12 Terms to Start Understanding the German Higher Education System


Woman search for a book in library

You have been researching a long time, checking which countries may be the best choice for you to continue your education, and it seems like Germany sounds pretty good. In fact, you have found some interesting programs and come across tons of information online. But let’s face it, you don’t want to be the rookie who shrugs every time a foreign term is mentioned during the process. You are smarter than that! And we want to help you, too. When entering the higher education system in Germany, it’s not only the longerthanthelightofdayintheswedishmidsommar German words that you should be aware of. You should also be clear on what is what in order to avoid applying for a program that will not suit your career path, benefit from financial aid, and make sure your paperwork ticks all of the bureaucratic boxes. Let’s start mastering your knowledge of the education system with these 12 fundamental terms you need to know, beginning with the difference between several types of (what you would call) “universities”.

(Reading time: 9 minutes 50 seconds)

  1. Fachhochschule. Also referred to as University of Applied Sciences, this is a type of higher education institution with a more vocational and practical approach. Their curricula normally offer about 70% of practical learning and many Fachhochschulen have strong connections with companies in the industry of their expertise. Most degrees are in the fields of engineering, natural sciences, or business administration. Aside from their practice-focused approach, the main difference to a university is that they cannot grant doctorates. So, it’s not a good fit for research and academia.
  2. Universität/Hochschule. Although there are some differences between both German terms, these are the equivalent to the concept of university used in most other countries. Universities in Germany have a research-oriented and knowledge-focused approach to learning, with a more theoretical concept of the field of study, even though the classes often also include study cases that are based on or come from real challenges within the industry. Universities have the right to grant doctorates, so they offer a further step for those interested in research. Many universities also have good connections with the industries of their expertise. KLU is a Hochschule and has the ability to grant doctorates.
  3. Technische Hochschule and Technische Universität. The geeky friends of the two previously explained concepts. The technical universities are specialized in STEM studies (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). Their focus can also be more practical or more theoretical, and some of them can grant doctorates while others can’t.
  4. ECTS (European Credit Transfer System). It is a tool in line with Bologna Process employed by higher education institutions within Europe and is meant to allow easier recognition of studies across different curricula and countries. Essentially it is a way for universities in Europe to “speak the same language”. If you study in Europe, your university will most likely use ECTS credits, and if you complete some courses in another European country, the credits will be easily recognized and accounted for. This allows for academic programs to have more flexibility and supports student mobility across European countries. Bachelor’s degrees normally have 180 ECTS credits whereas master’s have 120.
  5. Duales Studium. Dual courses of study or combined degrees offer the opportunity to work part-time at a company while completing a higher education degree in a specific field. It’s a good option if you want to assimilate knowledge in a career path while acquiring practical experience. It’s also good in order to be able to finance yourself while studying since the company will pay a salary (on a student level). However, most companies in Germany require a high level of German skills for these positions, so this option is usually not attainable for international students whose German is still in progress.
  6. Erasmus. Stands for European Region Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students. A very long name for the student exchange program developed and funded by the European Union to promote the mobility of young people across the member countries. It applies to programs in education, training, youth, and sports. It’s a great way to live out a European experience during your studies. Though at KLU, this is guaranteed in our semesters abroad and doesn’t limit you to Europe ;)
  7. DAAD (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst). Otherwise known as the German Academic Exchange Service. Similar to the Erasmus program, but this time funded and administered by Germany, the aim of the DAAD is also to promote the cultural enrichment generated by international and intercultural exchanges. They support the international academic cooperation through research programs, fairs, conventions, workshops, collaborative studies, and much more. DAAD is also well known for its extensive network of scholarships and financial aid opportunities for students, so visiting their website is almost an obligation for international students.
  8. BAföG (Bundesausbildungsförderungsgesetz). It translates to German Federal Training Assistance Act, and it is basically the national law (that’s why it’s called federal act) which regulates the financial assistance for students. This regulation includes the possibility to grant state loans of a maximum of 10.000€ to finance your studies. This loan must be repaid in installments after completing of your studies. The big perk? It is free of interest! The catch? It is rather difficult for international students (non-German) to get this aid, unless they have already lived at least five years in Germany.
  9. KMK (Kultusministerkonferenz). It is an association of ministers or senators of the Länder (federal German states) responsible for matters of education, research and cultural affairs. Although they don’t have direct legislative power, they make decisions on these matters which will then be enacted by regional laws in each state. So, in simple terms, KMK is boss. Belonging to it is also the ZAB (Zentralstelle für ausländisches Bildungswesen) which is the Central Office for Foreign Education, a department in charge of, among other tasks, assessing the recognition of foreign educational qualifications, including school, vocational and university degrees. In case of ambiguity regarding the eligibility of a specific international student, these institutions will make a final recommendation on it that will then be applied by our admissions department.
  10. DFG (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft). The German Research Foundation is one of the largest funding organizations in Europe with a budget of over 3 billion Euros. Through their grants, prizes, scholarships, and other methods of funding, they provide the resources for many research projects. Unlike in other research foundations, at DFG the projects are not only limited to technology or natural sciences, but open to fields like social sciences and humanities, too. It promotes excellence and equality in academic research.
  11. Prüfungsamt. In English: the examination office (Registrar’s Office at KLU). This department handles all matters related to student exams and grades and issues certificates. Sometimes, like at KLU, universities have their own internal automatic systems to register you for the exams, so you don’t have to worry on missing any! In other universities, like many public ones, you need to register for your exams through the intranet or student platform/app. This is because in Germany, unlike in other countries, you can study a subject at the university without needing to finalize it with an exam, and therefore getting no grades or ECTS credits for your hard work. Yep, attending class just for the fun and enrichment of doing so!
  12. Bewerbung. The last in the list, yet probably the first one you learned, and the one you’ll remember forever if you continue your journey in the German system, whether in or outside of the university. A Bewerbung is an application, and just like the English term it can refer to many different processes: a student application, scholarship application, job application, etc. Another word you should know in this regard is Antrag, which means, well, also “application”, but more in the sense of a request. For example, if you apply to the immigration office for a visa, you would be doing a Visumantrag and not a Visumbewerbung. Most of the state-administered processes will include an Antrag (and we suggest you ask for help from your friends to make sure your paperwork is perfectly completed if you want to avoid delays in the result).

And now that you’re up on the lingo, we eagerly await your Bewerbung for KLU! :)

Do you already know all the cool activities that are waiting for you in Hamburg? Find them in our blog 10 Best things to do in Hamburg.

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Career Services, Email: recruit@klu.org
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