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From browsing through many threads on Reddit and discussing with people offsite, I find that the general impression is that most German universities are equally good; for example this one.

How did they become equally good? As far as I understand, there is a high degree of self governance for the German state governments to choose the policy in regards to their universities, so I'd imagine a higher variance in quality by state.

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    That's an interesting question, and I don't know the answer myself. However, what is most likely at least part of the answer is that universities do not charge tuition (at least to local students), so there has never been all that much incentive for unis to market themselves as better than the other universities next door.
    – xLeitix
    May 22, 2023 at 13:38
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    Germany has roughly 400 universities. The US has roughly 4000, many of which are private.
    – Jon Custer
    May 22, 2023 at 14:30
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    @JonCuster: In the German system it's important to distinguish between universities (= "Universitäten") and "universities of applied sciences (= "Fachhochschulen") (I'm still angry at whoever came up with this extremely misleading translation, which makes it much more difficult to explain this in an international setting.) Regarding the universities, there are roughly about 100 in Germany - plus a number of very small and specialized institutions which can be very relevant for specific subjects, but are negligible for most subjects (due to their specialization or small number of students). May 22, 2023 at 17:24
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    @JochenGlueck - well, many of the 4000 universities/colleges in the US are small as well. However, Germany has ~1/4 the population of the US, and has much less than 1/4 the number of institutions of higher learning...
    – Jon Custer
    May 22, 2023 at 17:27
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    The causes for this are much broader than the educational system per se. Germany is a country where equality of chances is more naturally ingrained in the institutions, as opposed to the US, where vast disparities and monopolies of "excellence" are exacerbated in almost every aspect of society (education, healthcare, income, etc).
    – Tfovid
    May 24, 2023 at 8:12

4 Answers 4

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There a few factors here:

  1. There are different reputation-quality-feedback loops in play. To oversimplify slightly: In the US, people believe that universities have signficant quality differences. Thus, good students and academics go to highly ranked universities. This leads to highly-ranked universities to actually be signficantly better, which feeds the belief that this is the case. In Germany, people don't perceive significant differences, so they don't care about ratings. Subsequently, good students and academics are more evenly distributed amongst universities, and quality differences are small.

  2. German universities have limited means to attract/select the best people. Salaries are determined by the state, as are the required teaching hours. Admission requirements can't be overly strict by law either. This again leads to a more even distribution of who goes where in terms of talent.

  3. Germany has a culture of proper job qualifications other than university degrees, and thus far fewer people go to university. It seems about 1/3 of German school leavers go to university, while it's 2/3 in the US. As such, German universities are all comparable only with the more selective US institutions as far as incoming student quality is concerned.

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    Plus, degrees from private institutions are sometimes seen as "easily bought" titles and of lesser quality than titles from public institutions. This ties somewhat into your point (1).
    – Polygnome
    May 22, 2023 at 23:06
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    This leads to highly-ranked universities to actually be signficantly better — depends how you measure. They "produce" more high-ranking politicians and captains of industry, but much of that is because they select future leaders using their admissions process. As for point (3): one should be careful about definition differences; both a German Universität and Fachhochschule would be called university in the US.
    – gerrit
    May 23, 2023 at 6:42
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    These points are all good and important but I think this misses the single most important one, namely money. German universities are funded almost exclusively from the government and the government assigns funding in a way that results in fairly similar amounts per student across all universities. US universities are funded from multiple different sources but even the government funded ones have vastly differing amounts of money per student.
    – quarague
    May 23, 2023 at 6:43
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    To be honest, there are some quality differences when it comes to taught subjects. E.g. Bonn and Kiel are held in a higher regard when it comes to studying Geography, than other German universities. The same is true for other subjects, both tied to history, professors and teaching staff. The latter change, obviously. Still, differences exist, while not as profound as in between US universities.
    – Erik
    May 23, 2023 at 11:27
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    @Erik: yes, but that's at faculty or even group level - one wouldn't claim that in general Bonn is better or worse than, say, Darmstadt. One may prefer Bonn for classical maths and Darmstadt for computer science leaning towards AI or EE. OTOH, I'd expect any German university that offers a particular subject to deliver an education that allows a successful student to go for a PhD at a university that is more famous for their research in the particular field the student wants to specialize in. May 24, 2023 at 12:07
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Asking for whether a German university is better than another makes roughly as much sense whether craftspeople in one city are better than in another: Sure, some businesses are better than others, one city will have the very best craftsperson, and maybe one of the cities has a vibrant plumbing community leading to a significantly better quality of plumbing in that city. However, at the end of the day, this will have little effect on the average quality of a services or help you select a particular service: If you need your violin repaired, it doesn’t help you that the world’s best hair stylist lives next door.

