Quite like its secondary school system, the education system in Germany for tertiary studies is one designed with a multitude of options in mind.

And, again, quite like its secondary system, its tertiary system is changing to reflect a desire for greater global alignment and the increasing appeal of a German tertiary education to international students.

The German Education System: Tertiary education isn’t just University!


There are a couple of fundamental things that set Germany apart from countries like Australia, the UK or the US. One of them is the role university plays.

While in many countries, university is increasingly being positioned as the only viable tertiary education option available to school-leavers, the German system makes university a slightly less accessible domain for those less academically gifted, instead offering many other paths to achieve a valuable skill set.

It is also something students start at an older age than in many other countries: Germans often start school later than their American or English counterparts and because those who graduate from a Gymnasium do so after thirteen years at school, most students are nineteen before they begin studying at uni.

Another fundamental aspect of the German education system is its strong Ausbildung culture and historical tendency to encourage students less interested in academia to leave school and pursue a vocation via an apprenticeship.

The Ausbildung system provides students with a mix of on-the-ground training and formal education, allowing universities to remain more theoretical and reserved for specific programs of study. More on that later.

You might need to hark back to our article on the German school system to refresh your memory on what type of school-level qualification allows you entry into which institution.

Before we give an overview of the different options to study, there are many resources online and in English which go into this topic in much more detail than we do. Here are just a few of them which should answer your more specific questions:

Ausbildung and Berufsschulen – Apprenticeships

While the English word for Ausbildung is apprenticeship, it is better to approach the word and its meaning by focusing on ‘bildung’ (education). English-speaking countries tend to hear the word ‘apprenticeship’ and think of young apprentice mechanics or electricians hitting the ground running with an older mentor. However, in Germany, the scope of an Ausbildung is rather large, and covers an enormous amount of professions.

There is an apprenticeship for almost everything.

Office management, insurance sales, bank teller. Even working in a bakery? There’s an Ausbildung for that.

Dental hygienist, medical assistant, physiotherapist, nurse? Ausbildung. Want to work in tourism and hospitality, the civil service, early childhood education? Ausbildung.

In many countries, university degrees have been made out of things Germans do as an Ausbildung. Nursing probably being the most obvious example.

Recently, criticism has arisen for Ausbildungen becoming too selective, with many demanding students have an Abitur qualification (which is the university / college admission qualification). Indeed, to those of us more used to an Anglo-American “learn-on-the-job” culture for many non-technical positions, having a high school leaving certificate and a 3-year apprenticeship to work in a bakery, supermarket or hotel reception may seem somewhat excessive.

It is, as you can see, worthwhile keeping in mind an apprenticeship as us English-speakers understand it, does not quite occupy the same position as an Ausbildung.

The German education system differentiates between two different types of Ausbildungen:

  1. Dualeberufsausbildung: with this model, students split their time between being in an actual working environment and receiving on-the-ground training, and classes taken in a Berufschule (Beruf translates to ‘profession’).
  2. Schulische Ausbildung: those undertaking a Schulische Ausbildung are usually studying something that requires more theory (early childhood education or nursing, for example) and thus spend more time in classes and seminars. The practical component of a Schulische Ausbildung tends to come after the time spent studying theory in the classroom.


University, like in other countries, offers bachelor, master, and doctorate programs in areas of study including and absolutely not limited to, humanities and the arts, sciences, social sciences, law, business, economics and education.

University in Germany is free in many states, and in the others it just requires a nominal fee of a few hundred Euro per semester, and students are required to hold their Abitur (or home country’s equivalent) to gain entrance. Which is why it is increasingly becoming an attractive destination for foreign students previously considering the more traditional destinations of the UK and US.


Fachhochschule – University of Applied Sciences

Known in English as a University of Applied Sciences, the German Fachhochschule was traditionally an institution offering degrees in more practical fields, leaving the more theoretical to the universities. Today, however, it offers bachelor and master’s degrees in fields such as engineering, media, economics, agriculture and social work as well.

To study at a Fachhochschule, students are required to have done their Abitur or Fachhochschulereife plus a year’s traineeship or Ausbildung. (If these words mean nothing to you, you need to read this post here for clarification.)


Duales Studium – Dual Study

There is, believe it or not, yet another road one can follow, that combines an Ausbildung with an academic program of study. It covers fields including but not limited to public service, social work, health sciences, IT, engineering, media and communications. This is known as Duales Studium – dual study – and it involves a practical component but with greater focus on academic study.

Classes are taken at a university or Fachhochschule. Students who undertake a Duales Studium are required to have their Abitur and graduate with a diploma or a degree and the qualification of their Ausbildung. Students are paid throughout their Duales Studium, by the company (or government institution) that they have already signed a contract with. They are therefore required to work for a minimum number of years with that company or institution upon graduation.

Colleges for Art, Music and Film

For those looking to study art, music or film, in the German education system there are specific tertiary education colleges dedicated to the arts. These colleges are of an equal standing to traditional universities with rigorous entrance requirements. Students are required to display a specific talent in the area the college specialises in.


Private Colleges

While most universities (including Fachhochschulen and colleges for music, film and art) are government-funded and thus free for students to attend, there are a number of private colleges from which students can obtain a state-approved degree. These private colleges are mostly fee-paying.


Freiwilliges Sozialjahr – Voluntary Social Year

For those who are not sure what they want to do upon leaving school, there is the option of doing a Voluntary Social Year, a state-funded period of 6-18 months doing voluntary work in the social sector.

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