Withdrawal from the European Union is going to be complicated, not least for the future of adult learning. I’ve written previously about the relationship between Brexit and adult learning, but so far I’ve not really given much thought to the role of the Structural Funds, and in particular the European Social Fund, which provides considerable financial support for adult learning across the UK.
For the period 2014-2020, the UK was allocated €3.5 billion. While it is co-ordinated by the Department of Work and Pensions, much of it is handed over to other bodies for allocation; these include the Skills Funding Agency, the Big Lottery Fund, and the Scottish Government. And while ESF funding is allocated to all regions of the UK, it is worth noting that it is disproportionately sizeable and important in Wales.
The UK’s operational plan for ESF spending between 2014 and 2020 is available online here. Its priority areas explicitly include “activities to inspire and encourage lifelong learning and the consequentbenefits of learning”, with a particular focus on funding provision that promotes employability but does not duplicate existing provision or substitute for private funding.
The activities supported by the ESF in the UK are remarkably broad, encompassing the Learning and Work Institute’s Festival of Learning, a range of programmes for women workers, and the governmment’s traineeship and apprenticeship programmes. And, above all, ESF helps to fund literacy, numeracy and English learning.
As for the future, the current funding round doesn’t expire until 2020, so there is time to prepare. In thinking ahead to whatever succeeds the Structural Funds, we need to make certain that adult learning is not forgotten. Ideally, the successor programe(s) in Britain will be more flexible and more learner centred, and less bureaucratically cumbersome, than the ESF and ERDF.
As for the future of the Stuctural Funds without the UK, my best guess is that the design work for the 2021-2028 programme has already started in outline. The real work of developing a draft will therefore take place with no UK contribution; and it will finally be negotiated by a European Commission and European Parliament that will look very different in political complexion and priorities to the bodies that agreed the 2014-2020 programme. I’m inclined to doubt whether the post-2020 programme will, then, just be ‘more of the same’.
I spotted this bike walking to a craft ale bar after work one day. The bright red saddle cover is promoting the VHS (Volkshochschule, or local adult education service). Cycling is extremely popular in Cologne, as in most German cities, and is often supported by public transport companies as well as employers (for instance, I have access to a university bike for work). So a branded saddle cover is something that people are highly likely to use, though I wonder how much thought was given to the part of the anatomy that gets closest to the VHS message.
Here’s a bit of ‘knocking copy’ in a campaign recruiting apprentices. The poster, on a wall in the Bohemian suburb of Ehrenfeld, pokes fun at the way university graduates have to wait until their late 20s before they are earning, and hints that being a craftworker is a better option. Average study time in German higher education is long, with pupils on the academic track leaving school at 19, then spending at least four years studying for a Bachelor’s degree and at least two more working for a Master’s.
I like this postcard, which I picked up when I went to see Eddie the Eagle. It was in a multiplex, with foreign language films dubbed into German (including Eddie), showing mss market movies. The card is published by the Federal Ministry of Education and Science, and while it provides plenty of space to write on, contact details are listed on the back.
Next up, a punning key-ring. The reverse side says simply VHS, followed by the web-site.
And last, a mini pack of gummi bears, a give-away for one of the many private university chains in Germany. Fresenius is one of the older private chains, and it now has outlets in eight German cities, including Cologne, and an outpost in New York City. I thought this pack of sweets (since eaten by my grand-daughter) was quite clever, as it manages to combine a light touch seriousness with a bit of fun.
There’s a Warnstreik on today, and Cologne is full of striking Kindergarten teachers, social workers, firefighters, health workers and tram drivers. It’s all part of the regular round of negotiations over pay and conditions in the public services, with the union Verdi and the employers engaging in what may or may not be a tactical stand-off.
With the tram service cancelled, I’ve been working at home. At half past eleven, I thought I’d pop along to Heumarkt to buy an espresso and take a look at the union rally, which was large and good-natured. There was a small police presence down by the Rhein, with none of the forcible ‘kettling’ that you tend to see in Britain.
