The Federal Minister of Education and Research, Dr. Annette Schavan, was also present at the Adult Education Conference. In her speech she stressed the significance of lifelong learning in all areas of life for all citizens, and the role of the Volkshochschulen in this process.
"Computers, data processing and the Internet" and "languages" are the areas of continuing education in greatest demand. Foreign language skills and a routine knowledge of how to use a computer are abilities which will no doubt become increasingly important in our globalized world. Anyone wishing to keep pace with progress must be prepared to go on learning.
For a long time, education has not been tied to a particular stage of life, but is a lifelong process.
Today more than ever, we need to realise that education is one of the most important resources, opening up opportunities in life and making it possible to participate. Adult education is crucial, and not only for those who are in the labour market and need to go on learning to keep up with new demands. Adult education improves quality of life and provides a second chance for those who have failed for whatever reason to prepare adequately for working life.
In 2003, 83 percent of 25 to 64 year-olds had completed some form of upper secondary education and/or training. Among people of foreign origin, only just over half had done so, however. Germany is thus well above the average for OECD countries (66 per cent). But we cannot sit back and be content with that. Those who have not completed initial education and training must enjoy a later opportunity to live independent lives.
One problem that we should not dismiss is the people with inadequate skills in reading, writing and mathematics in our country. The Bundesverband Alphabetisierung e.V. (the national literacy association) estimates that around four million people have abilities in written language that are to be regarded as "inadequate". Each year, around 20,000 people take part in literacy courses at adult education centres.
These figures alone demonstrate how much education providers such as the German Volkshochschulen still have to do in this country.
Education, especially continuing education, is both a personal and a social task. And there is a need for it: the proportion of people not taking continuing education or training is still 50 per cent.1 Among groups "alien to education", this figure is much higher.
Significant indicators are low levels of initial education, low income, and more generally, low willingness to invest in education and training for oneself. We must therefore open up opportunities which make it easier to learn. We need programmes that everyone can afford and use easily. And we must find ways of motivating those who are not yet purposefully pursuing continuing education or training.
The most widespread and important continuing education institution in Germany is the Volkshochschulen (community adult education centres). In 2004,9.2 million people attended courses at the thousand or so Volkshochschulen, which have two great advantages: besides quality and breadth of provision, their main attraction is their local and regional roots. And lastly, they provide adult education that is accessible to all and is affordable.
The Volkshochschulen offer comprehensive basic general continuing education throughout the country. They are also becoming increasingly involved in the world of work and continuing vocational training. Education and training are today far more than in the past crucial to people's futures, and to the future of society as a whole. Education opens the way to knowledge. Through education we can find our bearings in an ever more complex world. For all of us, education is the key to personal development, to playing a part in society, and to the labour market. Education is therefore also an instrument of society, a precondition for tolerance, solidarity and social commitment, and hence the basis for and a valuable benefit of democracy.
The Volkshochschulen are not just places where knowledge is transmitted and skills are developed. Volkshochschulen are also centres of communication, social involvement and integration. Because of their particular local responsibilities, Volkshochschulen today increasingly have a pivotal role in the region; they initiate round tables and support civil society commitment, and they are becoming key nodal points in the network of continuing education and training. This development has also had an impact at European level. It is, for example, thanks to your initiative as President of the German Adult Education Association, Dr Süssmuth, that the high priority and European dimension of adult education were given adequate expression ten years ago in the form of a separate EU support programme, "Grundtvig".
Against this background, I am particularly pleased that Germany will be permitted to launch the "Lifelong Learning Action Programme" at a major European conference during its presidency of the EU in 2007. This programme will continue the established programmes of the European Union in specific fields under one roof. This is an important signal, not least for our national educational goal of making lifelong learning a reality.
In all areas of life and work, people are affected today by far-reaching changes. Their future depends on the ability constantly to meet new and ever higher demands. This brings huge opportunities for personal, social and economic progress. But there is also the danger that those who do not take part in continuing education and training throughout their lives will be increasingly cut off from this progress and will be excluded. To put it in a nutshell, we may say that without lifelong learning there will be no lifelong employment. Learning at work is crucial to the future. But without a functioning continuing education and training system, that is inconceivable.
