All prospective students, especially those planning to study abroad, feel the need to look at the “ranking of the best universities” in terms of university selection at some stage of planning. There are a few databases and lists that are accepted and taken seriously in academic circles around the world. These lists, which are mostly from the UK (QS and THE), the USA (CWTS) and one from China (ARWU), are accepted in the international community.
When you look at these lists, you will see that 52 German universities are included in these lists as of 2023. Although university rankings vary between lists, it may surprise you that there are very few German universities in the top hundred. It may seem like a contradiction that a school whose education system I praise so much, and whose scientific development led the world until the Second World War, performs so poorly in the rankings today. I will try to explain that there is in fact no contradiction.
Why are German Universities’ Research Performance Poorly Evaluated?
The most basic ranking criteria for universities in the databases I have linked above are the research budgets and research outputs of the schools. Scientific research, scientific publications and academic outputs of faculty members at universities are the most important factors affecting the ranking of schools.
German universities perform poorly in this respect compared to rival schools. However, the reasons for the poor performance of German universities are not due to the poor quality of the education system, but to the way global university rankings are designed. So what is this actually about? What do these poor ranking results mean?
Are the German universities worse?
The problem for German universities is this: The vast majority of basic research in Germany is carried out outside universities in research institutes (e.g. the Max Planck Institute), which are spread all over the country. This makes it difficult to reliably measure scientific quality, even though it is often the same people conducting research at both universities and non-university institutes. In addition, while universities in Germany place a greater emphasis on practice than in other countries, the number of published scientific papers is much lower. Especially since only a small proportion of German scientists make the effort to write their work in English for an international audience.
Another important factor is the basic structure of German higher education policy: Public universities in Germany do not charge tuition fees. In principle, everyone in Germany should have access to a good education and therefore schools have smaller research budgets. Especially in view of the large number of research institutes and the fact that government research funding is channeled to them.
In countries like the US, which consistently ranks in the top 10 of the best universities, the opposite is true: The schools invest heavily in the top few students with the high tuition fees they charge their students and the money they earn from their investments, such as stocks and pension funds, so that these universities move up the world rankings. These schools support their faculty members with enormous funds for research and encourage an increase in academic output. German universities, on the other hand, have very strict staff planning: First of all, professors at schools are civil servants and their number is determined by the state. New professors can only take over when an older professor retires. German universities therefore lose talented young academics to competition from abroad. You can see many German scientists teaching and researching in countries such as the USA.
And will this situation continue?
The German state is, of course, aware of this situation and is taking various initiatives to help its schools become more respected in the international arena. Perhaps the most important of these is the “Cluster of Excellence” scheme, which has been in place since 2016. The German federal government has established a special fund for the financial support of research at universities, and some universities are trying to encourage research to be carried out within universities by providing this financial support to some research clusters.
Currently, 57 research clusters at 14 universities are supported in this context. You can already see that these schools rank high in the rankings. This means that the approach and strategy is on the right track.
So what do the rankings mean?
I have always written and told everyone who consulted me: Maybe because I come from the real sector and see things differently from the academic circles, and maybe because I have met with many prospective employees over the years, I like to look at the quality of education as an employer and make evaluations accordingly. In my opinion, those who will evaluate the quality of education of universities should be from the real sector. For this reason, in my rankings, I always share the results of surveys conducted with the participation of employers and determine rankings accordingly. (See: Top 10 best universities to study medicine and dentistry in Germany, Top 9 best universities to study mechanical engineering in Germany, Top 8 best universities to study informatics in Germany)
I recently shared the results of a worldwide employer survey (GEURS) and listed the German universities in the list of the world’s top 250 universities as a result of employers’ graduate evaluations. The fact that there are 17 German universities on the list and TUM (Technical University of Munich) is ranked 12th, I think, reveals the different perspective of employers. The fact that schools that are in the 900s in the reputable lists you mentioned in the introduction of your article are in the 200s in this survey shows the dramatic difference.
Despite the disadvantages of German universities, it is not surprising to see that they offer a very high quality education, especially in technical subjects, and that their graduates are considered as respected technical staff all over the world.
Therefore, here is what you need to know: The quality of the university education you will receive in Germany will be appreciated and rewarded all over the world, whether it is included in the list or not (Fachhochschules in Germany are not included in this evaluation).
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