Coercion and adult education: the case of Austrian asylum-seekers

Austria has many wonderful qualities and I’ve always enjoyed visiting and learning from it. But I’m not so comfortable with a recent announcement by the country’s Bundeskanzler Sebastian Kurz, who plans to link welfare benefits for asylum-seekers with their competence in German.


Deutschkurs, from the website of Caritas Wien

To date, monthly social welfare payments for Austrians and asylum-seekers alike are a minimum of 863 Euros (£768/$983) for a single person. In future, asylum-seekers will receive 563 Euros (£501/$641) until they achieve B1 in German, though an exception will be made for those who can speak English to at least level C1 (see here for a full explanation of the language levels).

Previously, attendance at a language course was required only after a positive decision on asylum. I reckon at least a year is needed for someone from a different language tradition to achieve B1 in German, quite possibly longer. And that is assuming that (a) you are literate in your own language and (b) can find a course in the first place. Effectively this measure places asylum-seekers in a waiting room, where they will inevitably struggle to survive until they can leave a course with a nice neat certificate.

Bundeskanzler Kurz has justified the change with reference to the 2015 ‚refugee wave‘. This group was disproportionately composed of young adult men, and Kurz claims that a high proportion have preferred welfare to an apprenticeship. Even if there is something in his claim (if so, much of it is due to the slow rate at which asylum claims are being processed), the decision will also affect children, single parents and older asylum seekers.

The new requirement is also being introduced at a time when support for language courses has been cut. In the last year Austria recognised 22,000 asylum seekers; yet there are only 7,000 places available. And when the Catholic adult education provider in Steiermark offered its own courses, it was roundly attacked by Kurz’s coalition partner, the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs.

This is among a number of migration-related measures introduced by the government, which is a ‘blue-black’ coalition of Kurz’s conservative Österreichische Volkspartei with the right-populist Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs. Remarkably, some of these measures have been directed against migrants from elsewhere in the EU (but not, significantly, against migrants from Switzerland).

Times have clearly changed in the Alpine paradise since I posted a rather positive and optimistic analysis of Austria’s adult education partnership and its achievement. The  coalition’s decision seems to me wrong in principle and likely to backfire in practice. Meanwhle, I have great sympathy for those adult language teachers who will be faced with the practical consequences, and with those migrants who no doubt will be roundly denounced for failing to integrate.

What has Austria got to teach us about adult learning?

Preliminary results from the 2016 European Adult Education Survey are now available. Broadly, they show a rise in learning participation across the continent, with rising participation rates between 2011 and 2016 in eighteen of the nations taking part in both waves, and falls in only six; one country – Norway – reported no change at all.


Austria – worth a closer look?

Growth was particularly strong in Austria, where participation levels among the working age population shot up from 48.8% to 59.9%. It seems unlikely that the 2016 result is a blip, given that the Labour Force Survey also reported comparable growth rates over this period. For an outsider, the obvious question is how we might explain this impressive growth spurt.

An article by two Austrian specialists points to key factors which they think might lie behind rising participation levels. First, the proportion of the workforce involved in workplace learning has risen. Presumably this largely reflects enterprise-level decisions on continuing training investment, as well as a growing willingness to participate on the part of employees.

Second, they attribute growth in ‘non-formal learning’ (the Survey’s term for general adult education) to changes in public policy as well as learner demand. In particular, the authors point to the emerging impact of the Initiative Erwachsenenbildung (‘adult education initiative’), a joint programme of the federal government and the Länder, launched in 2012 to promote free basic skills and second chance courses for adults to achieve lower secondary school leaver qualifications.


The Initiative clearly has its weaknesses, but they seem to result from practical design flaws rather than the underlying concept. An external evaluation noted that the insistence on achieving formal qualifications and rigid limits on the length of participation were deterring some of the very people that the Initiative was designed to reach. Overall, though, it concluded that the Initative was making considerable progress in tackling educational disavantage and was meeting a clear need.

It’s early days in the release of AES findings, and anyway I suppose a cynic would say there’s nothing new in the Austrian adult education initiative. We already know the value of concerted campaigns directed towards well-defined target groups and backed by adequate resources. It’s still useful to be reminded of this, though, particularly at a time when some governments are disinvesting from adult learning. And it is certainly interesting to see the broader evidence of sharply rising participation. If you get the chancd, Austria certainly merits a second look.





Funding skills in Germany: financial support for adult learners

An article in BildungsSpiegel sets out the different arrangements for financing adult learners in Germany. Although resonsibility for education lies mainly with each of the 16 states, all of these forms of support are available from the federal government.

Education vouchers, issued by the Labour Agency, cover 100% of the costs of participation, including transport, accommodation and food. They are available to those in, seeking, or planning to change jobs. The training must, though, promote return to the labour market, help avoid the risk of redundancy, or enable the learner to take a vocational qualification.