While most of the strikers were clearly people who had spent some time in their jobs, I was struck by the number of apprentices who were there, one of whom was invited to speak from the platform. He described the strike as important for Azubis (Auszubildende) not simply in terms of their pay but also the quality of their training, which he claimed was jeopardized by the employers’ refusal to negotiate.
I’ve a couple of comments to make on this. First, the union doesn’t just recruit apprentices but went out of its way to ensure that their voice was heard. Second, apprentices clearly feel themselves to be a part of their workforce, and they identify strongly with the service that they provide. Both of these factors – as well as their legal status as employees – help to shape their identity as members of an occupational group, in it for the long term.
I’m currently living in Cologne, where I’m fortunate enough to have a visiting post at the university. My blog in the coming months will likely contain more pieces on German education than usual.
This time I want to write about Karneval, supposedly a way of marking the onset of Lent, but actually a massive celebration of everything Kölsch. The central features of Karneval are that five days of fancy dress, drinking, and parades. The parades range from local neighbourhood activities through to the four-hour march and ride by members of the Karneval associations (many of whom dress in eighteenth century military uniforms). In the middle comes the Schulzöch, or schools parade, involving secondary pupils and members of various local clubs, wearing home-made fancy dress.
Among the 49 schools who paraded this year were the staff and pupils of Berufskolleg Ehrenfeld. The Berufskollege in the Land of Nordrhein-Westfalen are secondary level institutions who accept young people who have completed their ten years of compulsory education, most of whom will have an apprenticeship contract with a local employer, and leads to a formal examination and certificate on completion.
This represents a highly structured pathway into skilled employment. Pupils can expect a combination of college-based and work-based learning, with a mixture of vocational and general education. On conclusion they can, if they wish, move on to higher education, through a Fachhochschul (broadly, a technical university).
Let me take the role of baker, a trade which requires three years of workplace experience, combined with college instruction in work organisation, production techniques, and sales, as well as politics, social science, German, sport and health, communications, and religious studies. In short, the aim remains that of a well-trained baker with a rounded skillset.
From a UK perspective, two things stand out about this pattern. The first is the specialist nature of the Berufskolleg, which is defined as a school with a specific purpose; to our eyes, it would look like a form of streaming, in which kids are placed rigidly at age 16 on different pathways. Second, the highly structured combination of academic and workplace learning over three years, including continuing experiences of general education, is a long way from the mishmash of programmes of different lengths and types that are branded as apprenticeships in the UK.
The German system has its critics, but it is generally held to be a gold standard against which other European transitions are judged. Naturally I can’t speak for the quality of the training and education at the Berufskolleg Ehrenfeld. What I can say is that the bread in Ehrenfeld is, as almost everywhere in Germany, wonderful.
German apprenticeships have long served as a global model for vocational training systems. The German system has an enviable reputation for combining quality with volume, and for balancing a continued academic education with systematic on-the-job learning. It remains a source of pride nationally, and continues to attract a steady flow of foreign visitors in search of a solution to their own skills problems.
Of course, no vocational training system is perfect, particularly when seen from close up. At different times the system has been criticised for embedding gender divisions, and its rigidity is often seen as incompatible with the shift towards more flexible regimes of labour. Some have cautiously expressed concerns over reported variations between standards in the different Länder.
What is causing particular concern within Germany at the moment is that apprenticeships appear to be losing their attraction to school-leavers. In 2014, German employers signed on 522,200 new apprentices – the lowest figure since unification in 1990, representing a fall of over 40,000 young people. And while some of this may be caused by demographic changes, this is not the only explanation.
What many foreign observers often miss, or ignore, is that well-qualified school leavers in Germany often entered an apprenticeship in the past, but now prefer to enter higher education. . As I’ve said before, the point at which the number of undergraduates overtakes the number of apprentices is bound to have symbolic significance in a country that has made its apprenticeship system a gold standard.
Adapting the dual system is complex and can be slow. One of the system’s great strengths is that it is supported actively and well understood by a range of stakeholders – employers and their associations, different levels of government, trade unions, parents and the wider public. But involving all these stakeholders in reform is unlikely to produce quick and easy solutions, and so it has proven.
