With 20 institutions in the top 200 of the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings – up from just 12 in 2014 – German has been making some serious improvements to its offer for students.
“Germany is one of the standout performers, in terms of the positions in the upper echelons of the ranking it's really strengthened its position,” Phil Baty, editor of the rankings, told The Local. “It's third in the world top 200, significantly better than last year.”
Not only are German institutions doing better in the top 200, but three – Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, Heidelberg University and Berlin's Humboldt University – are in the top 50, leaving Germany behind only the UK in Europe among the elite of the elite.
Baty argues that the improvements German universities have made to catch up with their peers abroad are mostly due to the Excellence Initiative of the past five years.
“There's no question that we are seeing the results here of the injection of €2.7 billion and the injection of a competitive element into German higher education. Clearly the reality is there,” he said.
Although that funding has been targeted at a small group of top-tier universities, Baty argues that there has been a clear ripple effect throughout the system.
Researchers at THE were also able to take into account larger swathes of European scholarly research in this year's rankings, with “much better coverage of non-English-language publication”.
By enlarging the database to 11 million compared with last year's six, more of the power and influence of German scholarship was visible.
More to do for students
But it's also fair to say that there are improvements still to be made in the German university system, especially when it comes to the student experience.
Students in a lecture hall at the University of Kassel. Photo: DPA
The Local recently ran an opinion piece by a young Finnish student who found himself disappointed by a year of study in Cologne when he compared it to his experiences in China and Helsinki.
He found a whole range of elements in university life – from the teaching to the bureaucracy – were old-fashioned and badly in need of reform.
“The ranking tries to look across the full range of a university's activities… but the success of Germany is driven by research excellence.” Baty acknowledged.
“It's important for Germany not to neglect the student experience.”
Baty suggests that reforming the way universities are funded in Germany along the lines of the fees-based system in the US or the UK might be one way to get them to focus on their students.
“That's forced universities to think about students as customers, think about whether they're giving them value for money – maybe Germany ought to think about that in the future,” he said.