The political rhetoric around education policy confirms the wisdom expressed in Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing new under the sun.”
As surely as the Earth orbits the Sun, another education minister somewhere in the world will eventually bang a lectern and again say their country needs to follow the example of Germany’s world-leading vocational education system if their country wants to shape up. And with similar predictability, critics will object that Germany’s vocational education system is shaped by its economy and culture and cannot be transposed to other nations.
This is all such a cliché that it’s even a cliché to observe that it’s a cliché.
Gavin Williamson, education secretary in the UK government, reached that inevitable stage in an education minister’s career in a speech last month, when he pledged to end the era of higher education expansion in England and instead “build a world-class, German-style further education system”.
But there are reasons to listen more closely to the familiar refrain this time. There is now a powerful political driver for the Westminster government to deliver: the Conservatives’ new, overwhelmingly non-graduate, voters in Brexit-backing Northern and Midlands town seats with further education colleges but without universities. Furthermore, the economic shock of the Covid crisis – and potentially from Brexit – brings an urgent need for new thinking on the relationship between work and education.
This all matters not just for students and for further education colleges, but for universities, too, as providers of vocational education and as the institutions targeted for a reduction in resources by Mr Williamson’s “German-style further education” rhetoric.
So, how seriously should we take these aspirations to create a German-style vocational system in England, and which features of that system should the government aim to emulate?
Vocational systems in German-speaking countries follow a middle way between market-driven and state-regulated approaches, adopting a dual principle where “company-based training is responsible for the practical part of a learner’s education, while vocational schools provide the theoretical component”. The approach is in line with Germany’s broader social corporatism ethos, emphasising cooperation between state, companies and workers.
That’s the way the system was explained in a 2015 report on whether German vocational education could be an “exportable blueprint” for other nations, published by Germany’s Bertelsmann Stiftung, a policy foundation focused on innovation.
The report was co-authored by Dieter Euler, a vocational education expert and emeritus professor in the University of St Gallen’s Institute of Business Education and Educational Management. What did he make of Mr Williamson’s German aspirations?
Professor Euler took issue with the minister’s wording on creating “high-quality qualifications based on employer-led standards”. “In Germany, such standards are not simply ‘employer-led’,” Professor Euler said. “Rather, they are negotiated between representatives from educational institutions, trade unions and employers’ associations.”
The involvement of employers, unions and governments (education is the responsibility of the 16 state governments in Germany) is a key feature of the German vocational system. It’s crucial to ensuring the qualifications are respected by the companies providing jobs, as well as by workers.
Meanwhile, Mr Williamson used the term “apprenticeships” in a “very blurry way”, Professor Euler said, which “could be interpreted as making young people work in a job and on top send them to an FE college”.
In Germany, there are also work-based learning apprenticeships, where companies are obliged to train apprentices based on a curriculum and there is assessment at the end, continued Professor Euler. And there are “an increasing number” of apprenticeships linked to university study, resulting in a bachelor’s degree and an apprenticeship degree after four years, he added (similar to degree apprenticeships, not specifically mentioned in the minister’s speech).
In general, Mr Williamson’s speech “just uses the ‘German-style further education system’ as a trademark without seriously referring to the key components of the concept”, Professor Euler said.
Others question the distinction between further and higher education in the “German-style further education” aspiration. Andreas Schleicher, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s director for education and skills (and a German), said the key issue was “how countries can better integrate the world of work and the world of learning”.
He argued that “the distinction between academic and vocational learning opportunities has lost much of its meaning…In the past, we used to learn to do the work, now learning is the work and that gives vocational education an entirely new meaning.
“What Britain can certainly learn from the German vocational education system is that this should not be a last resort but a first choice, and that it is not primarily about educating for low-quality manual jobs, but about a different way of learning for any job.”
As all this highlights, the close involvement of employers and the high social esteem in which vocational education (or the best of it, at least) is held in Germany are two big factors in the system’s success – factors largely absent in most other developed nations.