Bonus coupons, part of the educational coupons programme, fund training with a total cost of up to €1,000, of which the programme contributes up to €500. It is available to anyone who is over 25, works for 15 hours a week or more (either in paid work or in a caring role), and earns under €20,000 a year.

Savings coupons, also part of the educational coupons scheme, enable people to withdraw savings from long term accounts before the date allowed in order to fund training.

Career enhancement support, providing loans and grants for longer courses of at least 400 hours of instruction, covering 40% of the course fee and examination fee.

Career development stipendium aimed at skilled workers who scored 1.9 or above in their trade qualification and who want to develop their skills through a first degree. Independent of income, students can receive full-time up to 815 euros. If you study part-time, you receive €2,400 per year.

Continuing education stipendium for skilled employees under 25 to take part in professional continuing vocational training, for example as a specialist, or a transversal qualification, for example a language course. The maximum available is €7,200 over three years, with the stipendium holder ipaying ten per cent of the training itself. Candidates must have shown ‘special achievement’, either in their apprenticeshi or in the job.

WeGebAU, which stands for “Continuing Education for the Low-skilled and Employed Older Workers in Enterprises”, is aimed at unskilled workers or those who have not been in a skilled job for at least four years, as well as employees in small and medium-sized enterprises. In the case of low-qualified persons, the federal government assumes the full training costs if the advanced training leads to a vocational qualification. In the case of older employees, it contributes 75 per cent, provided that the training period falls partly into working hours. In other cases, it promotes further training with a maximum of 50 per cent if the employer pays at least 50 per cent of the costs.

The article does not mention financial support for learners at state level. The 16 Länder interpret their responsibilities for adult learning differently; for example, the laws providing for paid educational leave (Bildungsurlaub) vary considerably by state. Nor does it cover employer support, which can be considerable. And I would add that as well as fundin learners at federal level, provision is also generously funded in most (but not all) of the states. 

From a British perspective, two things are striking. First is that these are federal schemes, operating across the 16 states; most of our funding for adult learners is handled separately by the four nations, and perhaps in future by English regions. I’d be interested to know whether the benefits of a coherent system-wide scheme outweigh the advantages of adapting to local and regional circumstances.

Second is the important role of vouchers to fund adult learners. And voucher based funding is also significant in Austria. How come government in these countries can apparently make vouchers work, while we either abolished them following scandals (as  with ILAsin England) or restricted their use (as with ILAs in Scotland)?

What Einstein said about adult education


Einstein in 1921

In 1919, Albert Einstein wrote to the Freie Vereinigung für technische Volksbildung (Independent Association for Technical Popular Education) praising their objectives. His letter was subsequently published in the monthly magazine Volksbildung. This is my own translation, which is complete and should be reasonably accurate – and if it isn’t, let me know!

Education always threatens a peculiar risk of detachment from the world of sensual experience. All education creates a world of concepts. These are closely related in their origin with the realities, they are formed out of their clear recognition. But closely bound to the linguistically fixed concept is a tendency to generalization that on the one hand expands its field of application, on the other hand weakens its connection to sensory experience. So particularly in times when culture is aging, we see concepts becoming empty and formal, losing touch with sensory experience. Who would deny that the grammar schools, where the focus of attention is directed to the language, are particularly exposed to this risk? But the nurturing of mathematics uncoupled from applications brings the same risk; and so the geometricians were able over the centuries to forget that their science ultimately deals with constant bodies and rays of light; the geometrician who fundamentally denies this demotes his science to a meaningless word game. Science can only stay healthy and active if it maintains its relationship with the world of sensual experience, however indirect this relationship may be. Engagement with technology is highly suited to counteracting the degeneration of science in the sense indicated.

On the other hand it is important to make the technology a true cultural factor, by which one brings its rich spiritual and aesthetic content closer to the general consciousness. What comes into the mind of a fine person when he hears the word technology? Greed, exploitation, social division of people, class hatred, soulless mechanization, racial degeneration, senseless hasty bustle … is it any wonder that the educated person hates technology as a wayward child of our times, which threatens to destroy the finer attractions of life? For this robust child of society to grow up safe and sound, we must not let it grow wild. One must try to understand it in order to influence it. It possesses powers that can ennoble life. Here I see the second task of your Association.

Einstein, who by this time was a professor at the Humboldt University of Berlin, was on the way to becoming world famous by 1919. His theory of relativity was well known among theoretical physicists, and was being subjected to testing by empirical physicists. I don’t know the context of this letter, but presumably Einstein – who had taken Austrian citizenship when appointed to a chair in Prague – had been invited to make a public statement supporting the newly-formed Association.

Einstein chose to write about the importance of technology as the place where science meets society. His underlying argument is one that scientists today might associate with the world of ‘impact’ and ‘user engagement’. And Einstein clearly thought that an audience of adult educators was likely to sympathise with his belief that technology might ‘ennoble life’, and share his view on the value of fusing abstract conceptual thinking with the world of lived experience.


