Reform of Higher Education and Vocational Training

May 11, 2009

On May 11, 2009, AGI hosted a lecture titled “German-American Feedback Processes in the Reform of Higher Education and Vocational Training,” generously funded by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). The lecture, featuring DAAD/AGI Fellow Dr. Justin J.W. Powell, brought together individuals and experts from both sides of the Atlantic to discuss the influence that the United States and Germany have had on each other in the development and reform of their respective skill formation systems, the potential for future influence, and the reform challenges faced by both countries. Most participants agreed that differing U.S. and German ideologies make straightforward educational policy transfer difficult.

Dr. Powell began by discussing the history of German and American influence on each other as each nation developed a system for educating and training their population. In the early stages of the American system, up until the beginning of the twentieth century, the United States and Germany had a shared legacy in which German immigrants to the United States brought with them and implemented German models of skill formation from kindergarten to graduate education. World War II had a significant effect on the development of both nations’ higher education systems: the U.S. benefitted from a “brain gain” as scientists emigrated from Europe and Germany, while Germany, in turn, was greatly influenced by U.S. reeducation programs after the war. German and American vocational training models have been even more divergent, with German apprenticeship-focused models mostly failing when attempted within the United States.

Today, social, political, economic, and technological changes create the need to reform existing skill formation models, and policy and decision-makers often look to other nations for new ideas. Cross-national feedback mechanisms, such as migration, benchmarking, educational exchange, and comparative research can be used as tools to transfer skill formation ideas and models from one country to another. In Europe, policymakers have introduced initiatives to reform education (the Bologna process) and vocational training (the Copenhagen process) and to apply standards across Europe.

The degree of reform that can take place, however, is often constrained by the ideologies and practices that have shaped and entrenched themselves within the different systems. For example, the United States has created a system based on the ideals of individualism and equal opportunity, whereas Germany’s ideological focus is on homogeneity and “appropriate” education. While the United States has a diversified educational system, Germany maintains a binary system with a nearly impermeable divide between university education and vocational training.

During the discussion, some important cultural restraints to reform were articulated as well. First, in the United States, receiving vocational training is seen as a path for disadvantaged youth and the equivalent of failure in a society where a university education is the primary goal. In Germany, however, technical and vocational training is upheld at great cost by the state, and technically trained individuals often earn more than those with university degrees. Another point made by the group is that in America decisions about higher education are often made in the final years of high school as students discuss their future academic plans with their peers, while German students focus first on passing the “Abitur” examinations and give little thought to what will come after. Although a substantial proportion of students with the Abitur do complete some vocational training, the German system does not easily afford access to higher education for those with vocational qualifications.

Though German and American educational and vocational training systems have taken different paths over the past century, the increasing effects of globalization and changes in economic, social, political, and technological realities will require that each country continue to reform and improve their existing systems. By cooperating and learning from each other’s experiences, even the challenges that present themselves may ultimately provide lessons that can lead to successful reform, on this or that side of the Atlantic.