Klaus Hebborn

In Germany, in a time of increasing financial distress, there is a discussion about the tasks and responsibilities the municipalities have in the area of further training and what role is played by the German Adult Education schools, which are financed by the municipalities in this context as local training centres. They offer a wide variety of courses in various areas to make education affordable for normal citizens and are well-regarded. Klaus Hebborn is Councillor of the German Association of Cities and Board Member (Assessor) of the German Adult Education Association. The present text is an abridged reprint of “Kommunalität und Erwachsenenbildung heute”, Hessische Blätter für Volksbildung, No. 2/2005.

Municipal Commitment to Continuing Education and Vocational Training

Redefining the extent and form of public responsibility in German cities and municipalities


In Germany’s communal, or municipal, sector, the future “core tasks” of local self government have come to be the subject of regulatory and political debate in the light of necessary reforms on the one hand and the public financial crisis on the other. In this context, the question also arises as to the future shape of local responsibility for continuing education and vocational training. “Communality” and plurality have always been constitutive elements of public responsibility in the continuing education and training sector. Market-oriented or guarantor models of municipal responsibility for continuing education are not likely to foster sustainable continuing education structures considering that those models question the need for fundamental goals such as complete coverage, equal opportunities, and possibili-

ties for communities to shape their own training programmes. It is consequently imperative to maintain the dual character of the Volkshochschulen as institutions that cater to basic needs while ensuring a pluralistic continuing education landscape. The Länder are called upon to make adequate provision for continuing education and training. Furthermore, the legal basis for continuing education needs to be modernized on questions of deregulation and consolidation. It will be up to the federal government to increase interest and enrollment in continuing education and training measures by creating more conducive framework conditions.

On the Importance of Continuing Education and Training from a Municipal Standpoint

1. Continuing education and training in the context of lifelong learning

Various recent international studies have been largely responsibly for initiating and influencing the debate currently taking place around the subject of education reform in Germany. In the course of this debate, the entire German education system has come under close scrutiny, including the area of continuing education and training as a substantial element in the system of lifelong learning.

Measures relevant to education reform have also been the topic of intensive deliberation in the municipal sector. German cities and towns see themselves not simply as passive observers in the process, but as interested players taking an active role in initiatives aimed at shaping educational policy and implementing reform measures. In this respect, however, they face a dilemma. As the lowest level of government and the responsible authorities in many areas, they are particularly affected by the public financial crisis.1 The exigencies of educational reform stand in a hardly reconcilable relationship of tension with the constraints of the current financial situation.

Local government action in the area of continuing education and training has always proceeded from an understanding of education as an integrated process. According to this way of thinking, continuing education and training, while being geared to overall personality development, should be designed to develop skills that are useful on a long-term basis and versatile in their application. This acknowledges the economic importance of continuing education and training, but at the same time, by taking overall personality development into consideration, does not restrict the comprehension of continuing education and training one-sidedly to training of skills that are directly related to an occupation. When understood as a process which integrates specialized knowledge and general education, the concept of continuing education and training also encompasses an emancipatory function.

Seen in this light, continuing education contributes significantly both to ongoing individual development and to a sustainable future for the economy and for society as a whole. It ensures the progressive acquisition of know-how, skills, and qualifications, while fostering new vocational orientations against a background of changing occupational biographies. Moreover, continuing education is an important factor for the economic development of a region and its attractiveness as a location for business.

Brief mention is made to one more aspect that is relevant in this connection: Projections based on trends in demographic development consistently predict that at the latest by 2015, Germany will be facing a shortage of skilled workers and substantial qualification deficits. It is therefore crucial to foster the further develop ment of existing potential in the employment system through continuing education and training.2




Handicraft workshop in a Volkshochschule
Source: stockphoto




2. Continuing education as a factor behind economic growth and business location decisions

In view of the major social, technological, and structural changes that have long been taking place in Germany, both in the economic sector as well as on the vari ous levels of state and society, the business location factor has become a widely discussed issue. In this connection, continuing education, and further vocational training in particular, has gained even greater importance.

The starting point is the realization that only if we succeed in maintaining and improving the high level of qualifications in the working-age population, and only if sufficient numbers of highly-trained specialists with modern qualifications are available to fill the gaps in the labour market, will it be possible over the long term to secure economic growth, to sustain international competitiveness, to safeguard the social security system, and to ensure individual and social prosperity.

