Higher Education in Germany: Hochschulen vs. Universities | Top Universities

Higher Education in Germany: Hochschulen vs. Universities

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Felix von Wendorff

Updated Apr 18, 2021



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As can be expected from a country famous for its love of efficiency, higher education in Germany is very well organized – but not perhaps so easy to understand if you’re not Germany, especially if you don’t speak the language. To make the process simpler, here’s the first in a series of articles covering key aspects of higher education in Germany, including useful terminology and how to navigate the application process.

All higher education institutions in Germany can be referred to using the umbrella name hochschulen. However, this can be further divided into several categories. The largest of these are universities and fachhochschulen. (For the rest of this article, fachhochschulen will be referred to as “hochschulen”, following general usage.)

While they are similar in many aspects, German universities and hochschulen differ in their methods of teaching and ultimate goals for students – here’s a quick guide to the differences.

German hochschulen

Translated literally, “Hochschule” means high school. But it corresponds more with a university than a “high school” in the American sense. Hochschulen could be described as institutions at post-secondary level offering hands-on learning, where students focus on gaining skills and knowledge that can be directly applied to specific employment roles and the economy.

It is also very common to gain practical work experience while getting your degree at the hochschule. You spend about 50% of your time gaining practical experience and 50% of your time learning about your chosen field of specialization – whether it’s computer science, business and management, engineering or arts and design. Usually the company pays the students who are gaining work experience with them. And the really cool part is that once the degree has been completed, the graduate often ends up being offered a permanent job with their sponsor company. A very handy perk!

There are approximately 320 hochschulen in Germany, also referred to as fachhochschulen or Universities of Applied Sciences and Arts.

German universities

While hochschulen focus on vocational training, German universities provide more traditional higher education: lots of theory and little to no practical experience outside of an internship. They focus more on the theoretical side of the subject, with less obvious direct emphasis on practical applications.

In hochschulen, you’re unlikely to study a subject if you know there’s no likelihood you’ll use it in your intended profession. In contrast, students at German universities do have to take some classes – such as math or statistics – even if it remains a mystery how they’ll actually put that knowledge to practical use.

How to choose: University or hochschule?

Higher education in Germany is highly stratified based on intelligence. Kids decide when they are 12 or younger whether they are destined for a university, hochschule, or other type of higher education institution which we will not go into here. This approach was for me a big shock, because the vibe I was getting from the US education system is that all of us are equal (just some are more equal than others…) The German system blatantly sorts its citizens into different categories based on intelligence. But the good news is that all the groups have excellent employment prospects.

Personally, I recommend everyone who can get into a German university to do so, because it carries significantly more weight at highly selective employers and will get you higher salaries, and open up many more international career opportunities. If you’re motivated enough to work your way through the university application process, then go for it!

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