Difference Between University and Fachhochschule in Germany

Many foreigners are interested in studying in Germany, as German universities are almost free and offer a wide range of programs. However, the German education system might be different from your home country. Therefore, future students must understand its structure to choose the right institution to study.

Generally, Germany has two main university types: Fachhochschule (University of Applied Science) and university. Both are universities but have some significant differences.

Fachhochschule (FH) doesn’t offer a Ph.D. degree; they rather focus on practical education. Each student must complete at least three months of internships and a semester abroad in some cases. Schedules and study duration are fixed. Some majors, like Medicine and Law, aren’t available at FH.

Now, after you have had a quick glance at the most common differences between Fachhoschule and a university in Germany, let’s look more into the details.

What is Fachhochschule in Germany?

The University of Applied Science is the official translation for Fachhochschule. “Fach” means major, field, or department. This type of institution focuses on the practical side of education and offers more concrete specializations relevant to the labor market.

Fachhochschule can be both public and private. Studying at a private school can cost you up to 20,000 EUR per year.

Fachhochschule was founded in Germany and then widely spread all over Europe, especially in Austria, Switzerland, and the Netherlands.

The main characteristic of Fachhochschule is that it represents a close relationship between higher education and future employment. Their practical orientation makes these institutions very attractive to employers.

Typically, Universities of Applied Sciences are rooted in the region, providing employees for local businesses. The students also mostly come from the same area.

Those who want to study close to home can often accomplish this at the Fachhochschule. The reason is that there are almost twice as many FHs as Universities, and many also have several branches, so the chances are good to find something nearby.

German university explained

A German university is the highest level of education, offering a broad range of disciplines. They are equivalent to public or private universities in other developed countries.

Universities are research and theory-based institutions. Most of them have a long history, compared to the relatively newly opened Fachhochschule. Latter were mainly founded in the 90s last century.

Some universities have specialized in particular subject areas, for example, technical universities (Technische Hochschule), medical universities, and colleges of education.

What are the main differences between the University and Fachhochschule in Germany?

“Think about your future plans before applying”

Currently, Germany has about 216 Fachhochschulen and 180 universities with more than 2.8 million students, including 375,000 international students (13.2%). 

These organizations also share some similar traits, e.g., Fachhochschule (University of Applied Science) and university are both higher education institutions, funded mainly by the state but can also be private.

Due to the Bologna process, universities and Fachhochschulen award legally equivalent academic Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees.

1. Degree

Fachhochschule (FH): At the University of Applied Science, one can pursue a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree, but no Ph.D. Moreover, the degree length is fixed; Bachelor’s lasts 3 to 3,5 years, Master’s 1,5 to 2 years, which is equivalent to 6 or 7 semesters and 3 or 4 semesters.

Note that with a Master’s degree from Fachhochschule, it’s hard to get accepted to a Doctoral program. Universities rarely recognize the FH diploma, even if it’s equal to a university degree in other terms.

University: All traditional universities offer Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Ph.D. degrees. If you want to pursue a doctorate (earn a Ph.D.) at some point, a university is a right place for you.

University degree length isn’t fixed – you can set your study speed yourself, and it usually takes longer to graduate.

2. Focus of education

Fachhochschule (FH): Education in FH is heavily practical orientated, and each has a strong connection with regional companies. Each student must complete at least three months of internship in one of these companies as a degree term. It’s counted as a study achievement.

The studies at FH provide enough theoretical background and prepare students for the real-world requirements of professional life. Often spending a semester abroad is also part of the degree, which also benefits your resume.

University: University is theoretically orientated with a research focus. Most of them offer plenty of courses in the Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Medicine sector, also because it’s perfect fields for research work.

Usually, no internship is required, but students can complete one; the same goes for a semester abroad.

3. Variety of courses

Fachhochschule (FH): The courses of study at FHs are all close to practice, but overall you can study almost all common professions, which are important for today’s economy.

