Financing adult learning in Germany: the changing balance between public and private

The Bertelsmann Foundation has published a report on the financing of continuing education in Germany between 1995 and 2015. The broad headline finding is that although the system has enjoyed rising overall levels of income, the balance between private and public funding has shifted steadily over that time.

“The state withdraws from adult learning”: changes in public funding by sector, 1995-2015

The report begins with a brief history of adult learning since 1945, in order to illustrate the new significance of adult learning in the contemporary knowledge society. They then propose that participation in adult learning is a prerogative of those who are profiting from modernisation and the knowledge society. At the same time, the costs of learning increasingly fall on the individual or their employer; and participation is seen as a virtue which then legitimates the rewards enjoyed by the successful.

The authors’ evidence for this broad social trend is not all new, but the report does provide a new analysis of funding data. This is no easy task; estimating public spending alone involves adding together figures from different sources (federal government, Länder, Gemeinde/communes) concerning learning support of different types, from local funding for adult education centres to loans and grants for training master craftsmen (apologies for the gendered language, but it’s in the original).

The report confirms that the lion’s share of public education funding is allocated to schools, followed at some distance by higher education. Interestingly for a Brit, the initial vocational training system receives slightly less funding than adult learning (€21.8bn in 2015 as against €26.9bn). Note, though, that the adult learning figures include continuing vocational training.

When it comes to the balance between public and private funding, the sectors are very clearly differentiated. Adult learning in 2015 was 77% funded from private sources, compared with 43% for vocational training and 18% for higher education. Moreover, only in adult learning has public funding fallen since 1995, by 43%, though it has been more than replaced by funding from individuals and their employers.

The share of public and private funding, 2012: outer circle = public funding, inner circle = private sources

The authors remark on the contrast between public policy announcements on the increasing necessity of learning through life with the reduced public funding for adult learning. A broader and more inclusive approach to lifelong learning, which does not simply meet the immediate short term needs of the enterprise or individual career, requires both an increase and a rebalancing of public funding.

Germany has a relatively generous approach to adult learning, which remains stronger and better funding than in most European countries. Yet it too seems to be experiencing trends that are socially damaging and economically at odds with its policies around the fourth industrial revolution. The Bertelsmann report is a helpful intervention which will inform policy debate and has already attracted press attention but the significance of its analysis goes well beyond the case of Germany.

Finally, a brief note on language. The authors say in a footnote that they use the words Erwachsenenbildung (adult education) and Weiterbildung (continuing or further education) interchangeably. Some German colleagues would probably challenge the idea that these are synonyms, but that’s another issue.

The report is available at: https://www.bertelsmann-stiftung.de/fileadmin/files/BSt/Publikationen/GrauePublikationen/LL_Hintergrundstudie_Weiterbildungsfinanzierung1995-2015.pdf