Germany’s Volkshochschulen are celebrating their centenary – but who are they?

1919 was the first year of the Weimar Republic, and of course the year in which Germany concluded a peace deal with the Allies. It also witnessed the foundation of many Volkshochschulen, a term which literally translates as People’s High Schools (or universities) but is usually understood to mean adult education centres.

The VHS in Cologne

The VHS are widespread across Germany; the total number in 2017 stood at 895, but most of these will have several centres in their local area. The vast majority are part of the local government system, with the Gemeinde and Kreisen (urban councils and rural districts) playing the dominant role. Overall political responsibility for education, including adult education, lies constitutionally with the Land, with the federal government playing an important supporting part.

Adult basic education, including literacy courses and refugee integration programmes, are an important component of the typical VHS offer. Languages remain the largest programme area (Hamburg’s VHS even offers courses in Plattdeutsch, which I usually think of as a dialect, but some argue is a language). Beyond that the range would be very familiar in most Northern European countries, from local history or adult work skills through ICT to creative writing.

As elsewhere the majority of learners are women (around three-quarters nation-wide). Most fall within the 35-64 age group. My personal impression is that both patterns may have changed slightly since 2015, as the vast majority of the refugees taking integration courses are young men.

Annually the VHS are said to cost around 1.35 billion euros a year. Around 198,000 people are employed in the sector, 95% of whom are on part-time or casual contracts.

Figures from https://www.hr-inforadio.de/programm/das-thema/100-jahre-vhs-fuenf-dinge-die-sie-noch-nicht-wussten,volkshochschulen_fakten-100.html

Integration courses in German adult education: who participates?

German adult education provides relatively generous (compared with other European nations) opportunities for migrants wanting to develop their language skills and integration prospects. A 2018 study, called Who Visits the Integration Courses?, reports on a survey of participants. While many are migrants of all kinds, the courses increasingly include those who have come to Germany as refugees.

The survey covered 606 participants, equally divided between those from the previously dominant participant groups (EU migrants, migrant workers, existing migrants’ families) and refugees. The sample were following 42 different courses spread across five different states.

  • The majority of refugee participants were male (80%) with an average age of 30. The non-refugee group were slightly older, and a majority (56%) were female
  • The refugees came from 19 different countries, with 71% from Syria, while the non-refugee migrants were largely from central and south-eastern Europe
  • A quarter of refugee participants and a sixth of the other migrants had spent less than ten years at school
  • A high proportion of the refugees were Arabic speakers, followed by those who spoke both Arabic and Kurdish
  • Three quarters of the refugee participants had some competence in English, and a quarter in French, as foreign languages; the non-refugee migrants showed a broadly similar foreign language profile, though with a slightly larger number clsiming some prior knowledge of German
  • Both groups of participants made considerable use of digital translation services, with Google Translate predominating

While the refugee group shows considerable diversity, and thus a range of different needs, the authors identify a clear sub-group of disadvantaged learners, who have relatively short schooling, limited occupational experience, and little foreign language competence. This group is mainly male (70%) and from the near/middle East, followed by participants from central/south-eastern Europe.

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.

baleh

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.

Refugee integration and rugby

Living in Cologne didn’t exactly at put me the centre of the rugby world, but I found it easy enough to satisfy my cravings. Six Nations matches were shown in several bars (none of which were worth visiting on any other grounds) and at the local clubhouse of ASV Köln. And I also watched ASV Köln, not that my support them much good: they finished bottom of the 2. Bundesliga West. In fact, in recent years the men’s team has done rather poorly, while the women’s team has been relatively successful.

New Picture

Cologne’s Rugby United participants

Last week, though, ASV Köln won a prize. Three women players launched a project last year under the name of Rugby United with the aim of exploiting rugby’s reliance on team building to bring people together, and foster what they described as the game’s ‘central values’ of ‘Disziplin, Respekt und Fairplay’. They also used what in Germany is called ‘the third forty minutes’, and in the UK is an opportunity for a pint, as a time for discussion and interaction.

The project took time to get under way. Unsurprisingly, the idea of rugby itself isn’t exactly familiar to many people living in the refugee hostels (which range from old barracks to sports halls), let alone rugby involving girls as well as boys. The project’s supporters have to raise money for playing kit, and for the shared meal after sessions.