Several measures have nonetheless been agreed. Part-time pathways were opened up in 2005, but ten years on they still have the temporary-sounding status of a project. Apprentices are being recruited in other EU member states, particularly those with high youth unemployment like Portugal and Spain. Selected school-leavers can combine work-based-learning with a higher education qualification, a pattern known as “duales Studium”. The government is urging employers to lower the entry qualifications for apprenticeship contracts, and is funding coaching to help make up the gap.
There are also discussions over opening the scheme up to refugees, though this is likely to prove politically controversial. And so far the question of adult entry into apprenticeships remains off the agenda – in contrast to the UK, of course.
I dounbt whether the measures taken so far are enough to stem what has been a steady and long-term process of erosion. The remorseless rise in higher education participation rates is a global phenomenon, and its effects on the German apprenticeship system are unlikely to diminish any time soon.
The OECD has just published a new report, Skills beyond school – England, which recommends a significant increase in one- and two-year vocational programmes. Fewer than 10% of young people in England currently take a short vocational programme in mid-level skills, compared with up to one third in other OECD countries. The OECD report makes a number of recommendations designed to make short vocational programmes more attractive.
As an aside, the OECD calls these ‘short’ programmes, which is ironic given that you can take an entire apprenticeship within a year. Damaging as this might be for the reputation of British apprenticeships, though, it’s a side issue in this particular context.
If the Department for Business Innovation and Skills wants to learn some easy lessons, it could do worse than look across the border to Scotland. I’m not one of those people who think everything in education is better in Scotland – far from it – but we do have considerable experience of a large programme of short cycle higher education, largely taught in non-university settings. So what can we learn from the Scottish example?
- It is a sizeable system. One in every three higher education students in Scotland is in a college, taking an HNC/HND. These courses are highly attractive, partly because they are locally offered (there is a college campus in virtually every community of every size), and partly because they are flexible, with many of the students following part-time routes.
- Short cycle higher education widens participation. While universities in Scotland recruit students who come mainly from the upper socio-economic groups, colleges overwhelmingly recruit the less advantaged.
- The system has a bias towards employability. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are in the kinds of subject that the OECD might have in mind: the largest number of HNCs and HNDs are awarded in business and management, followed by health, then creative arts and design. Engineering and computing are significant in size, but are far from the most popular subjects. Nevertheless, broadly speaking, the system fits the vocational model recommended by OECD.
- Short cycle qualifications appear to be valued in the labour market. Studies of the earnings effects of HNCs and HNDs show that average salaries are lower than for a degree, but clearly above the earnings of those who have lower level qualifications. However, we don’t have many such studies, and none cover the period since the onset of the recession.
So the Scottish system of short cycle higher education, delivered in non-university contexts, has some clear strengths. But anyone looking for easy lessons should also be aware that the Scottish system has come at a cost.
One is that over time, short cycle higher education has tended to crowd vocational further education out. The proportion of college students registered for HNCs and HNDs has held steady over the past seven or eight years, but the number on so-called ‘non-advanced’ courses has fallen. I don’t know whether this is because colleges see higher education as more prestigious, or because it is financially advantageous, or for some other reason, but that is what has happened.
Another problem is that increasingly, the focus has narrowed down to initial full-time courses. For twenty years, the expanded short cycle programmes formed part of a lifelong learning system, attracting many adults through their flexibility and relevance. As the Scottish Government has sought savings to protect its university spending (particularly its policy on tuition fees), so it has slashed back on part-time routes to HNCs and HNDs.
Lastly, while short cycle courses have helped to increase higher education participation and widen it, Scottish universities have remained stubbornly selective in their intake. Scotland has a two tier system, where the colleges’ success in widening access allows the universities to carry on with business as usual. We may not have selection at 11, but higher education is effectively streamed.
So there’s plenty to chew on if England is to expand its vocational system in the direction recommended by OECD. Certainly, given the scandals over poor quality apprenticeships and unpaid ‘training’ schemes, a move up market would not go amiss. But it needs to be done in a way that helps contribute towards lifelong learning rather than damaging it.