Rita Süssmuth

Prof. Dr. Rita Süssmuth, the long-standing President of the DW, made the opening speech, in which she welcomed well over 1500 German and foreign guests and stressed the importance of adult education for development in all areas of society. Only continual lifelong learning could guarantee sustained economic growth and therefore needed to remain a public responsibility. She highlighted the role of the 1000 and more Volkshochschulen (community adult education centres) in Germany.

Opening Speech

Ladies and gentlemen,

honoured guests from home and abroad,

"A time to make friends" is the motto of the Football world Cup that is to open shortly in Germany.

In a certain sense this also applies to the 12th German Adult Education Conference here at the Berlin Congress Centre, to which I warmly welcome you all.

It is a great honour for us, Mr President of the Federal Republic, that you are present among us. We fully understand of course that you need to leave us in an hour because of pressing commitments.

The times are difficult - in continuing education as in other fields. We therefore take your visit as a particularly encouraging sign of your interest in our work, and of your support.

Mr President, you once said: "We need teachers who are burning to teach their pupils things." That applies of course not just to schools but also to adult education. Here too, you will meet people with similar burning commitment.

As our host, so to speak, I welcome the Education Senator of Berlin, Mr Klaus Böger. Without the help of the Federal Capital, which has offered exemplary financial and organizational assistance, the Adult Education Conference would not have been possible in this form. Many thanks for the invitation to Berlin and the exceptional support.

Our next guest faces a mammoth task: EU Education Commissioner Ján Figel. With you at our head, Mr Figel, we are creating a European space of lifelong learning. You can rest assured that the Volkshoch-schulen will continue to support you to the best of their abilities. Welcome to Berlin.

The new Federal Government has promised us that it will expand continuing education as the fourth pillar of the education system. We are thrilled that this is a policy priority, Madam Minister of Education Dr Annette Schavan. In continuing education policy-making we need personalities such as you who are seriously committed to this work. We are delighted that you will speak today about "The Educational Outlook in Germany - the Volkshochschulen as Partners". You are very welcome.

I also warmly welcome Minister of State Prof Dr Maria Böhmer. Integration and education are crucial topics that are often distorted and discussed one-sidedly in our society. Let us continue to work together so that a positive atmosphere is created for integration.

The mothers and fathers of the Volkshochschulen are the local authorities, represented today by the President of the German Association of Cities, the Governing Mayor of Munich Christian Ude.

What would the Volkshochschulen be without their local authorities? And what would local communities be without their Volkshochschulen? Welcome to the heart of your institutions, Mr Ude.

Volkshochschulen need the support of politicians. I warmly welcome Members of the European Parliament, of the German Bundestag and the Land Parliaments, the many Land chief executives, mayors and deputy mayors, and members of regional and local councils.

The President of the International Council for Adult Education, Prof Dr Paul Bélanger, has travelled a particularly long way to be with us, namely from Montreal. Thank you for taking part.

Volkshochschulen are increasingly networking on a global scale, since international understanding, intercultural dialogue and social inequality are challenges which exceed purely national solutions. This international context of our work is reflected in an impressive list of guests from abroad: partners from Africa, the Arab states, Asia and the Pacific, North and South America, and all regions of Europe are here, from over 60 countries, including Ministers and Deputy Ministers from a number of countries.

I welcome you all most warmly.

The same applies to the guests of honour from our own ranks. Among us are the former honorary chairs of the Association Prof Dr Günther Dohmen, Heinz Theodor Jüchter, Dr Lothar Arabin and Doris Odendahl, and the former directors of the Association Claus Kerner and Prof Dr Volker Otto. And you too, Mrs Helga Meissner, are naturally also part of the family. We are all sad that our long-serving honorary chair Kurt Meissner can no longer participate in this Adult Education Conference.

I also welcome most warmly the chairs and directors of our member bodies, the Land Adult Education Associations.

I should also like to thank and welcome our media partners, RundfunkBerlin-Brandenburg, and its Director General, Dagmar Reim. Ms Reim, you guided us through the last Adult Education Conference. The fact that you have come back again demonstrates your solidarity with our work. Many thanks.

It is also due to our sponsors that this event has been made possible. I am most grateful for the generous support of the publishers Ernst Klett, digital publishing, Langenscheidt, Hueber and Cornelsen, and especially our subsidiary company Weiterbildungstestsysteme GmbH, WBT. I also thank our public sponsors, the various Federal Ministries, without whose support this Conference would have been on a far smaller scale.

And last but not least, equally warmly, I welcome the very many participants from the Volkshochschulen and the national organizations and institutions of continuing education.

This Conference exceeds our expectations. Never before have there been more than 1500 participants taking part in a German Adult Education Conference. This Conference is the largest conference on adult education that has ever taken place in Germany, and possibly in Europe.

An event of this size creates organizational challenges, because rooms can only accommodate limited numbers of people. I welcome in particular those among you who can only take part in the opening ceremony today via video link. I beg your indulgence.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We have entitled this 12th Adult Education Conference Learn something new - Shape the future - Bring people together.

This is intended to show that the Volkshochschulen are responding to new developments and challenges, that they are open to innovations and new cultures of learning, and are themselves developing new ways of teaching and learning. Hence "Learn something new".

Education is the most important raw material for the democratic, social, economic and peaceful development of all societies. We are making a significant contribution by offering everyone the opportunity through continuing education to develop their personalities and to play a part in political, cultural and working life. No one may be abandoned. We cannot allow around 20 % of the younger generation to go missing. That is why we say: "Shape the future".

