In the last issue we announced the 11th German Adult Education Conference. This was held in November 2001 and attracted over 1000 visitors and considerable international participation.

The President of the Federal Republic of Germany, Johannes Rau, opened the event. We include his speech on the role of continuing education in a knowledge-based society, together with the address given at the conference by Ms Viviane Reding, EU Commissioner for Education and Culture, on Lifelong Learning in Europe and the role of adult education centres.

Is the gap between rich and poor widening? Or can globalization be controlled so that all benefit? Prof. Dr. Franz Nuscheler critically examines this issue in his paper “Globalization - Is the South Losing Touch?” The author is Professor and Head of the Institute for Development and Peace at the University of Duisburg, a member of the Scientific Advisory Committee to the Federal Government on “Global Environmental Change” (WGBU), and a member of the Commission of Inquiry on “Globalization of the Economy”.

The paper by Marcie Boucouvalas and John A. Henschke, which they prepared for the German Adult Education Conference, looks at the meaning of globalization for international cooperation and new partnerships from an American standpoint in the light of the terrible events of 11 September 2001. Marcie Boucouvalas is Professor of Adult Edu­cation and Human Resource Development (HRD) at Virginia Polytechnic and State University, and John A. Henschke is Associate Professor of Education at the Division of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, College of Education at the University of Missouri St. Louis, USA.

At the end, Prof.(H) Dr. Heribert Hinzen, Director of the IIZ/DVV, gives his impressions of this major event, and raises some critical questions.

Johannes Rau

Inaugural Address of the 11th German Adult Education Conference


For some time no contribution to the debate about education has been complete without mention of the term “the knowledge society”. I admit that I have some problems with this. Either the term is meaningless - the Neanderthalers already had knowledge when they were banging about with stone axes - or it is misleading. All the same, there seems to me to be a widespread belief that knowledge is some kind of super petrol which you only need to put in the car to make the engine turn faster. That is obviously untrue, since knowledge without judgment is like petrol without lubricating oil. Anyone who has a lot of it may be able to drive, but won’t be going anywhere. The engine inside his or her head will give up the ghost at the next bend. In the literal sense of the word.

But it is true that we live in a civilization which relies on scientific and technical knowledge. Anyone wanting to cope in this world must be able and willing to learn, and must be able and willing to make judgments throughout life.

Are we equipped to do so? Germany remains one of the most scientifically advanced countries. The OECD has just certified that we have an above-average level of education. This is not an occasion for self-congratulation, however. Education must once more be given considerably higher priority, and we must focus specifically on those points where something must really be done. There is no need to be alarmist, however, merely to “keep gnawing at the problem” as the saying goes.

The specific shortcomings of the German education system did not come about yesterday. Nor did they come about twenty or thirty years ago, as they often go back a long way in the history of German education. They are therefore pretty tough shortcomings, thick and knotty and made of hardwood. They are not known for their flexibility.

Shortcomings like that need a good set of incisors and stamina if we are not to run out of breath. One of these shortcomings is the low priority given to the transfer of knowledge in our education system. That is what I intend to speak about today.


Talk about the knowledge society generally refers to the universities, and not infrequently to the production of knowledge. There can be no question that lively and innovative research in the natural and liberal sciences is at the heart of any modern education system, and must be kept in good order in future. But an organism can only function if not only the heart is in good order, but also the blood vessels. The same is true of education. If the knowledge which is produced in research does not reach the places for which it is intended, the organism will fall ill at a certain point. If the interchange between the circulating knowledge and the latticework of social life is not working, the circulatory system will break down and sooner or later the heart will stop beating.

The arteries through which education and training flow in our society has many ramifications. A key role is played both by higher education institutions, schools and Volkshochschulen (adult education centres), and by business, which makes its contribution through the Dual System. But it is obvious throughout that we are not giving the attention to the transfer of knowledge that it deserves. We nurse the heart but let the arteries become clogged. Let me illustrate the situation with a few shining examples:

  • In universities, teaching has always played second fiddle to research. This continues to be evident in the extremely high figures for student drop-out.
  • We concentrate on the universities and do not do nearly enough for technical higher education in the Fachhochschulen. This is apparent in their slow rate of growth and the continuing limited range of subjects on offer in the Fachhochschulen.
  • We devote more resources to higher education than to school education and allow teaching staffs and equipment in schools to become older and older.
  • We focus our efforts on the final years of secondary education and neglect kindergartens, and pre-school and primary education.
  • And finally, despite the lip-service paid to the need for lifelong learning, the emphasis is still on encouraging schools and higher education.

Instead of bite-sized learning offered bit by bit in response to individual needs, circumstances and inclinations, knowledge is generally provided in the form of a ten-course set menu in the various stages of our education system. Continuing education institutions may be praised to the skies, but they are the Cinderella of the education system, seldom properly fed and clothed.

The basic pattern is the same everywhere. Those areas and stages of the education system where knowledge transfer does not generally happen automatically are neglected. Savings are made where teaching and teachers need particular attention and special resources. If one thing is true in the debate about the knowledge society, then it is surely that more and more people will in future need and want to have a share in knowledge. This will not replace the production of new knowledge, certainly. But it would also be totally wrong to play off research against education and to preach about how wonderful research is in run-down classrooms.

