Tertiary education of the future – a comparison between Germany and Switzerland

Ute Hippach-Schneider

Both the German Council of Science and Humanities and the Swiss Science Council have formulated recommendations on the future shaping of the relationship between vocational and academic or tertiary education. Two very different educational policy concepts and strategies clearly emerge, and these are compared in this article.

Dynamics between vocational and academic education

Changes at one place in the educational system generally exert overall impacts. They generate reciprocal effects with other educational areas and may lead to shifts within the entire system. An increase in attractiveness within one sector acts in the same way as communicating vessels to produce pressure on competing areas.

Over recent years, there has been a change in the field of tertiary education in Germany to the extent that the higher education sector has exhibited strong growth both in terms of demand and participation. The number of students increased by 42 per cent between 2006 and 2016 to reach 2.8 million, although this growth has subsequently weakened (c.f. Bundesamt für Statistik [Federal Statistical Office] 2018). Most noticeable is the rise in students at universities of applied sciences. This figure has gone up by 77 per cent during the same period. 34 per cent of students now attend a university of applied sciences (as of 2016). Ten years ago, the corresponding proportion was 27 per cent (ibid.). By way of contrast, the proportion of students at universities has fallen from 70 to 63 per cent. Private universities of applied sciences are demonstrating particularly strong growth. Nationwide, the number of such institutions increased almost fivefold between 1995/96 and 2016/17 from 20 to 98. They offer a multitude of practice or vocation-oriented programmes of study alongside vocation preparation courses. This provision is also aimed at persons in employment. Dual courses of higher education study play an important role because they are directly aligned to the competence needs of trade and industry (cf. author group Bildungsberichterstattung 2018). In Switzerland, the number of students in the higher education sector underwent a comparatively moderate increase of around 29 per cent between 2006 and 2016.1 In light of the complex interplay that takes place between educational sectors, (cf. WOLTER 2017) the question arises as to how these developments will affect the attractiveness of VET in overall terms and of initial VET in particular. Differing stakeholder constellations in the educational sectors, especially the role played by companies and trade unions, are necessitating strategic considerations on how the relationship between vocational and academic education should be structured over the coming years within the scope of a cross-cutting approach. For this reason, it is no coincidence that both the Wissenschaftsrat (WR) [Council of Science and Humanities] in Germany and the Swiss Science Council (SWIR) submitted proposals in this regard in 2014 (cf. SWIR 2014; WR 2014). Despite the many similarities that exist between these two VET systems, it is noticeable that two very different concepts and strategies clearly emerge.

Differing terminology – a differing understanding of tertiary education

The main difference is encapsulated in the very terminology deployed. Whereas the WR uses the term “tertiary education” as a synonym for higher education and thereby excludes advanced vocational training, the SWIR makes it clear that tertiary education in Switzerland encompasses both higher education (Tertiary A) and the field of professional education, which also includes vocational and higher specialist examinations and the higher trade and technical schools (Tertiary B). In Switzerland, the equivalence of these two sectors at tertiary level is enshrined in law.

WR – hybridisation and expansion of higher education provision

The WR aspires to achieve greater attractiveness for (initial) VET or “a reduction in the gap in appeal between vocational and academic education” (WR 2014, p. 90) by opening up access to institutes of higher education for all persons in possession of a vocational qualification, even for those who do not have a higher education entrance qualification or have not gained several years of occupational experience. A parallel aim is to expand the spectrum of provision at institutes of higher education by introducing “low threshold programmes of study” which do not lead to an academic qualification (ibid., p. 87). The objective is to cover the “selective” need for persons completing vocational education and training to acquire academic contents for which an entire course of study is not required. Although the possible effects on established forms and formats of advanced vocational training are not addressed, the WR also takes the view that advanced VET provision should be further opened up to interested persons who are in possession of higher education qualifications. It believes that this will produce benefits for those who have pursued an academic route because they will be able to extend their competence profile significantly (ibid., p. 94).

In addition, the WR is seeking to develop hybrid training formats further. As a consequence of the strong demand for dual programmes of study, it believes that a new third type of training is becoming established alongside VET and “regular” higher education study. This could lead to an assimilation of the social esteem in which vocational and academic education is held (ibid., p. 95). Hybrid training models are seen as an important tool for securing a supply of skilled workers.