Moreover, continuing education constitutes a key strategic factor for the ongoing development of cities and regions in view of the quantitative as well as qualitative shifts in qualification requirements that go along with the far from complete process of structural change, the depreciation of available skills, and the accompanying disruptions in the employment system.3

Local Government and Responsibility for Continuing Education

1. Continuing education and communality

The tasks of local government in the continuing education sector are mainly de termined by the respective continuing education or adult education laws of the federal state (Land) in question. The models for financing and management that are regulated in these laws vary from Land to Land. Depending on fundamental political positions, continuing education and training are organized either with less govern ment intervention or with a greater degree of state control. The adult education laws in the southern German states of Baden-Wurttemberg and Bavaria, example given, are essentially financing laws. They contain general action frameworks which allow continuing education providers and institutions considerable freedom in the structur ing of their programmes. In Länder such as North Rhine-Westphalia and Hessen, however, the basic provision of continuing education and training, both in respect of quantity and learning content, is a “compulsory task” for local governments.

Irrespective of the legislative approach, however, “communality” has always been and continues to be a central feature of the continuing education sector in Germany. Based on the demand for a public system of continuing education, Ger-man cities, towns, municipalities, and counties have always viewed the provision of general and vocational continuing education and training as a task that falls within the sphere of their mandate to ensure basic public services for their citizens. Continuing education and training is, accordingly, one of the tasks of local self government which are guaranteed under Article 28 of the Basic Law.4

In the promotion and development of continuing education and training, the municipalities have a twofold task. On the one hand, they must ensure that there is an adequate level of local provision to meet learner demands. Central to this objective is cooperation with business enterprises, chambers of commerce, and the various continuing education and training institutions. Continuing education and training on the local and regional level is characterized by a multiplicity of different providers and institutions. This plurality is strongly supported by the municipalities. Continuing education and training on the basis of public responsibility is only feasible through a pluralistic system of provision.

On the other hand, the municipalities own and operate many educational and cultural institutions. The Volkshochschulen, which are part of the standard German education system, are the main community centres of continuing education and training in Germany.

2. The Volkshochschulen as communal centres of continuing education and training

The most visible expression of commitment to continuing education and training on the part of Germany’s communes is their sponsorship of around two thirds of the country’s nearly 1000 Volkshochschulen. But ”communality” also plays an important role for those Volkshochschulen in the various federal states which, as a result of prevailing conditions and their particular historical development, are owned by other entities, but operated under municipal influence and with municipal subsidies.

The Volkshochschulen have a long tradition in Germany’s communities. They provide area-wide coverage and offer a vast range of general and vocational continuing education courses and functions that are geared to their respective urban or regional localities and are based on an integrated concept of education. The Volkshochschulen guarantee universal access as well as openness in respect of subjects and methods. Beyond the tasks which they accomplish in the provision of education and the shaping of educational policy, there is another important function served by the Volkshochschulen. As places that facilitate communication in times of growing disintegration and diminishing solidarity, they are well positioned to foster socialization and integration. It can therefore be said that within the framework of public services, the Volkshochschulen constitute a central element of the municipal education infrastructure.

The main areas of focus at the various Volkshochsschulen have traditionally been foreign languages, health education, basic education, and programmes leading to the attainment of school-leaving qualifications. In recent years, contrary to popu lar opinion, the Volkshochschulen have expanded their programmes to include vocational and job-related continuing education and training. Vocational and employment-oriented training meanwhile accounts for approximately 20 percent of the programme offerings.5

Germany’s Volkshochschulen are held in exceptionally high regard among the country’s citizenry. Statistics provide impressive proof of this fact. Annual figures for enrolment (6.8 million participants) and classroom hours (15 million) have remained constant despite financing and programme cutbacks. During the sum mer of 2004, an independent market research institute was commissioned by the regional association of Volkshochschulen in North Rhine-Westphalia to conduct a state-wide opinion poll on the programmes conducted by the Volkshochschulen in the various municipalities. The results demonstrate the high quality and reputation of these establishments.6

3. Should municipalities be guarantors or providers?

The impact of the financial crisis on public budgets everywhere, together with the need for realignment in social security systems, has triggered considerable pressure for reform in every area at the communal level. What is called for is not merely the modernization of decision-making and operational structures of government administration. Standards of performance and even the entire range of public services are being put to the test. In the area of continuing education and training, the following aspects in particular are at the forefront of current deliberations:

  • In the wake of the progressively worsening communal financial crisis (in 2003 the deficit in communal budgets amounted to 8.5 billion Euro),7 and the cut backs in financing for continuing education and training on the part of the vari ous German Länder, many cities and towns have found themselves compelled to reduce municipal subsidies for the Volkshochschulen. Moreover, the closing down of Volkshochschulen is no longer a taboo in political discourse. In this context, local politicians are demanding, and in many cases imposing, the curtailment of Volkshochschule programmes, the generation of funds through increases in enrolment fees, and the mobilization of third party funds.
  • On every level of government, and in every political sphere, the future core tasks of the State have long been a subject of discussion. This debate has given rise to a widespread wave of deregulation that has also reached the municipal level. The aim of the deregulation process is to take a critical look at government regulations and examine their justification so as to reduce un necessary bureaucracy and eliminate investment constraints.
  • Possibilities are being discussed within the Volkshochschulen themselves for adopting a more market-oriented approach. The key issue in this context is the conflicting relationship between market-orientation in connection with more effective cost recovery strategies, and the social commitment to education which is traditional in the work of the Volkshochschulen. The stronger thrust in a “market” direction on the part of the Volkshochschulen has been subject to frequent criticism by other continuing education providers because of the public subsidization of Volkshochschulen. Moreover, the trend is not entirely unproblematic in the context of European subsidy regulations.
  • Lastly, changes are being considered in the legal form of the Volkshochschulen, and more financially efficient management strategies are being developed. The main alternatives of interest here are the semi-autonomous municipal agency (Eigenbetrieb) and the limited liability company (Gesellschaft mit beschränkter HaftungGmbH). Changes of this nature, which have already been introduced in some cases, aim at greater efficiency and flexibility, espe cially in the acquisition of third-party funds.





Lifelong Learning in the Volkshochschule
Source: stockphoto





At first glance, the main concern focuses mostly on the financial situation and the re sulting problems in maintaining area-wide reach and comprehensive programmes. There is no question that every potential must be exploited to optimize organiza tional processes and increase efficiency. A matter of even greater fundamental importance, however, is the policy debate over statutory regulations.

Because it creates greater organizational latitude and more leeway for action on the part of local governments, deregulation is basically a positive development from the standpoint of local autonomy. However, there is also the risk of a paradigm shift in educational policies under the banner of “deregulation”. As a consequence, public responsibility for continuing education might be called into question with the accompanying risk of being replaced by the guarantee model or the market prin ciple. Such a policy change would mean that the municipalities themselves would no longer be the actors in continuing education and training, but would only be responsible for coordinating local third-party offerings in the sector.

The conventional strategy of calling attention to the vital importance of continuing education and training in order to justify the demand for resources is not likely to be a very promising method for securing sustainable structures in view of the present financial situation and the competition for funds from other areas of public policy. In general, the education sector cannot avoid being involved in the regulatory policy debate around the question of how much State intervention is necessary and how much market-oriented intervention is possible – an issue which has been subject to repeated debate. This applies especially to the continuing education and training sector. Continuing education and training, as opposed to school education, is pri marily for adults, a focus group that can reasonably be expected to bear personal responsibility and invest private financial resources in their learning. Moreover, as pointed out earlier, the continuing education and training sector has always been a dualistic system with both public and private providers. The severe limitation of public finances necessarily requires an efficient and target-oriented use of avail able funds. Decisions regarding allocations are highly political and accordingly must be reached through the workings of political process at the relevant levels of responsibility.

Notwithstanding the market orientation that already exists to some extent, it would only be suitable to a limited degree for the education sector, and conse quently also for continuing education and training, if the Länder and municipalities were to adopt a “market model” or an arrangement whereby they would withdraw from their responsibility and merely act as guarantors. Organizing continuing education and training exclusively according to market principles would call into question key principles of education and social policy including area-wide pro grammes, universal access, and support for the socially disadvantaged. Is it likely that a market-driven provider would offer continuing education and training in a rural or economically underdeveloped area? Who would provide disadvantaged or hard-to-reach members of the population with such low-profit courses as literacy training or German for foreigners? In the long run, public institutions would be expected to continue to accommodate these areas, while more profitable subjects, such as foreign languages, health education, and the new technologies, would be covered by private providers, thus reducing public responsibility to a residual responsibility.