Similarly, the idea that a university is generally better than another is – prima facie – absurd: If a university has one of the world’s leading historians or is best at teaching biology to its students, this tells you very little of the quality of teaching or research at its math department. You may have a strong correlation of quality within an institute, a modest one within a department, but this becomes negligible once you go to the faculty or university level. The main thing that connects different faculties within a university are its central services (administration, cantina, etc.), but these barely affect teaching and research quality.

Thus I think the question rather is: Why do other countries have such high difference in university quality? I think the main reasons are:

  • Reputation feedback loop: A good reputation attracts better students and personnel, which in turn leads to better teaching and research, which leads to a better reputation. More on this in this answer of mine.

  • Financial feedback loop: More money allows you to hire better researchers and teachers, have a higher teacher-to-student ratio, and perform more expensive research, which in turn allows you to acquire more money from student fees, sponsors, and grants.

  • Historical bias: For example, in the US most (if not all) top universities are rather old or were funded with insane amounts of money (see the previous point). Young universities usually have bad chances of acquiring a reputation etc.

As German universities are state-funded, the financial loop is mostly absent. Also, this limits the reputation loop: Why should the state fund more room or personnel at one university when there is unused space and personnel elsewhere? As for the historical aspect, Germany had many universities before it became feasible for most students and personnel to select a university solely based on quality aspects as opposed to geographical ones. Those were of comparable quality for the same reason outlined in the initial example with craftspeople.

As far as I understand, there is a high degree of self governance for the German state governments to choose the policy in regards to their universities, so I'd imagine a higher variance in quality by state.

Kind of. On the one hand things such as finances are largely homogenised, so they don’t factor into this. On the other hand, for other aspects so much freedom is left to the individual faculties, and departments that the effects smear out at the university level. For example most physics departments in Germany adhere to rather similar standards of teaching, but this is completely different from how any law department operates.

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I don't know a lot about the US system but I guess a lot of the top unis there are heavily funded by private citizens and companies. I guess the salaries of professors is also not uniform. I am also guessing that "good" unis get grants more easily, can afford more high-end state of the art labs and equipment that help them to produce more cutting edge research, which in turn makes them even more attractive and their "betterness" is structurally perpetuated.

In Germany, on the other hand, (public) university education is paid for by the state and the amount of money that the universities get is roughly the same for similar amounts of students. The salaries of professors are regulated by the German government as well - every professor at the same level gets more or less the same money. So there is not much reason to have a "brain drain" of the best professors to specific universities - the benefits are not as big. Of course, some unis are more attractive / have a bit more prestige (like e.g. Heidelberg or Tübingen due to being very old institutions, or unis in bigger cities like Hamburg or Berlin due to the added value of being able to live in a great city).

Also, if not many students enroll in your programs because the quality of learning is bad, you might get less funds as a university, which is an incentive to keep the quality of education as high as possible.

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    There is also the aspect that accredidation agencies want to see the same standards wherever they go. And courses of study need accreditation. Apart from that, I just wished the last paragraph of your message were universally true. It's not unheard of that the ministry of education of a state presses some of its universities to accept more students, which risks a decrease in learning quality due to admitting unqualified candidates, who still have to be taken care of.
    – DCTLib
    May 22, 2023 at 11:54
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    Many US institutions are also public, and there's quite a bit of variance in perceived quality even just among public institutions, so I don't think that aspect is as important. Rather, it's that even at public institutions, *students*/families are mostly responsible for paying tuition rather than the government, so there is both a need for more "budget" options and a competition for students that make institutions want to tout how good they are.
    – Bryan Krause
    May 22, 2023 at 20:26
  • I don't think tuition is the factor. Look at France, where university is free, but the ENS (and many of the other grandes ecoles) have a much higher reputation than ordinary universities. May 22, 2023 at 22:26
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I think it makes sense to think of this question differently: why do US universities have such differences in reputation?

  1. Comparing apples to apples, German universities do have big differences in reputation. The institutions in the US that primarily play the role of Universitäten and those that primarily play the role of Fachhochschulen are both called universities. Universitäten and Fachhochschulen definitely do NOT have the same reputation in Germany.

  2. The US systems are designed with differences in reputation built in. By law, the various campuses of the University of California accept the top 12% of California high school students. The remaining California students are simply not allowed to go to one of the University of California campuses; they go to one of the California State University campuses. (Note all these campuses pretty much operate as independent universities, and, in practice, UCB and UCLA have students in the top 4% and the other 9 UC campuses have students in the 5-12% range.)

(Think about this question in the French context too - it's obvious why ENS has a much higher reputation than the ordinary French universities.)

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