Thirty people, between the ages of 3 and 46, turned up to the first training session. The project’s mid-term goal is to integrate the refugees gradually into the standard club training sessions, with a view to eventually recruiting the best players into ASV’s teams. The prospects look reasonably good, with 20-30 refugees turning up to sessions. And as well as attracting the attention of the city’s mayor and sporting community locally, three of the younger refugees were selected as mascots for the German national side.

I have no idea what Cologne’s wider refugee communities make of this development. Parents must be slightly bothered when their children come home with bumps and bruises and tales of on-pitch arguments, and I imagine that not all communities welcome the very idea of women’s rugby. On the other hand, children’s lives in the refugee homes can be mind-numbingly boring, with few facilities and a high turnover of social work staff. And as in many German towns and cities, the rugby club is part of a wider sporting association – in this case Athletik Sportverein Köln – with a history of community engagement (including participation in Cologne’s gay pride celebrations).

Of course this is a relatively small project. With the best will in the world, an amateur rugby club cannot involve more than a handful of the estimated 12,000 refugees living in Cologne. And you could argue that the recruitment of potential players, along with the accompanying publicity, is very much in ASV’s interests (interestingly, some village soccer clubs in Germany are able to field a team mainly thanks to their connections with refugee communities).

All the same, hats off to the Athletik Sportverein Köln, and high respect to the three players who made this project possible. And to the rest of the rugby community, especially in the cash-rich Six Nations: more of the same, please. Meanwhile, I wish ASV Köln Rugby every success this season, on and off the pitch.

Adult education as “workshop of democracy”: Germany’s President welcomes adult educators to Berlin

Volkshochschultag-1-Rede

It is a sign of how seriously Germany takes adult education that Joachim Gauck, the country’s President, gave the welcoming speech at the 14th Volkshochschultag. This is particularly good news for adult educators world wide, as it comes a month after President Obama publicly praised the active citizenship tradition in adult education, which I blogged about here.

Gauck’s welcome was uplifting and well-informed, and I give a couple of extracts below. And while he observed the formality of thanking the organisers for their invitation, he added ‘You’ve probablyalready noticed: I’m coming to you very gladly’. The speech made me wish I’d taken the train to Berlin for a couple of days, and I’ll give a sample of it here. As usual, I am sure someone will let me know if I’ve mis-translated!

The President opened with the following two paragraphs:

In times of change, institutions often do well to reflect on their roots and their central essence. Only those who are secure in their identity  can confidently help to shape social change. Let me therefore, before I turn to the digital challenge, which you want to discuss today and tomorrow, first remember Max Hirsch, the liberal union leader and pioneer of community colleges.

It was Max Hirsch who in 1878 founded in Berlin the first Volkshochschule in Germany, the Humboldt Academy. The goals he sought back then are still valid, even if we would formulate it differently today. Hirsch wanted to spread ‘higher, genuinely scientific education’ and, as he said, in ‘in all parts of the population’. He wanted a thematically wide range, namely, literally ‘for those who require thorough instruction’. Finally, he wanted to provide every individual with the opportunity to develop through education into a mature, responsible citizen. Into a citizen who is equally committed to their own personal and professional development and for the community in which he lives.

Gauck then spoke about what he sees as the chief characteristics of the Volkshochschulen. They are, he said, open to all; they are pluralistic and bring different cultures together; they are civically engaged, with social and political responsibilities. He spoke highly of the adult education movement’s support for refugees. He then alluded to the conference theme of digital inclusion, and spoke of its potential for reinforcing as well as changing the nature of adult education. He praised the online portal Ich will Deutsch lernen, created by the German Volkshochschul Association to support the integration courses run by local Volkshochschulen.

His concluding paragraph is worth translating in full:

Community colleges are vibrant institutions, as is demonstrated not least by the theme of this congress. You can help create social change, precisely because you stand on a stable foundation of values and are firmly rooted in local communities. Our civil society needs such institutions, now and in the future. I encourage you, therefore:  continue to keep your ear close to the pulse of the times, try out new things, and have difficult debates. And stay as you were and how you are: Open to all, diverse and civically engaged.

