German University Reform: Guide to the German University System


For international readers, who perhaps are not aware of the intricacies of the German university system, Next Wave has put together this basic guide. For a more detailed guide see

In Germany, students at the age of 19 complete their "Abitur," a set of examinations required for entry into higher education, which ends their secondary education. Once in the higher education system there are two basic options for a student who wishes to study science. One of these, granted by the university, is the "diploma" degree.

This degree usually takes 5 to 6 years. Students are free to construct their own curriculum and often spend a year studying abroad. In the last year of the degree the student embarks on an independent research project which culminates in the completion of a written paper, the diploma thesis.

"Fachhochschulen" offer shorter (4 to 5 year) diploma degrees than universities. These schools offer a more vocational education which will concentrate on applied research. Because of the close ties to German and international industry, Fachhochschulen students often already know exactly where they will work at the time of graduation..

Education at both universities or Fachhochschulen is paid for by the Länder (state governments) and Bund (federal government), which also provide means-tested maintenance funds (half in the form of a grant and half as a student loan).

Once a student has completed a degree from either a university or a Fachhochschulen they can then embark upon a research-based, three-year Ph.D. course which is tied to the laboratory of a professor or group leader at a university. Examination of the Ph.D. is by oral defense of a written thesis. Ph.D.s are financed from government-paid positions or funded by organizations such as the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) and private research charities.

Young scientists who wish to pursue an academic career can then enter a postdoc system. Postdocs often take positions abroad for some years and are usually funded by the major research funding organizations such as DFG, Max Planck Society (MPG), and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). At this point the German system diverges considerably from that used in other Western countries. Before a postdoc can be promoted to a faculty position, they must pass a further academic qualification known as "habilitation." This unique qualification involves producing a second research thesis or a comparable scientific work as well as holding a series of lectures which will help to judge the scientist's teaching performance.

Last but not least, some facts and figures: Just one-fifth of the German universities are private institutions; more than 80% are state-maintained and financed mainly by the Länder. Although there are about 100 universities and 150 Fachhochschulen, only one-third of all graduates receive their diplomas from the latter. Today 1.8 million people study in Germany, among them 7% foreigners.

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