I – and anyone else interested in the history of adult education – have to thank the Austrian Folk High School Association and the Austrian Folk High School Archive for the fact that Einstein’s letter is in the public domain, as one of the many resources available through their fabulous portal, Knowledge Base Erwachsenenbildung. Some of the materials are also in English, though most are in German. You can find out more here. Meanwhile, I’d be interested to know whether Einstein had any other connections with the adult education movement.


Which government department should run the universities?

I’ve just learned that the Austrian government has decided to merge its Ministry for Research and Science with its counterpart for trade and industry. The new department will be known as the Ministerium fuer Wissenschaft, Forschung und Wirtschaft -Science, Research and Business.

One of the areas that will transfer into the MWFW is responsibility for universities, including the technical universities. The only exception are the Paedagogische Hochschulen, or colleges of education, which will remain where they are in the Ministry of Education. Otherwise, the Austrian decision broadly mirrors the situation in England, where the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills looks after higher education.

Like a lot of people, I saw the mergers and renamings that led to the creation of BIS as effectively an expression of the primacy accorded to the economic function of higher education. I am inclined to see the Austrian shift as having a similar effect. I also think we should understand these changes as part of a more general European trend in the realignment of higher education and its dual functions of teaching and research.

The decision to leave the colleges of education under the Ministry of Education might also be of interest to others involved in teacher education elsewhere. In Britain, teacher education became primarily a university-based process during the second half of the last century, but there is no intrinsic reason why this should continue, and the Austrian decision to keep teacher education in the Ministry that runs schools is a reminder that there are alternatives to university-led ITE.

Adult learning and the Great War


The centenary of the Great War is attracting a remarkable amount of attention. Probably some people are now tweeting that they are sick of hearing about it, as though it were just another celebrity scandal. But for most people, the War was a turning point in modern history – and because of the way that ordinary men and women were involved, it is a highly evocative experience in which family and community memories are threaded through our own lives.

For historians, particularly if they are committed to sharing their research with a wider audience, this controversial centenary presents a fabulous challenge. There is already plenty happening for adult learners wanting to improve their understanding of this tragic, heroic conflict. I reckon the BBC really is on top of its game, with a series of online presentations – like Ian Macmillan’s discussion of poetry and perceptions of the War – that are really mini-MOOCs.

I’m equally impressed by the programme of activities organised by the Yorkshire and Humber region of the Workers’ Educational Association. This includes courses on the causes and consequences of the Great War to family history workshops exploring relevant source material. Not to be outdone, the Whitstable branch of the WEA is running a course on women’s experiences with the evocative title ‘From suffragettes to munitionettes’ (listed in the hot courses guide, madly, under ‘Fun and Careers’).

Then there are museums, libraries and archives services, starting with the National Archives, which is recruiting ‘citizen historians’ to help tag entries in unit war diaries. In Gloucester, the county archivists are supporting a project led by the Everyman Theatre to provide training and learning resources so that local learners can contribute to community commemorations.  Bishops Stortford Museum is leading another project on crime and disorder during the War.

As well as funding a major programme led by the Imperial War Museum, the Heritage Lottery Fund is supporting local studies. University of the Third Age groups are researching the impact of the war on their local communities, or tracing the names on village war memorials. Huddersfield rugby league fans are examining the impact of the War on their club and its players. And the Arts and Humanities Research Council is encouraging researchers to undertake community engagement activities to connect academic and public histories of the First World War and its legacy.

All this is pretty encouraging, particularly as it is hard to find any examples of mindless jingoism or simplistic dismissal. Nevertheless, I wonder whether it is right that most of these activities, valuable though they are, are taking place within a local or at best a national frame. The exceptions, such as the family history roadshows being ordganised through the Europeana crowd-sourcing project, remind us that the Great War was a
Europe-wide conflict.

We can also learn from links with others who are marking the centenary from very different perspectives. In Germany, the Volkshochschulen have drawn up a handbook of ‘tips for practice’ in dealing with the Great War. It suggests examples ranging from discussions of source material around family history or everyday life in 1914 to group visits to major exhibitions and places of memorial, and also encourages tutors to ask whose history is being discussed (Germany in 1914, of course, being a colonial power which also had influential allies in the middle east).

In Austria, the Society for Political Education is supporting proposals that shift the focus away from such major events, asking applicants to consider such questions as: What events flow into the cultural memory and endure as part of the culture of remembrance? Why these events and not others? What part does the politics of history today play in shaping the political domain and political education?

I suppose Mr Gove would be pleased that the film series planned by the Volkshochschul in Offenburg includes neither Blackadder nor Oh What a Lovely War. But I’m confident he would be horrified by the idea of bringing together various World War I related activities provided by adult education organisations across Europe in order to create dialogue, research and discussion. That’s what the European Adult Education Association is planning, and it would be good if others did the same.