Officially all German universities are equal. A key principle of the egalitarian, anti-elitist, federal state is that students have equal opportunities whether they study in Konstanz in the south or Flensburg in the north, writes Jennie Brookman.
Unofficially, ranking universities according to the quality of their teaching and research has become a national obsession.
Since the higher education system itself is not quenching this thirst for comparative data, news magazines are increasingly filling the gap with their own league tables. Their findings are often widely disparate.
Academics have condemned the methodology used by such surveys as unscientific. But evidence suggests the universities take note of their rankings.
The Centre for Higher Education, a higher education policy body, is working with publishers on the mother of all league tables, to be published in 1998. The aim, according to Andreas Barz, the project's leader, is not to provide a pecking order of universities, but to guide students on choosing the right courses.
Despite the official commitment to equality, there are signs that some politicians and educationists would like to see the creation of an elite hierachy of institutions.
In newspaper articles, education and research minister Jurgen Ruttgers has tentatively pleaded for the creation of elites in technology and economics and some educationalists go even further, calling for a German ivy league.
Meanwhile the private sector is creating de facto what the state sector does not allow. Private universities sponsored by industry, such as Witten Herdecke and the Wissenschaftliche Hochschule fur Unternehmensfuhrung near Koblenz, are setting themselves up as elite institutions.
Unlike state universities, they can select their own students and have more freedom to determine their own curricula. With the help of scholarship funds, they can cream off the best students.