Change and resistance in the German apprenticeship system

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VERDI members in Deutsche Post demonstrating over wages

Deutsche Post, the postal service best known outside Germany through its courier arm DHL, has found itself in hot water over proposed changes to its apprenticeship scheme. Currently, the enterprise annually takes 1,400 young people through the much-admired ‘dual system’, combining supervised workplace learning  with formal education in a trade school, working towards a qualification in delivery services. In future, it plans to reduce this number to 750 a year, and take a further 750 who will be trained through work-based learning.

This decision has been sharply criticised by the public service labour union VERDI (or “ver.di” as it prefers to be branded), which described the decision as ‘intolerable’. The ground for VERDI’s objection is less the introduction of a three-year work-based route than the reduction in the number of two-year dual system places, which it described as ‘withdrawing from responsibility for young people’.

For me, what matters about this dispute is the light it sheds on attempts to reform apprenticeship in Germany. According to Deutsche Post, the aim is to open up its reruitment to adult workers with experience in other occupations who wish to retrain as skilled courier, express and postal workers. It argues that the new pathway has the same quality as the dual system, and will equally end with an examination administered by the national Chamber for Industry and Trade, who will then similarly award the certificate. The advantage of the new scheme, it claims, is that it will allow the firm to widen the scope of its recruitment to include adults.

And there lies the rub. Germany’s dual system has a global reputation for quality – something that VERDI deploys as a reason to resist change. But in our fast-moving labour market, the dual system with its focus on school-leavers moving into their first (and lifelong) job can also be understood as too rigid to form an effective component of a lifelong learning system.

Deutsche Post’s initiative is therefore well worth watching as a possible sign of increasing flexibility in the dual system. And as the firm has more employees outside than inside Germany, then it might be worth asking what the implications are for DHL delivery staff in other countries.

 

 

 

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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)?

Taking the German citizenship test after Brexit: here’s how I fared

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Following Brexit, the parliamentary leader of the Green Party has asked the German government to adopt a “generous” approach to British immigrants. Usually, immigrants must wait eight years, or six for someone has made a special contribution to German life and three for those married to Germans, before aplying. Katrin Göring-Eckardt has asked the government to to allow applications from those who have lived here for less than six years.

Regardless of the waiting time, British immigrants would still need to take the citizenship test and prove their command of the language. So far as the language is concerned, you can take a standard test, or you can present other evidence, such as a degree from a German-speaking university.

The language test aims to see whether you can speak German well enough to handle everyday situations, including work. For those who know their language education, it involves demonstrating that you have reached European Language Proficency Level B1. I took a written test, missing out the oral and spoken sections as I did it from home, and found B1 reasonably easy.

Given their backgrounds and occupations, most Brits should easily pass the citizenship test. Since 2008, the test has been administered by the Federal Bureau for Migration and Refugees, and developed by educationalists at the Humboldt University of Berlin. It comprises a battery of 310 multiple-choice questions; each applicant has to take 33 questions and must pass at least 17.

The questions are concerned with establishing the candidate’s knowledge of Germany society, culture, and political arrangements. A small number of questions will concern the Land in which you live. There are four possible answers to each question, and you have to select the correct one.

As an example from the current catalogue, here is a question about the constitution:

Which right belongs to the constitutional rights in Germany?

  • owning a weapon
  • the right to fight with fists
  • freedom of opinion
  • taking the law into your own hands

And here is one from recent history:

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Which was the coat of arms of the German Democratic Republic?

None of these is likely to trouble the average British immigrant. I took the test and passed with 31 out of 33. My incorrect answers were to do with constitutional matters (how long between elections in North-Rhein Westphalia?) and I guessed some (how many MPs in the federal parliament?). I should add that I took the tests out of interest, and won’t be applying myself.

So for Brits this is likely to be a straightforward process. You have to pay €255 per person for processing your application; and if you go to an adult education centre or similar for your language test, they will charge you a small sum, usually €25. And then you wait. At the moment there is a bit of a queue, but at least citizenship applications are dealt with a lot more quickly than asylum applications, which can drag on for over a year.

Why the Greens have made an issue out of British immigrants is something of a mystery. There isn’t a clear issue of principle, as Britains in Germany are hardly seeking asylum from persecution; for the most part they are highly educated middle class professionals who are here to work.

Moreover, the Greens’ request will have no practical impact on government policy, not least because the processing of citizenship applications is devolved to the sixteen Länder. And even if all British immigants became Green voters overnight (improbable), there are too few to make much difference in elections.

Frankly, there are many more pressing and deserving groups of migrants in Germany right now than the Brits. My personal view is that the Green intervention was a bit of self-indulgence; but in fairness the Greens have consistently pressed for faster and more effective processing of asylum applications as well as citizenship applications. I’ll save writing about why I think asylum processes in Germany are in such a mess in another blog.

