Cologne’s Continuing Education Trade Fair: quality sells


Berufliche Volltreffer – Career Bullseye

This weekend saw me attending the Cologne trade fair for continuing education. It took over two floors of the Gurzenich, a splendid venue which combines a medieval hall, substantially restored following bomb damage during WW2, with modern exhibition and meetings spaces. As you’d expect, it was a lively and well attended event, with some 60 exhibitors along with a series of talks and seminars.

I’m familiar with similar events in the UK, often held during what is now called the Festival of Learning (previously Adult Learners’ Week). Nevertheless, a couple of things struck me. The first was the sheer range of the organisations who attended. As well as the ‘usual suspects’ like the Volkshochschule, or VHS), those present included the Federal Labour Agency, and the Archbishops’ Trades College, as well as many higher education institutions and private providers, and a language school called the English Institute of Cologne.

The German Army and Deutsche Bahn both had stalls; their staff said they were major providers of in-work training, and saw this as a attraction for new recruits. Details for all the exhibitors and associated talks were listed in a colourful and informative brochure.

Something I always found interesting when I used to take part in these exhibitions was the different levels of interest that the various stalls attracted. I visited on the Sunday morning, and although it wasn’t heaving, there was a steady flow of visitors.And they were relatively young (by contemporary European standards – ie almost all under 50), which is probably because this event focused on work-related education. Liberal adult education has its own event, Lernfest Köln, which takes place in September.

The city adult education service, the VHS, unsurprisingly had the largest numbers chatting to staff or browsing the literature. Some exhibitors had proven less popular and they were chatting across the stalls (such networking by providers is always a valuable, if unrecognised, part of these events) or gazing forlornly into space.


The other thing to strike me was the importance accorded to quality assurance. Several of the exhibitors made a point of saying, in the brochure and in their own material, that they were ‘recognised’ by the ministry of education and culture of the Land Nordrhein-Westfalen. I don’t know what this involves, though I strongly suspect that the recognition process is a little more rigorous than anything that our own education ministries undertake in the UK.

In addition, the organisers went to some pains to let you know whether exhibitors had satisfied the quality criteria of the Qualitätsgemeinschaft Berufliche Bildung Region Köln (‘Quality Community of Vocational Education of the Region of Cologne’). This association came into being in 1991, and is administered by the Chamber for Industry and Trade. It doesn’t cover the higher education sector, where private providers – and there are a lot of them in Germany – have to apply to the ministry for recognition.

The QG, as it mercifully calls itself, counts the VHS and various other public bodies among its 130 members. However, the large majority are private providers, most of whom seem to be for-profit bodies. The QG, as it mercifully calls itself, operates through a series of working groups, and regularly submits its processes for national recognition. Its web site and publications tell you how to make a complaint if you feel let down by one of its members.

With such a large number of private training providers, a well-publicised quality system clearly makes sense. Learners who feel ripped off are hardly the best advertisement for the joys of learning, so a system designed to secure high standards is in the interests of all the honest providers.You could argue that the quality problem is caused by having a market in the first place, but that boat sailed long ago.

All in all, then, it was an interesting morning. The trade fair was bright, colourful, well-organised and very focused on advice and recruitment. And it made a welcome break for a hot and sticky Brit on a day when the temperatures outside hit 30 degrees.





Murder in the evening class: adult education and the crime novel


I’ve just been to hear Klaus-Peter Wolf reading from his latest novel at my local bookshop. Wolf is best known for a series set in the far north western coastal region of East Friesland, whose central figure is Hauptkommissarin Ann Kathrin Claasen. Luckily for me, his work is highly readable, with relatively (for German) short sentences, lots of humour, and enjoyable plotting.

Several things strike me about the Claasen series. First, Claasen typifies a trend in German crime fiction, much of which has a female as the main detective. Some commentators have observed that you are much more likely to encounter a female Hauptkommissarin in fiction than in reality.

Second, the series is firmly rooted in its region. Indeed, I thought Wolf’s latest novel went overboard in contrasting the close, decent and upright communities of East Friesland with the freetic, atomised peoples of the cities (exemplified in this novel by an ambitious and ruthless reporter, who is promptly killed off).

It’s not just Wolf and East Friesland. Most German cities and regions have their own local crime writers, just as each of regional broadcaster contributes its own locale and detectives to the long-running series Tatort. Perhaps this local focus and identity in crime fiction is one more hangover from the many local states and principalities that were pushed and pulled into a Prussianised Germany in the late 1860s.

Third, though, is the role of adult education. When the principal criminal is hunting down a victim in the small town of Emden, he enrols in an adult education class at the local Volkshochschule. He studies alongside his victim before abducting her from the car park, after which detectives question her fellow classmates and the Volkshochschule principal.

Back in the real world, staff at Emden VHS seem to have embraced their fictional infamy. Far from worrying that their reputation had been stained by a vile crime, they invited the author to read from his book, accompanied by music from his wife Bettina Göschl.

This made me wonder whether and how adult learning generally features in fiction. It might be a natural location in Germany, where adult education centres are everywhere (there is a large one ten minutes’ walk away from where I live), but what about writers in other countries? I’m aware of Maeve Binchy’s novel The Evening Class, set in a Dublin suburb and  apparently often discussed by reading groups, but I can’t think of other novels that feature adult learners.


I can’t help but think that British crime writers like Ian Rankin and Val McDermid have so far missed a trick. Adult courses can be filled with suppressed intrigue, they sometimes make people frustrated with their circumstances, and they have been known to provoke jealousy from spouses and even children.An ideal setting for murder and mayhem, then.

Yet how many murders are linked – in fiction, of course – to adult courses? Is fictional mayhem in adult education a positive indicator of a learning society? And what about the shift to digital learning – can you actually murder someone in a MOOC?