The Contribution of the German Tertiary Education System towards furthering the United Nations Academic Impact Initiative

This article briefly reviews the German tertiary education system and illustrates how it contributes towards furthering the principles underlying the United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) initiative.

The German tertiary education system is highly differentiated in structure and comprises 392 higher education institutions with a combined student population of approximately 2.4 million. These institutions are grouped into 121 universities, 215 universities of applied sciences (“Fachhochschulen”) and 56 colleges of art or music.1

In general, universities focus on basic research with a theoretical and research orientated curriculum. The German universities are traditionally responsible for the training of the next generation of academics and are accredited to offer, among others, Bachelor’s, Master’s and PhD degrees.

The curricula of the universities of applied sciences, on the other hand, are more application oriented and include integrated and supervised work assignments within industry and/or other relevant institutions. The universities of applied sciences only offer Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees.

The colleges of art and colleges of music aim at integrating artistic teaching, practice and research and provide practical and theoretical training to the PhD level.

There are approximately 9,500 different undergraduate programmes and another 6,800 postgraduate degree programmes offered at higher education institutions throughout Germany. In addition to the two university level academic qualifications (Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees), there are some courses that lead to state certified exams; for example, medicine, law and the training of teachers. Finally, there are still some remaining degree programmes that lead to a “Diplom” qualification.

The diverse structure of the German university system inherently supports one of the basic principles of UNAI “… to provide the opportunity for every interested individual to acquire the skills and knowledge necessary for the pursuit of higher education”.

The higher education system is also regionally differentiated. Each of the 16 Federal States (Bundesländer) has a distinctive higher education legislation. To allow mobility of students and academics within Germany, however, certain generic principles apply to the formulation of the respective education legislations. For instance, the German Federal Constitution specifically grants academic freedom in article 5, paragraph 3: “Art and science, research and teaching are free…”. This basic constitutional provision underpins another core principle of UNAI “… a commitment to freedom of inquiry, opinion and speech.”

Germany, at the Federal level, has recently experienced an increasing financial commitment to research in higher education institutions through the so-called excellence initiative. According to the German rectors conference, €41.2 billion euros was spent on tertiary education in 2010. Currently, only the State of Lower Saxony charges tuition fees. In the other 15 states no tuition fees are levied. The financial support for universities and the broad commitment to free education at the tertiary level for German as well as foreign students demonstrates a further commitment to the principles of UNAI “… building capacity in higher education systems across the world and educational opportunity for all people regardless of gender, race, religion or ethnicity”.

In addition to the classic Humboldtian functions of research and teaching, German universities are increasingly fulfilling additional functions within their communities. These functions are described as the third mission of the university.2 In Germany, the third mission of the universities is focused on knowledge transfer to industry partners through codified knowledge produced by the university in the form of intellectual property such as patents, licenses or copyright or through coproduction of knowledge via contract research with industry. Further aspects of the third mission focus on entrepreneurship with the university and regional authorities providing the required incubator function for spin-off companies. Expertise from universities is also increasingly applied in the shaping and/ or implementation of policy.

Integrating the third mission in a meaningful way with the classical functions of teaching and research is a challenge and source of controversy within universities. Nevertheless, it is an essential aspect of tangibly demonstrating the added value of universities within society. The growing awareness and implementation of the third mission of universities underscore the contribution to another basic principle of UNAI “… a commitment to promoting societal sustainability.”

At present, German higher educational institutions have around 11.3 per cent foreign students. The rationale for internationalization is, among others, the recognition that universities have the responsibility to educate the next generation of global citizens and leaders. Furthermore, research collaboration allows a global perspective on challenges such as climate change, poverty and energy security. The German Academic Exchange Service and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation are major partners of the German tertiary education system to support student and academic exchange. In doing so, the German academic environment is enriched by a diversity of people and ideas and effectively integrated into a global academic network. These internationalization activities support additional principles of UNAI “… encouraging global citizenship through education and a commitment to promoting inter-cultural dialogue and understanding, and the ‘unlearning’ of intolerance”.

In Germany there exists a broad societal consensus that tertiary education is a powerful agent of personal and societal transformation. To such an extent a new culture of intellectual social responsibility as proposed by the UNAI initiative resonates well with the German tertiary education system. 


1   German Rectors Conference (HRK): Higher Education Compass, Summer Semester 2013.

2    Laredo, Philippe, “Toward a third mission for Universities”, presented at the UNESCO research seminar for the Regional Scientific Committee for Europe and North America, Paris, 5-6 March 2007. Available at: