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There are very well known American and British universities, which have a very good reputation in a lot of different fields. Obvious examples being Cambridge, Harvard or Princeton.

But what about the state funded German universities, how is their international reputation? Why are the German schools ranked so poorly in international rankings like the Shanghai ranking?

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    You are asking two different questions. – user151413 Sep 1 at 18:48
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    Money and research "stars". As far as I can tell, the undergrad education of many German universities can easily compare with the best I have seen in the Anglo-Saxon world. Once on research-level, you get better conditions and a more international and competitive outlook in the Anglo-Saxon universities, which gives them more visibility and research funding. Also, externalresearch funding was not such a big thing all over in Germany until a decade or two ago. – Captain Emacs Sep 2 at 9:53
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    Also, I think you premise is wrong. German unis rank high, just not as high as the US. (At least the premise depends on what "high" means.) – henning -- reinstate Monica Sep 2 at 11:34
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    One apparent reason is the language barrier. For English-speaking universities it is much easier to attract international research students and faculty members, and so they have a much larger supply of good candidates. – Erel Segal-Halevi Sep 2 at 11:47
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    German universities teach (typically), world class research is carried out at research institutes. (Not something the English know for example...) If you look at the ranking for institutions in Nature, you will find the Max Planck Society or also the French CNRS well ahead of the British: natureindex.com/annual-tables/2019/institution/all/all – DetlevCM Sep 2 at 15:09
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Whence university rankings?

University-wise reputations are somewhat of a self-amplifying phenomenon:

  1. University-wise reputation is an established thing. This is opposed to the reputation of a department or faculty.

  2. Students and academics want to be at a well-reputed university. Thus, well-reputed universities can be more selective and get better students and staff.

  3. Better students and academics at reputed universities raise the level of teaching and research through existing qualities, higher teaching levels, cross-fertilisation, researchers having access to better students, etc.

  4. Reputed universities actually are better as they produce better graduates and research, attract more funding, etc.

  5. University-wise reputation becomes a reasonable criterion and gets further established. Go to Step 1.

However, without such a process, university-wise reputations hardly makes any sense: Most interactions in universities happen within departments or at least within faculties, and thus there is no reason to assume the qualities of different faculties correlate with each other. For example, the idea that a university with an excellent science faculty also must have a good law faculty is absurd (except for the above mechanism).

German specialities

In some countries, such a process has happened; in Germany, it mostly didn’t. Germans rarely think about the reputation of a university, but rather about the reputation of a department, and there are indeed strong variabilities between those. This is at least partially due to historical factors, but there also some systemic factors:

  • In the German education system, students specialise on a field upon entering university. This reduces the interactions between departments as compared to other systems.

  • German universities are primarily funded by taxes not by fees and donations. People do not make donations to their alma mater; they pay taxes. Reputed universities cannot raise higher fees. There is no rich-get-richer amplification furthering the above process.

  • The German culture is rather egalitarian and particularly holds to the ideal of providing free and equal education to everybody (or in case of universities, everybody with certain prerequisites). The concept of an elite school or university is not generally well regarded. (Mind that whether those egalitarian ideals are actually achieved is another question.)

  • A considerable amount of research in Germany happens at dedicated research institutes (mostly Max Planck, Helmholtz, Leibniz, and Fraunhofer Institutes) that are usually only loosely affiliated with universities. Whatever reputation these institutes acquire does not fully rub off on universities (in public perception as well as methodic rankings).

Note how the German universities that have a somewhat generally good reputation tend to be located in beautiful and expensive cities and thus are more attractive to students with rich parents (which despite all egalitarian tendencies have better prerequisites). Finally, mind that there is a (disputed) initiative that may initialise the above process, but even it does, I would expect it to take decades to show effect – in particular if you measure success in Nobel prizes (see below).

Consequences

Now, all of this leads to German universities scoring badly in different ways:

  • The effect of a few good departments at a university gets lost in averaging. The good departments in Germany are simply not clustered at a single university.

  • Scoring high in a university ranking is not such a relevant factor for universities, and thus they have no incentive to game those systems.

  • Even top departments are not that attractive to students that they can be as selective as a globally high-ranking university. Students simply select their place of study by other criteria.