Reforming post-Bologna undergraduate studies in Germany

Mensa Uni Koeln

Since the Bologna agreement of 1999, some 47 European states have committed to simplying their degrees around a common Bachelor/Master/Doctor structure and moving to a common credit framework. German universities found the implementation process pretty demanding, but they managed it. Now, though, the new structure itself is about to be reformed.

Higher education reform in Germany is always a lengthy process, not least because education – and therefore university policy – is devolved to the sixteen Länder. National initiatives therefore involve negotiation and consensus between the sixteen ministers and the university rectors. This procedure, though lengthy, is well-established, and seems to work well. The two groups issued a common declaration on post-Bologna reforms last week.

The main problem seems to be that universities effectively made as few changes as possible in order to conform with the Bologna requirements. Overall, the levelof compliance seems high. Most German universities moved in 2009/10 to a new Bachelor/Masters degree structure. However, some specialist arts institutions have held back, there are question marks over regulated subjects such as medicine and law, and across the sector there are still some Diplom students grimly hanging on from before the reforms, who therefore have to be catered for.

Yet apparent compliance has tended to conceal a reality of rigidly prescribed degree structures, with limited possibilities of flexibility; and a pattern of student assessment that lacks transparency and detail, and is widely seen as unfair.The possibilities of part-time study (known usually as ‘career-accompanying learning’) and mobility weakest of all in the estalished public universities and – perhaps predictably – highest in the many private universities that now exist across Germany.

Among the main aims of the Bologna reforms were to enable student mobility and promote lifelong learning. The first has been achieved to some extent, and the decision is now to develop further the transparency and scope of recognition of credit gained abroad. The second requires more flexible use of teaching and administrative staff, particularly in view of ‘an increasingly heterogeneous student population’, as well as greater use of recognition of prior and international learning.These changes are, the document says, likely to involve additional costs.

In Germany, there was also a hope that the Bologna structure would improve retention. I’ve not been able to find recent figures, but what I hear from colleagues is continuing concern that retention and completion rates are still low by western European standards. At the same time, friends and colleagues expressed a certain reform-weariness over the latest package.

Implementation of the post-Bologna reforms will now fall to the Länder and individual institutions. A failure to change is likely to strengthen further the private higher education sector, which already makes part-time study one of its main selling points. But it is interesting that the education ministers and rectors across Germany are agreed on the importance of part-time learning, at a time when the opposite appears true across the UK.

 

 

The Social Progress Index – how does your country rate?

 

New Picture

We expect to see countries ranked and compared all the time. This seems a natural enough process in sporting occasions such as the European Football Championships under way now (though as with the EU, the list of participating nations helps to define what we understand as “European”). And there are hundreds of international league tables for everything from health, wealth and education to crime, corruption and war.

I’m always interested in attempts to produce league tables that are a bit more thoughtful and informative than the average. One of these is the Social Mobility Index, which I blogged about here. And now along comes the 2016 Social Progress Index (SPI), a composite table that draws on a range of social and environmental outcome indicators, with the aim of informing policies to improve well-being.

The resulting league table tells you which countries over-perform on social progress in relation to GDP (per capita). Costa Rica leads this group, suggesting strong social progress; however, it is followed by Kyrgyzstan, which is probably down to economic decline.

Those who come top overall are those which are both prosperous and socially progressive: Finland ranks first, followed by Canada, our friends the Danes, and then Australia. Three oil-rich countries lead the table for low social progress relative to GDP. Saudi Arabia is way out ahead, followed by Kuwait and then the United Arab Emirates. Significantly, the USA also makes it into the top 20 for this group, just ahead of Venezuela.

I take a particularly close interest in the fortunes of Germany (15th) and the UK (9th), as these are the countries where I live. Interestingly, the UK is among those who are high on social progress relative to GDP, though with some problem areas, including perceptions of crime. Despite its higher GDP, Germany is the other way round, thanks mainly to low scores on health and wellness and even lower scores on tolerance and inclusion.

New Picture (2)

I like the way that SPI applies an outcomes approach to wealth, rather than treating it as the main indicator of well-being. Rather than relying directly on measures of wealth, it treats health, education and freedoms as the outcomes of wealth. And what it tells us is that while being rich certainly helps, what also matters is how you use your riches.

 

 

Advertising learning: some German images

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.

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Start now!

 

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.

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“First salary at 29? I’ve got something better in mind”

 

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.

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“You can’t choose your family. You can your continuing education”.

 

Next up, a punning key-ring. The reverse side says simply VHS, followed by the web-site.

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“My door-opener”

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.

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Nerve nourishment

 

Vocational education on parade: a microcosm of German’s dual system

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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.

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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.