Reducing the responsibility of a municipality to that of a guarantor could chal lenge the very existence of the Volkshochschule. Under the guarantor model, the task of local government would merely be restricted to guaranteeing a given quan tity of provision and coverage in specific content areas. In an extreme case it would be possible for this entire coverage to be provided by third party institutions to the exclusion of the Volkshochschule. Such a situation would deprive municipalities of their means to control and shape the areas of educational, labour-market, and social policy. The result would be the loss of local self-governance in education.

A further argument in favour of maintaining public, or municipal, responsibility for continuing education and training is based on various international studies, including the PISA studies on student performance and “Education at a Glance”, an annual study conducted by the OECD.8 These studies show that in an international comparison, the correlation between social origin and level of attained education is the strongest in Germany. What is more, class-specific inequality of opportunity carries over from elementary school into tertiary and continuing education. It is obviously not possible to offset inequalities during the course of an educational career. On the contrary, the disparities tend not only to persist into adulthood, but to grow even stronger. It follows from this that mechanisms of control aimed at quality assurance and equal opportunities need to be established by the State also in continuing education and training.

In its recently published final report, the independent Expert Commission on Financing Lifelong Learning appointed by the Federal Ministry for Research and Education (Bundesministerium für Forschung und Bildung BMBF) argued the need for the various Länder and municipalities to maintain basic public provision of general, political, and cultural continuing education, both now and in the future. The Commission proposed that only those courses and functions should be subsi dized which are deemed of public interest or of special public interest.9 The Expert Commission’s proposal should be supported. The current Volkshochschulen pro grammes include vocational training and occupational-related training. Although this goes beyond the scope of coverage called for in the Commission report, these areas must remain part of a holistic approach to the yet to be defined scope of basic provision. The proposal to concentrate public funding on offerings of public interest appears to be justified considering how crucial it is in times of financial crisis to keep public funding closely oriented to goals and purpose. Nevertheless, the practical implementation of this policy may prove problematic. In particular, it will not be easy to decide what subject areas constitute a public interest and to distinguish those areas from others which do not. This became apparent, for example, during the process of amending the Continuing Education and Training Act of North-Rhine Westphalia.

On the whole it can be said that to preserve public or local responsibility for continuing education and training is as important as it is to maintain a plurality of providers. Abdicating this responsibility might result in short-term public savings and bring temporary relief for municipal budgets; but in the long run such a policy would be short-sighted and contra-productive considering the important role played by continuing education and training for the municipalities, as well as the need that exists to increase participation. Consequently, continuing education and training is – and will continue to remain – a public and municipal task.


Due to the escalating financial crisis that is draining public budgets everywhere, public authorities are being forced to make substantial changes and carry out severe cuts in spending. There is an urgent need for communication between the various German Länder and their respective municipalities to decide on how to organize public responsibility in the future. Priority must be given in this respect to issues related to basic provision, plurality, and equal opportunities. Fundamental legislation must be reviewed and adapted to the new reality. Local authorities must be granted a wide range of freedom to decide how to use scarce resources within the framework of legal regulations.

The future commitment of Germany’s municipalities will largely depend on the outcome of this discussion process. Structural changes in the Volkshochschulen must also be taken into account in the development of strategies for consolidation at the municipal level and deliberations on reform. Changes will be needed for the Volkshochschulen to be able to successfully accomplish their future tasks and meet future challenges also in times of financial difficulty.

An important step will be to further relax the tethers that bind continuing educa tion and training to cultural and educational policy and to integrate the sector more closely into other policy areas, specifically at the local level of structural and labour policy. In this way public responsibility for continuing education and training will not be a mere buzzword, but a vital, on-site component of municipal continuing education policy.

The current debate on the future of continuing education and the sector’s financ ing structure is a step in this direction. Despite the painful adjustments required in the wake of the financial crisis, the situation is also an opportunity to create new trend-setting structures in municipal and hence public continuing education and training.


Education at a Glance 2004. OECD. Paris 2004.

“Gemeindefinanzbericht 2004” [Local Community Finance Report 2004] in Der Städtetag [The German Association Cities], 1/2004. Carl Heymanns Verlag, Cologne.