As local institutions serving the common good, the Volkshochschulen always address their provision to adults and young people from a range of ethnic and social backgrounds. Integrating people into a shared and tolerant society is one of our most important tasks. Hence "Bring people together".

There has been a German Adult Education Conference every five years since 1951. It provides the opportunity to take stock, to seek reassurance and to identify tasks for the future, as well as being a forum for discussion, for formulating continuing education policy statements, and for a friendly social gathering at our traditional Volkshochschule festival.

At this Adult Education Conference we want to make it plain that the 1000 Volkshochschulen, which serve nearly 10 million people in Germany every year, still demonstrate an impressive range of provision despite increasingly tight room for financial manoeuvre, are innovative and - very importantly - enjoy a high degree of esteem among learners.

In the many forums and specialist events today and tomorrow, we shall address core themes and issues of relevance to continuing education:

  • working and learning conditions in 2020,
  • new business strategies in continuing education,
  • the lessons currently being learnt from brain research,
  • demographic change,
  • the integration of migrants and the cohesion and integration of all the people living in this country.

Ladies and gentlemen,

  • in view of the continuing depressingly high figure of nearly 5 million unemployed,
  • of an annual rate of 8.5 % of all young people leaving school without any secondary leaving qualifications,
  • in the light of 4 million illiterates,
  • of the challenges raised by globalization and demographic change to the ways in which people manage their lives,
  • given the difficulties posed by the convergence of Europe,
  • and the increasing linguistic and social isolation of people from other backgrounds,
  • in view of the decline in trust among the population in democratic institutions,
  • and of the fact that participation in continuing education has once again been falling since 2000,

we need a continuing education offensive in Germany.

Paying cheap lip service to the growing importance of continuing education for the future of people in Germany does not sit well with making massive cuts in financial support. It is not merely not credible, but it is also socially and economically short-sighted and counterproductive.

All established academic commentators agree that there can be no sustainable economic growth in Germany if underinvestment in continuing education continues. There is no shortage of carefully considered proposals. The recommendations of both the Expert Commission on "Funding Lifelong Learning" and the so-called Tim-mermann Commission in 2004, and the DW initiative "Innovint - Innovation through Integration" of the same year put forward promising methods and strategies for combating the destruction of the continuing education infrastructure (closure of establishments and reduction in range of subjects) and for enhancing continuing education motivation and participation.

So far, these suggestions have largely remained unheeded by policymakers. The Coalition Agreement between the CDU/CSU and the SPD does, however, contain an encouraging passage that includes the phrase, "...making continuing education the fourth pillar of the education system in the medium term...". We expect the Federal Government to ensure that this statement has practical consequences.

There are nonetheless two preconditions: first, appreciably more resources need to be provided by the Federal Government, the Laender and the local authorities, and secondly, the forthcoming federal reform must not shut all doors in the area of education policy and remove from the Federal Government all policy-making powers. I therefore expressly appeal from this place to the Federal and Land Governments to make the necessary amendments to the legislation before it is too late.

Continuing education must remain a public responsibility, in which Federal, Land and local government play their appropriate parts. The privatization of continuing education, which is being promulgated by interested parties, would deepen yet further the social divisions in our society.

Volkshochschulen offer a wide range of high-quality provision in all subject areas which is crucial to the future of both the individual and the economy and society.

The Volkshochschulen are open to what is new, but they stand by their principles. The most important of these is that continuing education must be open to all, regardless of their income, for one of the functions of continuing education is to provide a second chance. Only continuing education that is a public responsibility and is publicly supported can ensure that illiterates, school drop-outs, the unemployed and migrants have a fair chance of continuing education at affordable prices.

Volkshochschulen offer much in the area of integration. Their low-threshold provision, although still too little, gives people from foreign backgrounds the opportunity to integrate linguistically and socially into their new home.

A third of all integration courses that meet the requirements of the new Immigration Act took place in Volkshochschulen in 2005. The Volkshochschulen are a reliable partner for the Federal Government in this field and therefore expect the Government to be a reliable partner in terms of funding. In the area of integration there is still much room for improvements in quality.

As President of the DW, and as former Chair of the Immigration Commission, I appeal to the Federal Government to abandon proposed cuts in the area of integration.

Ultimately we have to recognise that we are a country of immigration and that we need immigration in order to survive economically, partly because of demographic changes. Integration does not come free of charge. If we wish to avoid parallel societies and ghettoization, and to create living conditions that are worthy of all the people in this country, we must make the necessary resources available, without erecting bureaucratic obstacles.

Ladies and gentlemen,

This Adult Education Conference will send out four policy signals:

  1. Every additional euro for lifelong learning will encourage economic growth. Germany needs a continuing education offensive in order to regain its competitiveness. In a knowledge-based society in which knowledge is constantly changing, education and economic growth are inseparably linked.
  2. The 1000 German Volkshochschulen have to be guaranteed adequate, reliable funding from public sources. Because the network of Volkshochschulen offers everyone local access to high-quality continuing education provision, they are indispensable partners of the state in creating a lifelong learning society. After the drastic and irresponsible cuts in funding of recent years, this precious resource must be strengthened once again.
  3. Federal, Land and local government must work together to address the future tasks of continuing education. In the reform of the federalist model, we can no longer afford political wrangling over responsibilities.
  4. Federal, Land and local government must facilitate lifelong learning for all, by giving the educationally disadvantaged the right to a second chance through the Volkshochschulen, and making additional provision for the integration of migrants. Society must not fall apart any further.

I hope we shall all enjoy interesting and fruitful discussions and conversations, fresh ideas and a new impetus for our work. Let us fight together for the future of continuing education!

I declare the 12th German Adult Education Conference open.