It includes engineering, computer science, business and management, arts and design, communication studies, social service, and other professional fields.

University: On the other hand, subjects like Philosophy, German Studies, History, and other humanities can only be found at the university and not at FH.

The same applies – despite their practical relevance – to law and medicine. Even if you want to become a teacher, you must go to university.

4. Entry requirements

Fachhochschule (FH): You can get accepted at an FH with a high school diploma equivalent to German (Abitur or Fachabitur). You must finish 12 or 13 years of high school (Abitur) or higher secondary vocational school (Fachabitur), which has more relevance for someone in Germany.

However, before applying to any German higher education organization, you must certify all school diplomas. You can check about it online on this website; it shows equality with German school certificates and your entitlement to pursue a degree in Germany.

Some applicants need to have work experience before they can apply for Fachhochschule, so you get a lot of people at an FH that are a bit older and have actual real-world job practice.

University: In contrast, universities only accept applicants with a high school diploma equivalent to German Abitur. There is no practical way through your work or higher secondary vocational school (Fachabitur).

That’s why university students tend to be younger and without work experience. Most students apply to study at university right after high school.

5. Staff members

Fachhochschule (FH): The career path of FH professors is different from universities. Both have doctorates, but if you want to become a professor at Fachhoschule, you must have worked outside the academic world for at least three years after your doctoral thesis.

This means that the typical business administration Professor at Fachhoschule could be head of marketing or human resources in the past. At the same time, his university colleague has only a research career at the university behind him.

Many FH professors teach for a few hours a week and pursue a different profession the rest of the time.

University: At universities, besides the professors, work mainly with scientific staff who conduct research in addition to teaching. They are academics who have continued with their careers in science.

6. Research

Fachhochschule (FH): Universities of Applied Sciences also differ from universities in terms of research. Typical for them is a strong regional orientation; research often happens together with companies. The research results should be immediately implementable.

Since FH professors usually have hardly any academic staff, students in higher semesters often take on this task: they assist university teachers during research as part of the course.

University: Research at universities takes an important place. It is common to find the faculty actively involved in research with the regular submission of papers and scientific studies.

If research at FH is usually financed by local companies, at the university, it’s often supported by the Federal Government with annual funding of 533 million euros.  

7. Flexibility

Fachhochschule (FH): In terms of flexibility and decision making University of Applied Science offers only limited possibilities for students.

For example, you can’t choose courses other than those offered to you, timetables and deadlines are fixed, and your presence in lessons is often mandatory. Students have to finish their program in 3, sometimes 3,5 years, with an extension only in exceptional cases.

The course length and the number of places available at FH are fixed. This means that there are no overcrowded lectures in comparison to the university.

University: On the other hand, the university gives students the freedom to choose their subjects and schedule; they even can postpone exams to the next year and complete a degree later than it’s supposed to be.

Classes aren’t compulsory at university, and so many students tend to skip them. It’s good; they are overcrowded anyway.

8. Other differences

Fachhochschule (FH):

Size: Universities of Applied Sciences are generally smaller than universities. The average university has four times as many students as the average Fachhochschule. Many FHs have less than 5,000 students.

Exams: FH has more exams than the university and shorter examination periods.

Teaching: Universities of Applied Sciences practice more innovative didactics and intensive student support due to their smaller size. Technology, equipment, and infrastructure are more cutting-edge and offered for each student.

University:

Size: Universities much bigger than FH often have a few buildings which can be spread all over the city or in one district. Typically one German university can have up to 50,000 students, starting from around 5,000.

Teaching: Many professors are researchers and employed full-time only at university, compared to FH, where lectors often have a job in companies or are self-employed. Therefore teaching at university seems to be farther away from real working life.

Exams: Universities have fewer exams and more extended examination periods.