The potential of lifelong learning and continuing education and training is by no means exhausted. In order to develop a new, coherent overall plan, we have to ask ourselves first of all whether and how to devise an education strategy that will still fit people's circumstances in the year 2020 and will match their styles of working and living.
Already, paths through life and education are less and less straight. It has long been the norm to change jobs, or even to take up a second career. The key questions to which we need to find answers lie at the points where sectors of education meet and where it is possible to cross over from one educational path to another. The crucial factor in a successful education policy will be professional support for learning throughout the life span. This must be guided by the individual's specific circumstances of living, working and learning.
We must therefore involve all learning opportunities and all places of learning in our strategies. Continuing education and training already covers far more than traditional courses at the VHS (adult education centres). We must work towards a systematic use of step by step informal learning. Adults with low levels of skills, for example, can seldom be attracted into formal continuing education courses because of failure at school or during vocational training. But they too have often gained skills through informal learning in the process of working, in the family or in clubs, and these can be built on.
The Federal Government will therefore expand continuing education and training systematically. The Coalition Agreement provides for the establishment of "a system of continuing education.. .under standard national conditions". We shall increase the budget for continuing education and lifelong learning by around three per cent over the previous year.
The Federal Government is not working towards a "national Continuing Education and Training Act". Each Land has its own continuing education legislation. This should be sufficient. If we were to make the law governing continuing education more complicated through national legislation, this would mean that we could not react flexibly enough to new demands either in vocational or in general continuing education. Even without national legislation we have enough ways of introducing standard national conditions for learning throughout the life span. By supporting innovations, we intend to strengthen continuing education for the long term. It is our aim to increase participation in education as a whole, thereby giving people greater opportunities for personal, vocational and social development throughout their entire lives.
We have to expand our education system so that a "learning society" with a new culture of learning becomes a reality. We cannot concentrate on courses leading to supposedly higher formal qualifications. We need a "culture of recognition",2 which individually promotes and socially acknowledges people's many and varied gifts.
We need to develop an overarching plan for lifelong learning, in which continuing education is strengthened. A number of key challenges are at the core of my thinking:
From these challenges we may derive specific fields of action for the future:
I invite representatives from the universities, the world of business and practice to discuss the key points outlined here for a new strategy of lifelong learning and continuing education and training. This month, on 17 May, the "Continuing Education Innovation Group" will meet for the first time to talk about a "road map" for a new strategy.
The Volkshochschulen have continually demonstrated their ability to reform and their willingness to be open to new developments. In order to design an adult education that is viable for the future. I am therefore counting on the willingness of all institutions to develop, and on the creativity and professionalism of all the staff in the Volkshochschulen and their associations. Let us therefore try to strengthen and shape continuing education together, to find ways of solving problems, to acknowledge what has been tried and tested, and to support innovative developments and make it possible to take advantage of them for the expansion of continuing education and training.
Only together shall we develop a strategy for lifelong learning which can respond to people's different styles of living, working and learning in the future. Let us work at it, so that everyone has the opportunity to learn to meet new challenges.
The Volkshochschulen should continue to play the major part in this in future.
1 Schlussbericht der Expertenkommission Finanzierung lebenslanges Lernen, p. 120f.
2 Machbarkeitsstudiezum Weiterbildungspass (Feasibility study for a continuing education passport), Federal Ministry of Education and Research 2004, p. 67. Konzeptionelle Grundlagen fur einen nationalen Bildungsbericht (Principles of a National Education Report), Federal Ministry of Education and Research 2003: "Capturing and assessing informal types of learning should not go too far in the direction of a 'culture of certification' with narrow criteria and restrictions, but they should be documented by means of a conscious 'culture of recognition.'"
3 On average, around 35 formal network partners, especially continuing education establishments, and 94 informal partners, are involved in a Learning Region.
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