Can Germany’s renowned vocational education system be exported?

English ministers advised to start looking at key features like partnership with employers rather than using German system as ‘trademark’

August 19, 2020
New Audi AG automobiles, manufactured by Volkswagen AG, sit under protective covers on a railway transporter beside a platform at Ingolstadt central train station in Ingolstadt, Germany
Source: Getty

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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Reader's comments (4)

This debate was not new when I wrote an essay for a competition as a schoolboy in 1979. In fact, I believe the original idea of the system that I went through was to have a vocational element that never came to pass. The trouble seems to be that it takes a very long time to conceive, design, implement and operate a new system, and politicians have short horizons. There is also the long-standing image of my own subject of engineering. I doubt that most of the public would recognise my work and that of many of my colleagues as engineering since there is a very old-fashioned perception in society.
I think as long as higher education is suffering from increasing tuition costs many prospective students have to make a decision if a college degree is still worthwile if the job market does not guarantee a job after graduation. Therefore, a vocational training could be a good alternative for certain positions. After all, a college degree can still be achived also in later years.
1979 was a key time for UK industry - the Finniston Report came out which encouraged some control over the engineering profession to try to get our status up with the other "respected" professions. The end result made the controls tighter for professional membership but nothing happened on the respect part. Indeed Thatcher & co. used "industry" to mean "problem" and cast our country to bankers, lawyers and accountants which ultimately meant the only commerce that really grew for three decades was gambling and entertainment. The ability to create real things ebbed away to Asia and the rest of Europe, the USA followed a similar line. We could then but can't now, make our own: cars, railway equipment, power stations (conventional, renewable or nuclear), medical equipment, ships, ... Because at every step there has never really been government support to buy anything but the cheapest - invariably from other continents where the people who do the work are practically slaves. Some of them have learned, initially by copying then by sending their young to get educated, now they can educate themselves - in all the dirty "Industry" skills and ... in all the other skills. How long will it take for our last big sector - finance - to be offshored? What will be left: "England, England" (Julian Barnes 1998)?
Until the UK has a grown up and neutral discussion about the distinctions between Education and Training, devoid of vested interest, there is little point in importing anything from anywhere which purports to advance any vocational development. Proper Universities, i.e. those prior to 1992, were never responsibility for their students' employment and neither should they have been; their mission was predominantly Education and not training. Medicine has always been a notable exception. Polytechnics, however, have accepted some responsibility for their students' future employment because they were largely preparing their vocational graduates for formal 'Professional Certification' under the auspices of Professional bodies, something Universities did not do. FE Colleges were supposed to have been where general principles of the multitude of professional trades were explained to young, wannabe skills based professionals. Formal education was not at the core of what they did ... they focused only on the applied and directed support required of their training in their workplace. Licences to practice enable an individual to apply for a position within their chosen profession because they have been formally adjudged BY A PROFESSION/INDUSTRY to have the minimal credentials to do. Some practising industry individual(s) will have declared that the holder of their professional body's certificate has made the 'grade' and can be trusted to perform to a minimal professional standard. No professional has ever been issued with this kind of certificate by any educational establishment regardless of where they appear on the Education - Training spectrum. No pupil or student ever exits their place of learning as the finished article ready for employment in a chosen field. ALL of them are required to be trained to a minimum standard and it's the role of the employer to do so. Over the years many employers have complained of the cost of training an individual only to lose them after that training has finished. The same employers seem not complain when they gain a suitably trained individual from another company!! So, part of the grown up discussion requires a new vision to emerge which identifies the universal benefit of education and training. A wider vision about economy and community. A supportive attitude without an immediate payoff. This vision and this attitude is what Germany has and it is what the UK, at the moment, does not understand. So what is the point of importing it??