  • A considerable portion of research successes happens at research institutes and not at universities and thus does not boost any university’s ranking.

  • For ARWU (Shanghai) in particular: This ranking mainly counts the extremes (Nobel prizes, high-impact papers, etc.). Broadly speaking, it looks at the highest percentile of research happening, not the median, average, or similar. Most of the aforementioned points are particularly bad for achieving such extremes, while hardly affecting the average quality of research and teaching.

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    I had the idea that the "top" research in Germany is done in the MPIs rather than universities, is this correct? – Wouter Sep 2 at 8:59
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    @Wouter I wouldn’t say that categorically, but MPIs generally have better funding than most university departments. – Mad Scientist Sep 2 at 9:14
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    @Allure Nursing is probably seen as "vocational" rather than academic in Germany, and finances, too. The best people I know in the field go to Anglo-Saxon countries to study finance. – Captain Emacs Sep 2 at 9:59
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    This answer seems to imply that German universities will do comparatively well on ARWU subject rankings. – Not necessarily. It’s not that being at a reputable university doesn’t have its advantages for individual departments, in particular when it comes to attracting better students (who are the most likely to hold university-wide rankings in some regard). As for the ARWU ranking, it could be that Germany just does less “Hollywood science”, which is what this ranking seems to be aiming at. – Wrzlprmft Sep 2 at 10:13
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    @GoodDeeds The Max Planck Society produced the third-most nature publications in 2016 and 2017, being only outranked by the Chinese Academy of Science and Harvard University (though arguably it is unfair to compare a whole organisation with a single university). The Max Planck Society comes Second in sheer volume of research papers produced (2009). – Narusan Sep 2 at 12:42
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There are lots of biases in international academic rankings, they tend to favour US and UK universities because they use criteria which are mostly relevant for a market-oriented academic system, such as the US/UK ones.

In many European countries the academic system is not market-oriented, or at least not as much as in the US and the UK: students fees are very low because higher education is mostly funded by public money. Universities are seen as a public service offering education to society as a whole, rather than a kind of commercial institution which sells knowledge and qualifications to those who can afford it. As a consequence Non-US/UK universities are not as incentivized to attract international students, they don't make big efforts to play the competition game since their income doesn't depend (at least not much) on their international ranking.

Of course this is only a simplified explanation, but this is the main reason why US/UK universities perform better than German universities (among others) in international rankings.


[Edit] Originally this was only a quick answer to explain what (I think) is an important structural and cultural difference with respect to international rankings between UK/US-like academic systems and others. My point was only to emphasize this difference to the attention of prospective students looking at these rankings, knowing that this is a common source of misunderstanding among them. I didn't imagine that the question and my answer would attract so much attention. I gladly admit that this is a rather simplistic answer, and I'm happy to see that other answers have done a much better job than me at analyzing other aspects of the question in detail.

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    "Germany does not have top universities, because it's not trying to have them." It's not true that they're not trying. Since 15 years, as part of the "Exzellenzinitiative" (later "Exzellenzstrategie"), Germany has spent billions of Euros into programs for increasing the international appeal of their universities, including the upgrade of a handful of universities to "Exzellenzuniversitäten" (excellence universities). – lighthouse keeper Sep 2 at 7:21
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    @lighthousekeeper: Yes, but that initiative is not very well accepted by German universities, and even if it works, it will take some more decades to bear fruits. – Wrzlprmft Sep 2 at 7:24
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    They cared about the excellence status, but compared with the endowment of the top universities in the US, the total financial investment in the Exzellenzinitiative was not exactly massive. Also, because of its strong regional emphasis, Germany's universities did not have a tradition of being in direct competition with each other, but rather being good per se. The result being that you could study anywhere and expect get a good education. – Captain Emacs Sep 2 at 9:59
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    The Exzellenzinitiative was pretty much a joke if you count it as an effort to get to high ratings. To my (first-hand) experience there are quite a lof of flaws to it: the amount of actual money given was not that high, it was limited to a rather short time frame, it only awarded money to special projects ("excellence clusters") and it totally neglected some of the practical issues (e.g. "how is the university going to provide offices for those new researchers?"). In the end it was little more a handful of additional PhD student positions – Manziel Sep 2 at 15:26
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    This answer would be better if it mentioned some of the criteria in which studies are biased against continental european universities. – Kakturus Sep 3 at 11:07
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A significant portion of this phenomena may simply be due to core problems in the methodology of these rankings systems. For example:

  • ARWU rankings are based 50% on sparse outlier information for "glamour" rather than "normal" science: 30% for Nobel and Fields winners (which instantly excludes most research fields) and 20% for Nature & Science papers (which form a quite small fraction of even most famous researchers' significant output). Here, the top two German universities are ranks 51 and 54.
  • QS World University rankings are based 50% on reputation surveys, which will tend to make "top ranking" a self-reinforcing phenomenon. Here, the top two German universities are ranks 50 and 63.
  • Times Higher Education rankings are a bit more egalitarian, with 35% based on reputation surveys. Here, the top two German universities are ranks 32, and 41.
  • US News rankings are also less reputation-based, with 25% based on reputation surveys. Here, the top two German universities are ranks 43 and 56.

I find it interesting and possibly significant that the German universities rank higher in the less outlier-based and reputation-based ranking systems. Remember also that top 100 is still quite high, given that there are approximately 1000 graduate schools and thousands more 4-year colleges in the USA alone.

Furthermore, even the "objective" measures like "citations per faculty" and "number of papers in top 1% of field" are going to be dominated by the high tail of the distribution, rather than the actual educational and research opportunities provided to the median undergraduate or graduate student.

Thus, if the German universities have not been optimizing for these metrics, as suggested by other answers, I would expect the best ones to show up only in the medium-high rankings, even if they are extremely good institutions (as they have been).

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    In addition to which one might add that the presence of “high-flying” researchers does not correlate to very many “high-flying” classes or students in such classes. – ZeroTheHero Sep 2 at 17:02
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    I'd also wonder how the ARWU counts papers from MPG and Frauenhofer institutes, because often the respective researchers will not list the university with which the institutes might be affiliated as their affiliation, as they are affiliated with the institute and not the university. But the institutes have quite a bit of output regarding high listed journals and the like. – Frank Hopkins Sep 2 at 23:04
  • @FrankHopkins I also assume that this is an important part of the answer. A lot of top research happens at these institutes; it is what they have been designed for. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Sep 3 at 9:31
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Just writing up an additional point discussed in the comments to Erwans excellent answer. US universities vary massively in terms of funding and any excellence or quality measure you can think of amonst each other. In comparision, German universities are much more uniform. This means that if you only look at the very top, you will see a few US universities but not a single German one. At the same time any German university would count as fairly good compared to the average US university.

In terms of funding this is a result of politicial choice in Germany. If you want a university that scores in the top 10 internationally, a necessary but not sufficient condition is an amount of funding similar to the current top 10. No German university is anywhere close to that amount of money and the German government, which provides the bulk of their funding, is (currently) not interested in giving out that amount of funding to a single university. There are a number of programs to increase excellency but they are all targeted more broadly.

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Edit: pointed out by by "henning -- reinstate Monica", my answer is not true as I wrote it since by using something called "Leistungszulage" you can negotiate top-ups to your standard salary.

One factor which has not been explicitly mentioned, but is somewhat related to the different amount of funding: In Germany, salaries of professors are regulated. This means that there are three types of professorships (W1 = Juniorprofessor, W2 and W3) for which there are fixed salaries no matter on who you are or where you have this professorship (they do change depeding on your years in the job, though; they also perhaps fluctuate in miniscule amount between the different "Bundesländer", but one can really ignore that for my point since the difference is too small). What this means is that if you are performing much better than the average in your field and can negotiate for a higher personal salary in a position at a US university, this option does just not exist in Germany. The best you can go for is negotiating e.g. more doctoral students or perhaps funding for your research/working conditions. I think this provides a high disincentive for over-performers to settle in Germany and might thus affect the outlier-measuring metrics used by many of the comparison schemes.