Fachhochschule: advantages and disadvantages

Pros

  • Practical orientation that is attractive to employers
  • Teaching is adjusted to the current situation and trends in the market
  • Cooperations with companies
  • Shorter examination periods
  • Easier to receive a job offer right after or during the studies
  • Modern and innovative
  • Professors have real experience in their fields
  • Learning in smaller groups
  • Familiar atmosphere

Cons

  • Less theory
  • Almost no flexibility and decision-making for students
  • Degree length is fixed
  • Less salary in comparison with a university degree
  • Almost no Ph.D. programs are offered at FH
  • An internship is a part of the degree and must be accomplished together with a semester abroad.

University: advantages and disadvantages

Pros

  • Prestige and well-known organizations
  • Education is broader with theory and research focus
  • Degree length isn’t fixed and can be adjusted by each student
  • Students make their own schedules and choose courses they like
  • Higher salary after graduation

Cons

  • Lectures could often be overcrowded
  • More anonymous atmosphere
  • Less practical experience due to theoretical orientation
  • Fewer connections with employers
  • Broad education without following the goal of becoming a specialist

Which one should you choose?

In the end, the decision between FH or the university depends on what preferences you have. Would you rather study in smaller groups at the University of Applied Sciences, even if this involves more control and less flexibility?

Do you want to be more self-organized and free but often also more anonymous? Do you want to gain a lot of practical experience during your studies but study less broadly and more specialized?

FH is a good option for people who have already worked before and want to gain more theoretical experience in their field. Or maybe your aim is Ph.D. and research work, then choose a university without a doubt.

Yet with time, the differences between the FH and the university are shrinking. Universities now offer some practical / industry-oriented courses as well. Some FHs have been allowed to offer doctorate degrees.

Some FHs are also teaching subjects that were in the past only taught by universities, like more theoretical aspects. The initial decision depends on your future profession and plans.

What is the difference between Hochschule and Fachhochschule?

The translation of the word Hochschule is high school. But in reality, it applies to universities – all higher education institutions. Fachhochschule (University of Applied Science), University, Technical University, Educational University – they all belong to Hochschule.

Difference between Technical Universities (TU) and Fachhochschule (FH)

First, all the differences between Fachhochschule and the university would also apply here.

The main factor is that Technical University is more research-oriented and provides very theoretical knowledge of the subjects. On the other hand, Fachhochschule (University of Applied Science) is focused on practical knowledge or industry-oriented studies.

Fachhochschule (FH): as we have spoken before, there are significant differences between Fachhoschule and university; you can read it above. A few notes to compare Fachhochschule with TU.

  1. FH’s are more practical and not as theoretical as traditional Universities. You have more exercises for classes.
  2. Studying at FH might be more accessible than at TU, as second will typically have more requirements for students and involve them in the research. And since FH focuses more on practical experience than theory.
  3. Many employers value a Master’s from Fachhochschule less than from a Technical University; consequently, employees receive less salary on average.
  4. TU has much higher flexibility than FH.
  5. The internship is a part of a degree at Fachhoschule; TU doesn’t require it to complete your program.
  6. Studies last seven semesters at FH and only 6 at Technical University.
  7. FH doesn’t offer a Ph.D., but more importantly, you are eligible to pursue a Doctorate Degree with a master’s from FH, but it’s more challenging than it sounds. Many universities don’t accept FH graduates or only under some rules. So if Ph.D. is your final goal after your Bachelor’s and Master’s, you should choose TU from the beginning to avoid the hassle.

Technical Universities (TU) or Technische Hochschule: It’s a type of university focusing on engineering sciences in Germany. They also exist in Austria, Switzerland, Netherlands, and Finland.

These institutes provide practice-oriented research and teaching and have excellent contacts with large and medium-sized organizations. Research partnerships and technology transfer enable students to gain practical experience.

TU Universities mainly focus on providing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education and often perform research in the fields of climate, energy, efficiency, and sustainable mobility.

Anna

Anna is an enthusiastic expatriate with experience of living in Germany, Austria and Greece. She shares her passion for living abroad on this website.

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