atmosphere at the university, library and other facilities, student numbers, number of graduations, and third-party funding.

The mechanical engineering department of TU München, or the Technical Uninversity of Munich
The mechanical engineering department of TU München, or the Technical Uninversity of Munich (image used under CC license)

Admission requirements

Language. For bachelor’s degrees, a high level of proficiency in German is usually required. For postgraduate degrees, instruction is often available in English, and German language requirements, if any, may be basic. Regardless of your university’s requirements, if you want to do an internship or work in Germany after graduation, the better you know the language, the better your chances.

Previous studies. For a bachelor’s degree program, some countries’ high-school qualifications are not accepted. Indian students, for example, should not assume they can enter an undergraduate program in Germany directly after Class 12. They may be able to choose from one of three options. First, if you plan to take the IIT JEE, check with each university you apply to whether it will accept the results in addition. Second, you can complete a year in a bachelor’s program before going to Germany. And third – the toughest option – you can apply for the one-year ‘bridge’ course at a Studienkolleg (you will need to know German).

Starting this year, for a master’s program, a three-year bachelor’s degree from India is no longer enough. You will need to complete a year in a master’s program. Relevant work experience or a publication will improve your chances of being accepted.

For a PhD, you can apply directly to a professor you want to work with for an individual PhD, or to a university if you want to pursue a structured program.

Standardized tests. Most master’s programs now require you to submit GRE scores. You will also need to demonstrate fluency in English by submitting an IELTS or TOEFL score.

Funding your studies

After getting admission, to apply for a visa you will need to provide proof that you have access to €8,000 to €9,000 a year. This could take the form of a scholarship or a ‘blocked account’, which is a special type of account in which you deposit money up front and withdraw enough for your expenses each month.

Expect to spend around €800 a month as living expenses. Even if there is no tuition fee, you do need to pay a ‘semester contribution’ of €200 to €400, which provides you benefits such as special student rates for transportation and cultural events. If your university is Baden-Württemberg or North Rhine-Westphalia - the states where universities can charge tuition fees – you will have to pay fees of around €1500 per semester. Tuition fees at private universities can be considerably higher.

You can search for scholarships at your chosen university, and from other sources. The German Academic Exchange Service (known by its German abbreviation, DAAD) is the world’s largest funding agency for academic programs, disbursing more than 100,000 scholarships worldwide. To search the DAAD website for scholarships and project grants, click here. There are PhD scholarships in all fields, but no scholarships for master’s students in engineering and the natural sciences.

You can work part-time as a student, as a research assistant or in a service industry (the former type of job pays better), for up to 120 days a year. It helps to know German.

Working after graduation

You can remain in Germany for up to 18 months after graduation to look for work. Depending on the work contract you get, you could extend your stay by 5-10 years. Obviously, not all qualifications are in equal demand, and employers in Germany are less likely to hire foreign nationals with skills that are easily available locally. Find out more about working here.


Seeking reliable information

DAAD regularly conducts information sessions in many cities around the world, and also online. To find an information session near you, check here. You can find more information

To find out more about studying in Germany, check out the links below!
7 things you need to study in Germany
Study in Germany: get a world-class education at low costs
Non-EU students will now pay tuition fees at some German universities
7 great European scholarships for international students
5 cheapest universities in the world



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