Is the Dual System in Germany at a turning point?

Germany’s apprenticeship system is known and admired across the world. Widely seen as guaranteeing a high-skills labour force, the German ‘Dual System’ combines a broad education with intensive mentoring, supervision and practice in the workplace. Germany’s universities, by contrast, enjoy no such reputation for dynamism and success. So it is interesting to hear of growing concern in Europe’s economic powerhouse over the future balance between the academic and vocational pathways.

For many decades, the vocational path was taken by the great majority of German school-leavers. And impressive numbers continue to do so. In 2012, almost 550,000 young people signed contracts to begin one of the 350-odd officially recognized and heavily regulated apprenticeships. Yet the numbers starting in the dual system are falling, while the numbers entering higher education are rising.

In 2011-12, some 518,000 enrolled in a higher education institution. If current trends continue, more school-leavers will be entering an HEI than are following an apprenticeship. And that will, at least in symbolic terms, be quite a turning point.

Unsurprisingly, some Germans think this a most unhealthy trend. Julian Nida-Rümelin, a Munich philosophy professor and social-democrat politician, describes the trend as an ‘academicization delusion’. For Nida-Rümelin, the dual system should be valued for producing highly educated and well-trained skilled workers, who come from all layers of society. But he also shares with other leading academics a belief that too many young people are entering higher education who cannot cope with the demands of their chosen subject.

On the other side of the debate, the German government and the OECD see the growth of higher education as a welcome step towards a knowledge economy. Currently, the proportion of graduates in German society lies well below the EU average. Andreas Schleicher of the OECD says the market is sending a clear message: if graduates earn 74% more than those who complete apprenticeships, then of course young people will enrol in higher education.

This earnings differential should raise some eyebrows in countries where the German dual system has been held up as an example. How can it be that the world’s best-trained skilled specialists earn little over half as much as the graduates of a rather middle-ranking HE system? Part of the answer lies in the very scope of the dual system, which encompasses a vast range of occupations, including some that are not always well-paid.
The largest single group among the 2012 intake were people training for the retail sector. And yes, before you ask, the majority of this group were women.

So while it is true that the dual system produces some very skilled and rounded workers in specialist trades like mechatronics or medical technicians, it is also producing shop assistants. Thanks to the dual system, German shop assistants are mostly highly literature, pretty numerate and often competent in one or more foreign languages. And closer to home, given my interests, the system produces bakers who understand the science of bread-making and brewers who understand the science of beer.

But the risk that Julian Nida-Rümelin points to is that apprenticeships are becoming a second class pathway, while the academic option becomes the royal road. And the example of Britain is not, in this respect, particularly encouraging.

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