The transfer of knowledge must at last be given the priority which it deserves. Improving the transfer of knowledge includes giving due weight to continuing education and those bodies which sponsor it. The frequently derided and seldom read Weimar Constitution states that: “Public education, including the Volkshochschulen (adult education centres), shall be supported by the Reich (central government), the Länder and the local communities.” This lays down a principle that is more relevant than ever today. Particularly in an aging society, continuing education is not a luxury but an urgent requirement.


For the future development of continuing education I feel it is important that we should avoid one mistake from which our education system has been suffering up to now. Despite all our efforts to change, we still think too much in terms of a traditional system of entitlement to education that is defined and monitored by the State. As a result, our education system is far too rigid in many respects. People who for whatever reason cannot or will not follow the established paths of educational progression face problems in Germany. It is still far too difficult to move from one educational track to another, and the links between them are too few.

The strict divisions between educational institutions are a general problem. They are particularly harmful in continuing education. In the final analysis, it is vital to continuing education that everyone should have access to it at all times, and should be able to swap from one sort of provision to another and to join and leave at any moment, depending on what suits each person best. It is vital to continuing education that all social needs and interests should be catered for and that widely varying requirements and demands should be taken into account.

This high degree of flexibility can only be achieved if all who can contribute to continuing education work together and build networks that are both flexible and strong. But such networks need firm foundations. They need pillars to rest on, so that they are stable and reliable. We have these pillars. They are the thousand Volkshochschulen in our country, more than in any other country in Europe.

Many people will ask: what can you learn there? And the mockers who always have a ready answer will say “Crochet for left-handers”. You are all familiar with this distorted image of the Volkshochschulen. It is a pre­judice, unfair and untrue. Precisely because we live in a society in which lifelong learning is so important, I am particularly anxious that we should fiercely combat this false image that floats around in many people’s heads.

The Volkshochschulen provide a range of services which focus on topics of particular relevance in our present situation. Language courses, electronic data processing and human health are on offer almost everywhere. Professional courses are provided for business. In many Länder, for example, inservice training for teachers is also provided on behalf of the Land authorities. This means that the Volkshochschulen need to perform a difficult balancing act. On the one hand they are educational institutions which are intended to provide all groups of the population with access to knowledge, and on the other, they are expected to compete successfully with the specialized provision of commercial institutes which target a small clientele that is well able to pay.

I am not saying that the Volkshochschulen should aim to turn into a sort of milch cow that will also give wool and lay eggs for everyone. But I am saying that their difficult task of being education centres for all is also their greatest opportunity.

The Volkshochschulen must, of course, make provision for those who lack privileged access to knowledge. But it is unfair that this educational task of the Volkshochschulen should have led to their being dismissed as educational institutes for the poor - leaving aside the fact that I cannot see what is contemptible in that.

But alongside the provision for so-called average consumers, the programmes of the Volkshochschulen are also targeted at a quite different clientele. Quite right, I believe. I refer to their provision for specialists and professionals which can compete with that of the commercial institutes. I know that this branch of Volkshochschule activities is sometimes criticized. But I should like to ask why a Volkshochschule which is worthy of the name should not be able to offer something for all of the people.

The broad range of educational provision of the Volkshochschulen helps to prevent the knowledge society from becoming a divided society. The figures speak for themselves. In North Rhine-Westphalia alone, a Land which I know relatively well, nearly two million people - more than ten per cent of citizens - took part in 1999 in one of over 90,000 courses offered by the Volkshochschulen. In the whole of Germany, the Volkshochschulen provided fifteen million 45-minute units of tuition last year, in over 500,000 courses.


Institutions which are as quick on their feet and react as rapidly as the Volkshochschulen need money. Many people think that citizens should pay for their own continuing education since it necessarily serves the interests of the individual rather than those of society in general.

Many of the bodies sponsoring Volkshochschulen also expect their provision to relieve the pressure on the public purse. This is wrong. Of course there is a demand from individuals for the sort of continuing education provided by the Volkshochschulen and others. It is also true that a material contribution can be demanded from people who are pursuing personal needs, interests or inclinations. While everyone may be entitled to learn to swim while at school, there is no automatic right to the requisite free bathing costume of one’s choice after leaving school.

All this does not mean, however, that the Länder and the local communities - not to mention enterprises - do not derive huge benefits from properly functioning continuing education, and from the Volkshochschulen in particular. They must surely also have a stake in their operating better in future than they do at present.

In our society, continuing education must not become a luxury affordable only for the few. This would directly affect those who need continuing education the most. Continuing education must be affordable for all. For that reason, the Volkshochschulen are the key focal points in the continuing education networks. Not only do they offer provision of high quality, but it is also affordable. But they cannot do this if the State withdraws support.

On average, 40 per cent of the annual budget of the German Volks­hochschulen, 1.8 billion marks, is already contributed by students through fees. I find that a lot.

In many Länder, this percentage is appreciably higher, sometimes over 50 per cent. It must and shall not increase further, even though savings have to be made in public funds. The Volkshochschulen and their educational activities must be worth something to us in money terms - indeed more than they now receive.


But money is not everything. It is also vital that teachers and students of Volkshochschulen should be enthusiastic, not merely working through a prescribed programme but making a commitment from the heart. We have plenty of reasons to be grateful to the teachers - for ensuring at their places of work that the circulation of knowledge keeps flowing, for putting their whole heart into the transfer of knowledge, for being able also to listen, for making room for people’s own suggestions, and for turning new ideas into interesting course provision. Our Volkshochschulen could not be conceived of without this human commitment. It is my plea and my hope that they do not cease in their efforts to make education available to all. Everywhere, throughout life and on a human scale.

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