Gauck, a former Lutheran pastor who was part of the oppositional neues Forum movement in East Germany, and he has a track record as a campaigner against racism and xenophobia. He has said that he won’t be seeking a second term of office, which seems a shame, but it is striking that he – like several of his predecessors – has played a very open role in public debate rather than striking the sorts of postures which party leaders are required to do (though nominated to his post by the Greens and Social Democrats, he is no aligned with any party himself).

I’m also wondering whether a largely ceremonial President is the way to go in a future British Republic. It’s very striking that Ireland and Germany have had some thoughtful and interesting characters in the role, and I suspect this is because it attracts people who have something to say, rather than those who have schemed and fought their way to the top of a party heirarchy. There is a debate in Germany over whether the post should be abolished; I rather hope it isn’t.

A new skills agenda for Europe – or a drearily familiar shopping list?

The European Commission prearing to publish a position paper entitled A New Skills Agenda for Europe. Due to appear in late May, the paper is concerned with ‘promoting skills’, including the mutual recognition of qualifications, supporting vocational training and higher education, and ‘reaping the full potential of digital jobs’.

Will the content live up to its title – that is, will it really be ‘new’? Judging by the minutes of the Education Council, much of it will be familiar stuff. It will focus entirely on skills supply, with little or no discussion of how to raise the demand for and utilisation of those skills. Employability will be everything; don’t expect any creative thinking about skills for other areas of life. There could be a brief nod in the direction of equity and inclusion, and there will certainly be much rhetorical excitement about the growth potential of the digital economy.

Finally, because responsibility for skills lies largely with member states, several of whom are worried about ‘competency creep’ in the field of education policy, the Commission will largely confine itself to urging other people to do things, few of which will be innovative. So far, then, so familiar.

New Picture (1)

Minutes of the European Council, 24 February 2016

Possibly there will be one new feature, compared with past policy papers on skills. The New Skills Agenda is highly likely to refer to the skills and the integration of refugees. Germany’s experience in the last year suggests that refugee integration into the labour market is proving slower than anticipated, partly because of language difficulties, but also because fewer refugees than anticipated hold recognised qualifications.

If my analysis is right, the energy has drained out of the ‘social Europe’project that was embodied during the 1980s by Jacques Delors. But neither are the largely Right or Centre-Right figures who dominate today’s Commission capable of producing creative and imaginative approaches to the skills and knowledge of Europe’s population, whether established or new. I find it hard to see the new paper making much of a splash, but I’d be delighted to be proved wrong when it is published in May.

 

CfP: International comparison of basic education policies

The Zeitschrift für Weiterbildungsforschung, or Journal for Research in Adult Education, is planning a special issue on the ways in which large scale surveys such as PIAAC are influencing the debate on the best policies for promoting basic adult skills. The editors asked members of the editorial board to circulate the call for papers, and I have pasted it it below.

The journal publishes in English and German, is refereed, and is open access. The deadline for submissions is May 1, 2016, and the issue will appear in August 2016. For further information on the journal see www.springer.com/journal/40955 („Submit Online“).

International comparison of basic education policies

Editors: Alexandra Ioannidou / Josef Schrader
report

Ever since the PIAAC data (OECD 2013) as well as the “leo. – Level One Study” in Germany
(Grotlüschen/Riekmann 2012) were published, the highly developed industrial and knowledge-based society’s failure of securing a minimum of basic competences for all members of society and stabilizing those competences throughout life can no longer be denied. In addition, these studies confirm the connection between social status, participation in continuing education and available competences. In this large scale study, competences were measured, which are classified as indispensable for cultural and social participation as well as employability in each society.

Within the German discussion, those skills are often referred to as basic education, whereas in an international context various different versions of the literacy concept prevail. Both concepts can be regarded as relative, contextual and dynamic terms, based on current social requirements and subject to constant change (Tröster, 2000). Due to the different perceptions of various stakeholders, this dynamic and relational term is difficult to determine.

In the light of the large scale study’s findings, over the last years the scientific debate of the basic education concept has gained in importance along with the education policy debate on compensatory functions of basic education and literacy as well as securing a minimum level of education and competences for all. As a result of the current immigration caused by flight and expulsion and the subsequent expectations of integrating these refugees, the challenges for research, politics and practice of continuing education are increasingly intensified.

