Fürstbischöfliches Schloss Münster

Interim balance 1994 – today

Centre for Higher Education: The role of the CHE Centre for Higher Education as a thought leader, reform driver and co-shaper of the German and European higher education and research landscape.

Catalyst for the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s involvement: the need in the early 1990s to reform Germany’s higher education system

The Bertelsmann Stiftung has been committed to reforming Germany’s educational system ever since it began its project work more than 30 years ago. During that time, it has provided numerous ideas for further developing and modernizing institutions of higher education and research.

The shortcomings and obstacles in Germany’s tertiary system at the beginning of the 1990s served as the catalyst for the foundation’s involvement. At the time, Germany’s academic institutions were threatened with being left behind by their international peers. Committed educational policy makers and practitioners lamented the system’s paralysis and called for implementation of stalled reforms.

They looked for new ways to free educational institutions from state regulation, overhaul internal structures and empower colleges and universities to take action by making their own decisions. It gradually became clear that individual reforms would not suffice. What was needed was a holistic approach and a new mission statement.

That was the situation when CHE was founded in 1994 by the Bertelsmann Stiftung and the Foundation of the German Rectors’ Conference. Since then, CHE has been seen as a thought leader, reform driver and co-shaper of the German and European higher education and research landscape.

Promoting reform through support for Witten/Herdecke University

Before the public debate on reforming state-run colleges and universities gained speed, the Bertelsmann Stiftung began by focusing on private universities in a flagship effort. By supporting a private institution, Witten / Herdecke University, Reinhard Mohn wanted to provide a catalyst for reforming public institutions of higher education. Today, the Reinhard Institute of Management (RMI), founded in 2010, commemorates his abiding commitment in this area.

Driving reforms together with universities – founding CHE

Despite Witten/Herdecke University’s successful role as a pioneer in what had become a diverse landscape of private schools, Reinhard Mohn came to realize that Germany’s higher education system could only be reformed in close cooperation with its public colleges and universities. This realization was preceded by an intensive dialogue with the Executive Board of the German Rectors’ Conference under the leadership of Hans-Uwe Erichsen. To achieve their shared goal, the Bertelsmann Stiftung and the Foundation of the Bertelsmann Stiftung and the Foundation of the German Rectors’ Conference established the nonprofit CHE Centre for Higher Education in 1994.

Reinhard Mohn mit Hans-Uwe Erichsen am Konferenztisch, in der Bertelsmann Stiftung, 18.12.1996.
Reinhard Mohn and Hans-Uwe Erichsen 1994

Original idea for CHE: the “university unbound”

The original concept behind CHE was of the “university unbound” – an institution that is autonomous, scholarly, recognized, competitive, efficient, international and capable of realizing its full potential. Since then, CHE has been committed to creating a higher education system that is effective and fair. It develops practical solutions for the challenges that universities and researchers face – which include social change, in that most secondary students in Germany now go on to study at a college or university. It supports higher education institutions in using and further defining their autonomy, developing and realizing various areas of specialization, and assuming social responsibility. As a nonprofit organization, CHE provides a wide range of freely accessible information and services for students, along with recommended action plans for universities and strategies for policy makers. In addition, it offers numerous training courses for decision makers and executives at higher education institutions.

Funding and partners

As one of its founding partners, the Bertelsmann Stiftung provides roughly one-third of CHE’s annual budget. The remaining financial resources come from CHE’s cooperative agreements and joint projects with renowned organizations and institutions in Germany and abroad, including the European Commission, the German Ministry for Education and Research, the publisher ZEIT Verlag and foundations and associations active in the field of education.

HRK Hochschulrektorenkonferenz
Cooperation partners
  • Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung
  • The World Bank
  • European Commission
  • Erasmus+
  • Santander
  • Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH
  • Deutsche Telekom Stiftung
  • Stifterverband
  • Die Zeit
  • DAAD
  • Handelsblatt
  • Fundación CYD

Work, services and training

As a neutral organization in the higher education system, CHE decides for itself which areas its work will focus on. Transparency plays a key role here, since all the relevant information must be freely available if comparisons are to be drawn between educational institutions. This has been the point of departure for a wide range of projects, such as the CHE University Ranking, the Teacher Training Monitor and the CHE Student Loan Test. A key aspect of all these services is that the data do not remain unchanged, but must be collected again each year, an undertaking that requires considerable time and effort.

The goal of each project is to develop practical solutions and analyses. This is just as true for CHE’s events and coaching services for institutions in Germany and abroad as it is for the studies CHE publishes, which always include concrete recommendations for taking action.

Between 2008 and 2017 alone, more than 6,000 people attended CHE’s training courses and events. Five years ago, a leadership training course was introduced for vice-presidents at higher education institutions. Of the past participants, seven women have now been appointed to serve as a university president or rector, the highest positions at higher education institutions in Germany.