Ekkehard Nuissl (ed.): Standortfaktor Weiterbildung [Continuing Education as a Location Fac tor]. Bad Heilbrunn 1995.

Klaus Pehl/Gerhard Reitz: Volkshochschul-Statistik. Issue 42 for the working year 2003. Deut sches Institut für Erwachsenenbildung [German Institute for Adult and Continuing Education]. Bonn 2004.

Perspektiven kommunaler Weiterbildungspolitik. Empfehlungen des Kulturausschusses des Deut schen Städtetages [Perspectives on Municipal Continuing Education of the Cultural Committee of the German Association of Towns and Cities]. Cologne 1996.

Zukunft von Bildung und Arbeit – Perspektiven von Arbeitskräftebedarf und -angebot bis 2015. Bericht der Bund-Länder-Kommission (BLK) an die Regierungschefs von Bund und Ländern. [The Future of Education and Work – Projections on the supply and demand for skilled work ers to 2015. Report presented by the Federation-State Commission for Educational Planning and Research Promotion (BLK) to the government heads of the Federation and States]. Bonn 2001.





Study visit to Germany
Source: Nazaret Nazaretyan





1 Translator’s note: For an outline of the principles that guide German local self government laws and a better understanding of the concepts of Germany’s public administration and local self government sector referred to in this paper see, e.g., Erich Tilhorn’s article entitled “Local Self Government in Germany – an Outline” in “’Reforming Local Public Administration – Efforts and Perspectives in South-East European Countries” published by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Zagreb, 2004. The document can be downloaded at: http:// library.fes.de/cgi-bin/populo/digbib.pl?f_ABC=kroat&t_listen=x&sortierung=jab

2 Cf. Zukunft von Bildung und Arbeit – Perspektiven von Arbeitskräftebedarf und -angebot bis 2015. Bericht der Bund-Länder-Kommission (BLK) an die Regierungschefs von Bund und Ländern [The Future of Education and Work – Projections on the supply and demand for skilled workers to 2015. Report presented by the Federation-State Commission for Educational Planning and Research Promotion (BLK) to the government heads of the Federation and States]. Bonn 2001.

3 See Klaus Hebborn: ‚Weiterbildung und Regionalentwicklung‘ [Continuing Education and Regional Development], in Nuissl, Ekkehard (ed.) Standortfaktor Weiterbildung [Continuing Education as a Location Factor]. Bad Heilbrunn 1995. p. 16 ff.

4 See Perspektiven kommunaler Weiterbildungspolitik. Empfehlungen des Kulturausschusses des Deutschen Städtetages. [Perspectives in municipal continuing education policy. Recommendations proposed by the Cultural Committee of the German Association of Cities]. Cologne 1996.

5 Cf.. Klaus Pehl/Gerhard Reitz, Volkshochschul-Statistik, issue 42, for the working year 2003, Deutsches Institut für Erwachsenenbildung [German Institute for Adult and Continuing Education], Bonn 2004.

6 The study Die Volkshochschulen in Nordrhein-Westfalen im Meinungsbild 2004 [North-Rhine-Westphalia’s Volkshochschulen as reflected in public opinion 2004] is available from the Landesverband der Volkshochschulen von NRW (North-Rhine Westphalian Regional Association of Volkshochschulen), Heiliger Weg 7 – 9, 44135 Dortmund, or may be downloaded at www.vhs-nrw.de

7 Cf. “Gemeindefinanzbericht” [Local Community Financial Report] 2004, in Der Städtetag [The German Association of Cities], 1/2004, Carl Heymanns Verlag, Cologne, p. 6 ff.

8 Cf. Education at a Glance, OECD, September 2004.

9 Cf. Finanzierung Lebenslangen Lernens – der Weg in die Zukunft. Schlussbericht der Expertenkommission Finanzierung Lebenslangen Lernens [Financing Lifelong Learning – the Path to the Future. Final Report of the Expert Commission on Financing Lifelong Learning], Bertelsmann Verlag, Bielefeld 2004, p. 218 ff.

Important notice: If you click on this link, you will leave the websites of DVV International. DVV International is not responsible for the content of third party websites that can be accessed through links. DVV International has no influence as to which personal data of yours is accessed and/or processed on those sites. For more information, please review the privacy policy of the external website provider.