During the United Nations Literacy Decade (2003–2012), a literacy and basic education
network was constituted in Germany with various stakeholders from federal government and states, continuing education organisation, social partners as well as the German Federal Employment Agency. In addition, a national strategy was developed, which was transferred into the National Decade for Adult Literacy and Basic Education proclaimed in September 2015.

As the interim results gained in the DIE project “EU-Alpha” indicate, several other European and non-European countries have observed similar developments. They point to the influence of  international and supranational organisations on national policy and practice in the field of basic education.

Until now, little research has been conducted on the national and international reaction of
education, labour, social and integration policy to the problems pointed out by empirical
education research and the resulting operational success. This requires multi-level analyses, which unite system and governance structures with micro data from relevant studies on adult competences (e.g. PIAAC) in an international comparative perspective.

It was often verified that processes of educational disadvantage have a cumulative effect during life, continuing education enforces social selectivity with “soft” and “hard” selection mechanisms, and regional contexts are also significant for educational chances (Tippelt/v. Hippel 2005; Bremer/Kleemann-Göhrig 2011; Schlögl et al. 2015; Martin et al 2015). Less information is provided on how precisely factors and constellations on the system and stakeholder level influence continuing education participation and programmes of basic education or the methods of successfully implementing the objective of “Literacy for All” (United Nations). Which constellation of stakeholders, governance structure, continuing education, labour and welfare systems copes most effectively with the challenges mentioned above?

So far, there is no systematic overview on the effects of governance, structure, education,
labour and welfare policy on the level and structure of adult basic skills. Current literature
research regarding this topic only revealed isolated studies on policy programmes in the field of literacy and basic education but few studies, which connect competence assessment to control mechanisms and governance structures.

Against this background, the planned issue of the Journal for Research on Adult Education
refers to the current research approach in the field of basic education policy but also looks at innovative research approaches. Basic theoretical or empirical research is to be presented, particularly research with an international comparative approach. In addition, case studies from various countries are requested.

Contributions are invited with emphasis on the following issues:
– theoretical articles which cover the dynamic and partly relational term of basic education
as well as its empirical registration/measuring (competence modelling and measuring in
basic education)
– theoretical or empirical research on the connection between basic education competences and continuing education, labour and welfare policy in the country
– empirical research which identifies successful political approaches and the integration in the specific national institutional system based on data and case studies in order to point out methods to strengthen basic skills successfully

References

Bremer, H., & Kleemann-Göhring, M. (2011). Weiterbildung und „Bildungsferne“. Forschungsbefunde, theoretische Einsichten und Möglichkeiten für die Praxis. Essen. http://www.uni-due.de/imperia/md/content/politische-bildung/arbeitshilfe_potenziale. [18.02.2016].

Grotlüschen, A., & Riekmann, W. (Hrsg.). (2012). Funktionaler Analphabetismus in Deutschland. Ergebnisse der ersten leo. – Level-One Studie. Münster: Waxmann.

OECD (2013), OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills, OECD
Publishing. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264204256-en

Schlögl, P. Iller,C.& Gruber, E. (2015): Teilnahme und Teilnahmechancen an formaler und nicht-formaler Erwachsenen- bzw. Weiterbildung. In: Schlüsselkompetenzen von Erwachsenen. Vertiefende Analysen der PIAAC-Erhebung 2011/12, Publisher: Statistik Austria, Editors: Statistik Austria, S.81–97 [Available through ResearchGate, 18.02.2016]

Schrader, J. (2015): Large Scale Assessments und die Bildung Erwachsener. Erträge, Grenzen und Potenziale der Forschung. Zeitschrift für Pädagogik, 61 (2015) 3, S. 410-428

Tippelt, R./V. Hippel, A. (2005): Weiterbildung: Chancenausgleich und soziale Heterogenität. In: ApuZ, 37/2005. S. 38-45

Tröster, M./Schrader, J. (2016): Alphabetisierung, Grundbildung, Literalität: Begriffe, Konzepte, Perspektiven. Bonn

Tröster, Monika (2000). Grundbildung – Begriffe, Fakten, Orientierungen. In Monika Tröster (Hrsg.), Spannungsfeld Grundbildung (S. 12-27). Bielefeld: W. Bertelsmann Verlag. Available at: http://www.die-bonn.de/esprid/dokumente/doc-2000/troester00_01.pdf [17.02.2016].