Junge Frau im Hörsaa

The current challenge: studying at university is now normal

At the beginning of the 1990s, only one-third of young adults in Germany were eligible to go to university; now more than half are. Academic education is booming. As of 2018, colleges and universities in Germany offered more than 19,000 programs for first-time students and individuals already holding a degree. Yet not only are there more students, they are also becoming more diverse.
Germany’s higher education institutions are now much more autonomous. Almost all the country’s states have given them the freedom to spend their allotted budgets as they see fit; they can also decide for themselves how to deploy personnel and how to structure themselves organizationally. They can develop their own strategies and determine the goals they want to pursue. Not only have students become more diverse, the universities themselves have developed individual strengths and specializations. Moreover, the entire system of higher education has grown: More than half of all college and university campuses have been established since 1991. That means tertiary education is available almost everywhere in the country.
With that, studying at college or university has become a standard educational option in Germany. Higher education administrators and the country’s policy makers must put a framework in place which increases the chances that the time students spend at university will be a success. CHE offers the ideas and solutions that can help achieve this goal. It also offers the transparency and information prospective students need to find the college or university that is right for them.

The CHE University Ranking

The CHE University Ranking: fair, informative, factual

CHE is known for being a valuable source of practical information, especially in terms of the services it provides prospective students. This applies above all to the CHE University Ranking, one of its trademarks and best-known projects Hochschulranking. For 20 years, it has exemplified CHE’s methodology, offering effective guidance to students – both those still choosing a university and those already enrolled – and feedback to the institutions themselves on their strengths and weaknesses. The methodology behind the CHE ranking has also gained considerable recognition outside Germany: Published on behalf of the European Commission and with its financial support, the U-Multirank International University Ranking has been appearing for more than five years, comparing 1,600 higher education institutions in 95 countries (as of 2018) based on the model developed in Gütersloh.


After two and a half years of preparation, the first ranking appeared in May 1998 in a special issue of test magazine, published by Stiftung Warentest, the German consumer advocacy organization. Since 2005, it has been published by the German weekly DIE ZEIT, with excerpts appearing in the paper’s guide for students ZEIT Studienführer. More than one million students have now used this useful aid to plan for their time at college or university.

CHE alone is responsible for the rankings’ conceptual design, data collection and evaluations. DIE ZEIT handles the editing required for the target group, along with publication and marketing. All results are available online free of charge.

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The CHE University Ranking is the most comprehensive and detailed comparison of Germany’s colleges and universities. It assesses more than 39 subjects, offering guidance to more than three-quarters of the country’s first-year students.

The ranking is based on a comprehensive methodology: In addition to information on programs, teaching, resources and research, it includes reviews by 150,000 students on conditions at their university or college and, for a number of subjects, departmental reputations among professors. In addition to the ranked criteria, it provides students with extensive information on programs and teaching. Since its launch, the ranking has gained a name for itself among the target group, prospective students, and among current students and higher education institutions, as being fair, informative and factual.

Core elements of the CHE University Ranking

U-Multirank – the world's largest university ranking

Long established in Germany, the CHE University Ranking with its fair and balanced methodology has proven a success beyond the country’s borders as well, as inquiries from educational authorities in numerous European, African and Asian nations show. Based on the CHE model, Spain’s national university ranking system has been in place for several years now.

The EU has also endorsed CHE’s unique approach: In 2014, U-Multirank was launched U-Multirank an international university ranking for which the CHE ranking team is playing a leading role in terms of implementation and further development.

U-Multirank thus represents CHE’s general approach of taking the ideas it uses in Germany and scaling them internationally. The world’s largest university ranking, it has now released its findings for the fifth time, offering comprehensive data on 1,600 institutions of higher education in 95 countries (as of 2018).

Its multi-dimensional approach is what makes U-Multirank unique as a global ranking. Its interactive website allows users to gain insight into institutions’ strengths and weaknesses based on their own personal preferences and priorities. U-Multirank draws on numerous data sources, including information provided by colleges and universities, bibliographic datasets, international patent databases and a survey of more than 100,000 students at participating institutions.

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Vocational and academic education are equally important, and they often open doors to comparable career opportunities. Our goal is to achieve a sustainable balance between vocational and academic education. All this is only possible if everyone works together constructively – federal and state authorities, policy makers and academics, schools, universities and businesses. CHE is making a valuable contribution here, one that has become indispensable for the shaping and development of our system of higher education and research. It sheds light on current needs, identifies weaknesses, highlights possibilities for successful development processes. Through numerous studies and skillful communication and advisory services, CHE has been introducing innovations into our system of higher education and research for over 20 years.
Johanna Wankaformer German Minister for Education and Research, speaking about the role and impact of CHE on the occasion of its 20th anniversary