Internationalisation as a challenge for vocational education and training in Germany

Birgit Thomann

It has been a long time since it was possible to discuss and respond to issues relating to the future of vocational education and training solely within national contexts. The German VET system has been embedded into cross-border developments since as early as the 1980’s, when European educational programmes were established. Nevertheless, international vocational education and training topics have gained considerably in significance over recent years. The present article outlines three areas of activity in which the challenges of internationalisation are discernible.

A multi-faceted term

The term “internationalisation” circumscribes various dimensions of (state) cross-border activity and collaboration. With regard to vocational education and training in Germany, the consequences of worldwide interlinking of the markets for goods and services and of the labour market for the development of the national VET system are one aspect to be mentioned. Internationalisation of vocational education and training, however, also means the further development of processes within the framework of European educational policy conveyed by programmes and strategies. Last but not least, various VET cooperation that takes place with partners abroad should be added. This may be at the level of state cooperation agreements or involve consultancy on issues relating to system development or work carried out by a multitude of stakeholders who are active in the initial and continuing vocational education and training of skilled workers in other countries.

Although these dimensions are linked and are mutually inter-dependent in some cases, they will be presented below within the context of a terminological systemisation within their respectively specific main focuses.

Area of activity – the vocational education and training system in Germany

Because of demographic development and the requirement of trade and industry for skilled workers, vocational education and training in Germany is dependent on the successful socio-economic integration of young people from a migrant background via the vehicle of training and qualification and on qualified immigration. This especially applies in branches and occupations, in which shortages are foreseeable (e. g. in the healthcare and long-term care sector). The establishment of a welcoming culture, greater recognition of professional and vocational qualifications acquired abroad and improved credit transfer for competences gained via other means all have an important part to play in this process. Because other states have already developed procedures for the validation of competences obtained informally and non-formally and have gathered experience in this regard (e. g. France, Switzerland), networking is an enrichment for the forthcoming national development work to be carried out in Germany.

In order to align German vocational education and training in a more international manner, measures which foster the regional mobility of learners and teachers and promote cross-border cooperation should also be welcomed. Continuing focus needs to be directed towards implementing a systematic integration of intercultural and international competences into initial and continuing VET.

Area of activity – European vocational education and training policy

The EU is endeavouring to coordinate the VET policy of its member states and to achieve greater transparency in respect of such policy via an open method of coordination. The implementation of the European Qualifications Framework and German Qualifications Framework (EQF/DQR) the development of procedures for the recognition of educational achievements and the European Quality Assurance Reference Framework (EQA-VET) all provide important prerequisites in terms of retaining international connectivity and sufficient flexibility in German VET. The understanding of equivalence of vocational and academic education, as expressed in the DQR via the alignment of vocational qualifications such as master craftsman, certified senior clerk and technician to level 6 alongside Bachelor degrees, remains unique in this form within Europe thus far.

The EU is using central strategies and processes1 to pursue its aim of expanding competitiveness and creating a dynamic knowledge-based economic area. European reform endeavours aimed at promoting work-based learning (cf. European Commission 2013), cross-border mobility and cooperation (e. g. the Erasmus+ Programme and the European Alliance for Apprenticeships) are supporting this objective. Within this context, the evidence and results which have emerged from internationally comparative and European research and development projects demonstrate that the significance of reciprocal learning and of research-based policy consultancy is growing both within a national and international framework.

Area of activity – international vocational education and training cooperation

Whereas many states in Europe and a number of Asian countries (e. g. Japan and South Korea) have dramatically falling birth rates and an ageing society, other countries are facing the major task of putting sufficient education and training provision in place for an increasing number of young people. In global terms, the International Labour Organisation estimates that 74.5 million people aged between 15 and 25 are unemployed (cf. ILO 2014, p. 11) . These developments represent huge challenges for the modernisation of the respective educational systems and require a realignment of teaching and learning processes. The aim will be to achieve greater implementation of work-based, company-based or company-related forms of vocational training or to expand existing attractive approaches (cf. ETF 2014)2.

Within the scope of the vocational education and training cooperation carried out by the Federal Government, the focus is on incorporating the various strategies, structures and requirements to deliver tailored provision to support reforms undertaken by partner countries and thus contribute to economic and social development. In light of initial vocational education and training that is frequently aligned towards a school-based approach and is primarily the responsibility of the state, it is important within joint projects to integrate companies into training processes and to improve the general conditions governing vocational educating and training in the interests of shared responsibility on the part of government and industry. In July 2013, the Federal Government reacted to growing international demand for the dual system by issuing the strategy paper “Vocational education and training cooperation from a single source” (cf. Federal Government 2013). Its aims included the establishment of a central office at BIBB to deal with matters relating to VET cooperation in the form of the German Office for International Cooperation in VET – GOVET. Transparency in respect of activities and the institutions involved and a coherent “German approach” that is coordinated in the best possible way continue to constitute important objectives of German VET cooperation.

Challenge – limits of internationalisation?

The international integration of German VET and the development towards a European Education and Employment Area described still require communication and a mutual understanding as well as opportunities for reciprocal learning. We must not overlook the fact that internationalisation in vocational education and training might also have its limits and that there may be areas at a national level that remain apart from the tendency towards internationalisation. The debate to be conducted in this regard promises interesting insights, not least in respect of the core values of vocational education and training in Germany.

  • 1

    These primarily comprise the Copenhagen Process, the Bruges Communiqué on enhanced European Cooperation in Vocational Education and Training, the Riga Conclusions recently adopted, the Lisbon Strategy for Growth and Employment and “Education and Training 2020”, the strategic framework for European cooperation in education and training.

  • 2

    The areas of the world worst affected by youth unemployment are the MENA Region, which comprises the countries of the Middle East and North Africa, parts of South America and the countries of South-East Europe.


BUNDESREGIERUNG [GERMAN FEDERAL GOVERNMENT]: Internationale Berufsbildungszusammenarbeit aus einer Hand [Vocational education and training cooperation from a single source]. Federal Government strategic paper. Parliament Paper 17/14352 of. 05.07.2013 – URL: http://dip21.bundestag.de/dip21/ btd/17/143/1714352.pdf (retrieved 10.06.2015)

EUROPEAN COMMISSION: Work-based Learning in Europe – Practices and Policy Pointers. 2013

EUROPEAN TRAINING FOUNDATION (ETF): Work-based Learning –A Handbook for Policy Makers and Social Partners in ETF Partner Countries. 2014

INTERNATIONAL LABOUR ORGANISATION (ILO): Global Employment Trends 2014. Geneva 2014

Head of the “Internationalisation of Vocational Education and Training/Knowledge Management” Department at BIBB

Translation from the German original (published in BWP 4/2015): Martin Stuart Kelsey, Global Sprachteam Berlin

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