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    That's not entirely true. German profs (and other Beamte) can negotiate nice top-ups, so-called Leistungszulage. – henning -- reinstate Monica Sep 2 at 16:35
  • I did not know that and will edit my answer for that. Thanks. – Haluter Sep 2 at 16:39
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    Professors' salaries are - I assume - not low in Germany. Under this assumption, the motivation of earning more money is usually less significant for people in Academia than considerations such as the collaboration environment, ability to secure research funding, ability to attract good graduate students etc. Those might keep one in Germany or motivate immigration more than the pay. – einpoklum Sep 3 at 10:07
  • This is true, but "keeping in Germany" and "attracting people from outside" are quite distinct here, I would think. Although professors' salaries are of course not low in Germany, for (already established) top academics who would consider transferring to Germany otherwise, the pay cut might be a factor against their decision. Anecdotally, I witnessed cases of this. Of course, it's hard to quantify if this argument has any importance at all on a big scale (even I would place its importance at the very low end of stuff mentioned here, and as proven by my ancedotes, I am quite biased). – Haluter Sep 3 at 19:36
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There are undoubtedly many things going on here, but some of this is almost certainly attributable to the broad sweep of history. Academic inquiry flourishes best under some sort of liberal democracy. Germany was the originator of the modern university system, but for most of the 20th century, the political environment in some or all of the country was very negative. During the Nazi period there was a "brain drain" of academic talent, e.g., many leading physicists who were Jews fled to the US or UK. Taking TU Dresden as an example, it was ruled by the Nazis, then "largely destroyed" (according to their web site) by the allied bombing. Immediately after the war, there was just a struggle for daily survival in Gernany. TU Dresden was then rebuilt but run under totalitarian communism until reunification.

You don't just get those years back for free. Often in economics if there is a setback, that simply becomes the new starting point for continued exponential growth, so where some country that didn't experience the setback gets $Ae^t$, the country where bad things happened sees $A'e^t$, where A' is just smaller. It's true that sometimes destruction can actually have paradoxical effects, such as allowing a fresh start. (IIRC this happened sometimes when wars destroyed obsolete rail systems.) But that's not a guarantee.

So liberal democracy matters in many ways, including this. That's one reason why the trend toward populist authoritarianism in places like Poland, the US, and Hungary is such a bad thing.

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    If it were simply a question of recent time spent as a liberal democracy then you wouldn't see Chinese universities in the top but no German universities. – gormadoc Sep 2 at 16:55
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    I'm amazed that I had to scroll down so far for this answer. The persecution of scientists and other effects of the Nazi regime were the primary reasons German academia lost its cutting edge position. – Colin Sep 3 at 3:39
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    1. The US barely qualifies as a liberal democracy these days though. Probably I should say "doesn't qualify". 2. TU Dresden actually did quite well during the East-West partition, If I'm not mistaken - of course, given the effects of the war. If you compare it today to, say, TUM or TU Dortmund - would you say it's inferior? – einpoklum Sep 3 at 10:10
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    German science got strong in late 19th/early 20th century, when Germany was an illiberal monarchy. I have even seen people argue that the two are related: a closed political system means that fewer talented people go into politics and more go into academia (in Hawes, The Shortest History of Germany. He raises this point for the early 19th century, however). – Jan Sep 3 at 11:14
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    @Colin 2/50 and 6/100 for China is still more than 0/50 and 4/100 for Germany. It's also wrong to attribute such a lasting effect to Nazi persecution of Jews who happened to be scientists (not even close to 1:1) when China persecuted scientists for being intellectuals (much closer to 1:1) decades later. – gormadoc Sep 3 at 12:50
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I would like to add one more point:

Top Institute like Max Planck, Helmholtz, Leibniz, Fraunhofer Institutes and many more offers Research (master, PhD, etc) in the German language, where hardly any international students gave more choice. Even these Institution and other Institution offers in the English language, which gives more completion for admission.

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    I am sorry, but I fail to parse your sentences. What I can say is that the staff and students at Max Planck Institutes tend to be very international and English is the predominant language there. But I am not even sure whether this contradicts your answer. – Wrzlprmft Sep 2 at 15:17
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    At more than one of the MPIs that I have seen, the majority of the students and a large fraction of professors were from non-German speaking countries, and all work was conducted exclusively in English. – GoodDeeds Sep 2 at 17:57
  • @Wrzlprmft You are mentioning only Max Planck. – dtc348 Sep 3 at 12:39
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    @dtc348: Because those are the ones I am most familiar with. Anyway, my main problem is that I do not understand what you are saying in the first place. – Wrzlprmft Sep 3 at 12:44

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