Almost all German universities are public, getting most of their funding from the state:

  • They have only recently (= in the past decade or two) started to involve corporate sponsors, because corporate sponsors are more interested in the research institutes, which, unlike in the states, are not generally part of the universities but are independent branches. And there’s a debate about how much sponsorship is okay before it unduly influences education & research. Also, there is no widespread culture of alumni donating to their alma mater.
  • Current students pay at most 200 EUR / semester (for administration fees).

So the state really pays the biggest part of the bill. This means that universities have comparable amounts of funding, with which they pay for their professors and equipment, and no interest in profit. It happens that a university manages to hire a really outstanding professor, or that they invest particularly much money into one branch, then that university would be really good for that particular subject. The German government is trying to increase that trend by rewarding universities for excellency programs in individual subject areas. However, if you look at all departments that a university offers, it comes out to average. There’s none that consistently has the better teachers for all subjects. Hence university rankings don’t make sense.

We think a huge aspect is the fact, that in Germany, almost all universities (yes, including the best) are (almost) free to attend. All students have to pay is a minor semi-yearly administration fee (around 40,- Euros or something). That means that attending a certain university is not a matter of your parents’ financial success – a.k.a social prestige in western societies, but simply a matter of fact. Another aspect, directly connected to this, is the fact, that universities are state-owned, and as such don’t have the stupefying marketing budgets the major universities in the States enjoy. And from this side of the pond, it does seem as if a lot of the hype surrounding the top universities is mostly marketing generated hyperbole.

From a German perspective, the battle to get into one of the “high prestige universities” that is fought out in the US every year, and the mountains of debt students and/or their families throw themselves into is actually quite mind-boggling and bit obscene, really.

One should also consider the education system in Germany as a main factor to explain this phenomenon. From an early age on after 4th grade, pupils are separated and put into 3 main school types depending on their grades. Children are not only separated according to their grades but also to the evaluation of the elementary school teachers who spend a lot of time with their pupils and know their personality and abilities. Now the interesting thing here is that attending a school type apart from high school doesn’t exclude pursuing a diploma to study then. In fact, this would take no more time than on high school provided that pupils do well enough to be able to attend vacational schools where they can pass their A-levels, too. In addition there are so many alternate schools to attend which are all more or less seen as equal with different stresses on certain subjects (economy, sports etc.). This provides that every student can choose on their own which school type suits the best for the own capabilities. There is no pressure at all:

  • Nobody will expect you to go to a certain school type as all of them are respected and suitable for every individual student
  • Nobody will make fun of a student who is attending Hauptschule etc. ( the only ones who do are those who were put under pressure themselves etc., by their parents… )
  • Nobody compares you to others, from elementary school until university.

The only one to compare with are the students themselves. This message provides that everybody concentrates on himself and in every class you get this impression through the learning atmosphere. However, it can depend on every school but the cases of competitive schools are rare. And nearly all children go to state schools and if one attends private school it´s really not a status symbol.

In Germany respect is earned in more ways than through education. Even though everyone respects a professor or a doctor in any field, they also respect professionalism and craftsmanship. A professional engineer or a Master Craftsman in glass blowing would get as much respect socially as a doctoral scholar. So a typical German youngster can choose a path of his/her liking and expect the society to value him/her for that.

Note: that there are a few private for-profit universities in Germany, but they cannot compete with the public ones. Their killer feature is distance learning, as public universities don’t generally offer that, and they seem to cater to employees rather than fresh graduates.