The German Higher Education System

There are various options for attending a university in Germany. One factor for choosing a higher education institution is, among other things, the desired degree. Whether Bachelor’s, Master’s, state examination or doctorate: the range of study programmes and degrees in Germany is large.

The German Higher Education System explained

The German Higher Education System explained

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Courses and degrees in Germany

The Bachelor is the first university degree. It teaches the basics of a subject. Afterwards, you can start your professional life directly. The most common Bachelor degrees are Bachelor of Arts (B.A.), Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) and Bachelor of Engineering (B.Eng.).


  • Standard period of study: usually six semesters
  • One subject (standard) or two subjects (two majors or major and minor)
  • Advantages: short duration of study, flexibility in later specialisation

Those who wish to continue their studies after the Bachelor’s degree can pursue a Master as a second university degree.


  • Prerequisite: completed Bachelor’s degree (or equivalent)
  • Standard period of study between two and four semesters
  • serves, for example, to deepen or broaden subject knowledge from the Bachelor’s degree or to specialise
  • prepares students for academic work at universities; a subsequent doctorate/PhD is possible
  • is required as a prerequisite in some professions

Some degree programmes end with a state examination (“Staatsexamen“). This means that the students’ final examination is organised and taken by a state board. In order to work in the field of medicine, law, pharmacy or as a teacher in Germany, a state examination is required.


  • Completion of theoretical studies with the first state examination
  • subsequent practical training phase, which ends with the second state examination

During doctoral studies, a complex scientific research thesis is written in a specific subject, the dissertation or doctoral thesis. The duration depends on the research topic. At the end, the doctorate is awarded.


  • Traditional model: free, self-determined work on the dissertation, supervised by a professor of the faculty, duration: about two to five years.
  • Structured doctorate: often limited to three years, fixed working periods, several supervising academics, examples: Research Training Groups, Graduate Schools, International Doctoral Programmes

Types of higher education institutions

In Germany, prospective students can choose between different types of higher education institutions: There are universities, universities of applied sciences (HAW or FH), private universities and vocational academies in many different German cities.

Which university is the right one for you depends, among other things, on what you want to study. The quality of teaching is comparable at all universities, but each type of university has certain focal points.

Universities primarily impart theoretical knowledge and place special emphasis on research. They usually offer many different subjects. However, some of them have specialised and then call themselves Technical University (TU) or University of Education (PH). At a university, you can also do a doctorate (earn a PhD); this is not possible at most universities of applied sciences (FH/HAW).

Universities of Applied Sciences have a practice-oriented scientific approach. The range of subjects includes specific fields such as technology, economics, social sciences or media. During the practical phases, students complete internships, longer project phases or entire practical semesters, often in companies.

Art and music colleges train the next generation of artists, for example musicians, architects, artists and designers. A prerequisite for study is special talent, which applicants must prove in an entrance examination. Exceptionally talented students can sometimes take up studies without a higher education entrance qualification.

A dual course of study combines a course of study with vocational training or with practical phases in a company. This can be an interesting perspective for anyone who likes to learn practically and wants to enter professional life quickly.

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