For William Tierney, emeritus professor and founding director of the Pullias Centre for Higher Education at the University of Southern California, the absence of these factors was why “the USA has never done a particularly good job at linking education to employment”.
Professor Tierney co-authored a 2015 Pullias Centre report on lessons from Germany for US vocational education. Germany’s economic base in stable, family-owned, medium-sized businesses often located in smaller cities, combined with the requirement for worker representation on company management boards, “differentiate Germany from other countries, making its system of vocational education viable”, the report said.
By contrast, the US business sector “is much more dependent upon large corporations and private capital than the German business sector”, and “as long as large companies in the United States are driven primarily by shareholder demands, they must value profitability and efficiency” over spending on education for their apprenticeship-trained employees, the report argued.
Plus, the US has long been “tracking” poorer and minority students into perceived “lesser” fields of occupational training in community colleges, and away from four-year degrees, Professor Tierney observed, with the result that vocational courses are seen as lower status and lead to lower-paid jobs.
US president Donald Trump has brilliantly, but unwittingly, highlighted that status gap. In 2017, he held a roundtable on vocational training with German business leaders, at which he talked admiringly about the German system. He then described vocational education as the alternative to a four-year degree for those who are “not necessarily good at it [the academic route], but they’re good at other things, like fixing engines and building things”.
That is not how things work in Germany.
The German school system divides pupils into different tracks. About 40 per cent of pupils gain the Abitur, giving them the entitlement to a university place. But about 140,000 of these Abitur pupils instead opt for an apprenticeship, making up about 30 per cent of newly registered apprentices in 2018. And after finishing their apprenticeship, about half of those students opt to go on to a university degree.
But none of this is to say policymakers shouldn’t try to learn from the best of Germany’s system. “So many aspects of the German system for VET [vocational education and training] are good and worth copying. And we’ve been saying that for over 100 years,” said Andy Westwood, professor of government practice at the University of Manchester and a former Labour government special adviser, who was a member of the 2004 Leitch Review of Skills.
But for ministers in England, the words on Germany are “as much about an attack on universities…and appealing to their political base”, he argued.
If ministers are to go beyond this (universities will inevitably remain components of any new vocational system) and make a genuine attempt to emulate aspects of the German vocational system, that will mean paying attention to its key underpinning features.
Professor Westwood summed these up as “culture: valuing technical as much as academic; partnership: working with employers, unions, regional government; funding: high sustained levels across all routes; and stability: no constant changing of system [and] institutions”.
The Bertelsmann Stiftung report says that “Exporting a VET system from one country to another is not merely a matter of copying the original system, but is rather a process of selection and adaptation by the importing country.” However, the report adds that “because a VET system is embedded within specific economic, cultural and social systems, exporting it – or its individual components – is possible only if conditions in the importing countries are comparable”.
One major question is whether the social status of England’s vocational education can ever be transformed, given its intensely hierarchical higher education system, in which the most socially selective universities sit at the top and their graduates reap the most prestigious jobs.
But a serious attempt to learn from Germany would involve doing the hard work of changing attitudes among English employers who, in the main, do not see employees’ education as their responsibility; and doing some thinking about the way German corporate ownership and management structures shape employers’ willingness to support employees’ education.
It would involve joining up education policy with economic policy to look at the way the structure of the economy and labour market shapes employment outlooks for students – rather than blaming educational institutions when earnings outcomes are deemed substandard – plus setting out a post-Brexit vision for the UK advanced manufacturing sector that could drive new apprenticeships.
It would involve stopping the endless policy churn in post-18 education, a hard ask in a majoritarian, highly centralised Westminster political system that sees the Conservatives (mostly) and Labour (sometimes) grabbing all the power for themselves and making about-turns in policy. Sometimes the about-turns come within the same party, as seen in the ideological transformation of the Tories since the Brexit vote.
If the success of German vocational education is founded in building consensus between the state, employers, workers and educational institutions, then achieving anything like that success in England would be truly radical. Consensus politics are a German product that is unlikely to be imported across the North Sea in the Brexit era.
Print headline: Can England copy German-style FE?
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