The WR also proposes that advanced vocational training should undergo hybrid expansion via the introduction of additional academic modules for purposes such as imparting special theoretical knowledge or academic research methods. The question of how this proposal relates to the idea of introducing “low threshold” higher education provision (see above) is left unanswered. It seems that two very similar types of educational programmes are being suggested and that the main difference is that one programme is categorised as “higher education” whereas the other is classified as “vocational”.

SWIR – Strengthening professional education and enhancing its profile

In contrast to the recommendations put forward by the WR, the SWIR makes it clear that the characteristic differences between the various educational pathways and qualifications in the tertiary sector need to be retained. It believes that the tendency of professional education to develop into a model which approximates institutes of higher education constitutes a risk to the effectiveness of the tertiary educational system. The SWIR is much more of the view that permeability between the two tertiary areas, both of which are enshrined in law, is a prerequisite for a flexible educational system and for the ability of such a system to adapt to changes in trade and industry and in society (cf. SWIR 2014, p.14). It expressly rejects hierarchisation of the tertiary educational sector because this would exert a negative effect on Switzerland's economic power. The position of the SWIR is that endeavours to converge professional education with the higher education sector and with the universities would devalue professional education. Such an approach would propagate a fatal hierarchy rather than lead to complementarity.

For this reason, the SWIR recommends that the institutions and stakeholders responsible should resist the “international and national trend towards approximation or convergence” and should enhance the profiles of educational programmes in the tertiary sector (ibid., p. 21). Although professional education in Switzerland already enjoys a prominent status compared to Germany by dint of the fact that it is aligned to the tertiary educational sector by statutory regulation, the SWIR still believes that further upgrading is urgently necessary.

Looking at educational sectors together

Despite the fact that the statements and recommendations of the SWIR and the WR do not have any binding effect and the influence which they exert on specific educational policy may not be ostensibly visible, they still set out markers, define terminology and reflect perspectives and ideas relating to fundamental issues of the respective educational system. One common feature of both recommendations is that they indicate the significance of permeability in the educational system. Otherwise, however, they display significant differences in respect of basis of evaluation, conclusions arrived at and actual recommendations made.

The opportunities and potential for growth created by increasing hybridisation of the institutes of higher education are clearly discernible. It uses the brand core of VET – the duality of learning and learning venues – to provide additional differentiation and diversification in the higher education system and expand the spectrum of provision. However, if the higher education system becomes more attractive, this will result in a change to the competition between the two educational sectors. Unlike in the paper produced by the SWIR, the consequences for VET from WR are left largely unaddressed. By way of contrast, the consideration and recommendations contained within the holistic approach adopted by the SWIR expressly incorporate the possible ramifications and reciprocal effects on the whole of the educational system which may arise as a result of changes made in one particular area.

For the educational system in overall terms and in particular for the comparatively broad degree of societal acceptance enjoyed by VET, it would be desirable to embark upon a direction of travel which alleviates rather than exacerbates hierarchisation in the educational system. Any further strengthening of the institutes of higher education in policy terms should take the possible consequences for VET into account. In many countries, vocational pathways are traditionally considered to be a second best solution. The focus needs to be on avoiding such a development in Germany. In light of the challenges being created by digitalisation and by a shortage of skilled workers which is already manifesting itself in some sectors, a vocational education and training system which displays sustainable strength and effectiveness and offers relevant opportunities for advancement and specialisation is just as urgently necessary as an attractive higher education system. The task at hand is to strengthen both and to think about the educational sectors together.

The work being carried out by a select committee set up by the German Bundestag2 to look at numerous issues relating to “VET in the digital world of work” may provide a favourable opportunity to instigate a more broadly based public debate on the future of VET.

This would underline the overall societal relevance of this topic. As part of the “VET 2030 – vision and strategic guidelines” process3, which was launched in Switzerland in the summer of 2016, a digital forum has removed the issue from the expert domain and opened the debate up for public participation.
The aim in Switzerland is to include this level in according sufficient scope to the idea of “thinking together” and to develop a “joint vision” for VET which is established and finds acceptance across as broad a part of the population as possible. It may be that Germany can also benefit from the experiences thereby obtained.


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Research associate in the “VET Comparison, Research and Monitoring” Division at BIBB

Translation from the German original (published in BWP 6/2018): Martin Kelsey