By Dr. Reiner Klingholz and Ruth Müller

Complete German Version


A discussion paper by the Berlin Institute investigates the need for learning and education in the face of demographic change

In our networked and globalised world, the amount of information available is almost boundless. It is therefore becoming ever more important to be able to order and classify knowledge and to make optimal use of it in terms of creating value added. Education provides the basis for doing this. Demographic change has made the need for education more acute, especially in Germany where the number of potential participants in education – in other words, young people between the ages of 5 and 29 – is expected to decrease by 4.1 million by 2030. By then, companies will have to make do with six million people fewer of working age (as working age is defined today). The aging and shrinking workforce will hence have to be so productive that it is able to finance fice million more over-65-year-olds and at the same time ensure that enough money is left over for the state, the private sector, and private households to make the necessary future investments. This is the thesis posited by the discussion paper “Education Works” produced by the Berlin Institute for the Initiative Neue Soziale Marktwirtschaft.

While better education of course means investing more resources in educators, teachers and in schools and universities, it will be money well spent both for the state and the individual. Investment in education has been calculated to produce a return of well over ten percent for the state.

So where are the major deficits in the German education system? And how should the state invest in education?

International comparative studies have shown time and again that in Germany many young people fail to make full use of their talents, especially at the beginning of their school career, a point at which support for learning would have the greatest effect. Children whose parents are economically and socially at risk are disproportionately affected: particularly in families where both parents are unemployed, where the parents have at most a lower secondary school qualification, and which live below the poverty threshold, there is a higher risk that children will receive a level of education that is far below their potential. Twenty-nine percent of children in Germany are affected by at least one of these risk factors, and among one-parent families and children with migrant backgrounds the figures are, respectively, almost half and 42 percent. Consequently, only 14 percent of children of parents who have at most a lower secondary school qualification go to a Gymnasium (the academically selective school type leading to a university entrance qualification). In terms of talent, however, at least twice as many would be capable of coping with the academic demands of a Gymnasium. This circumstance alone means that of each cohort of children starting school, almost 40,000 children with the potential to attain the Abitur (university entrance qualification) are lost.

The factors that lead to this undesirable development are determined long before children start school. In Germany, only 23 percent of all children under the age of three attended early years education and day-care establishments in 2010. Yet these are precisely the places where untapped talent can be activated. By comparison with France, Germany has too few staff with an academic educational background working in day-care centres. University-trained personnel would be in a position to implement educational concepts, particularly with respect to the acquisition of language proficiency.

Missed opportunities in the early years often continue to have repercussions later in life. In 2010, 6.5 percent of all youth, almost two thirds of them boys, failed to obtain a lower secondary school qualification. The ratio was considerably higher in the states of the former East Germany than in former West Germany. In addition, young people with migrant backgrounds leave school without a qualification more often than their native German contemporaries. Of those who fail to obtain a lower secondary school qualification, three quarters end up in what has been labelled the “transition system”, which is also where almost half of those who do obtain a lower secondary school qualification find themselves after leaving school. This system is designed to improve training maturity and qualifications so as to enable these young people to enter the job market, for many young people applying for jobs do not possess basic skills, such as the ability to do mental arithmetic and spell. Despite annual expenditure of 4.3 billion euros (2010), 31 percent of young people remain stuck in this transition system even after 30 months, unable to obtain an apprenticeship. Companies and chambers of trades should therefore become more closely involved in helping young people to obtain the skills they missed out on at school in order to prepare them for work.
But even an Abitur is no guarantee that school-leavers will go on to university. Only around half of those obtaining the Abitur go on to study at a university or other higher education institution, and of those who do, 21 percent (2008) of them do not manage to complete their first degree. Students fail particularly in subjects like mathematics, computer science, natural sciences, and technology, although there is a high demand for graduates in these subjects. If the number of students breaking off courses in these subjects were to halve, the shortage of professionals in this area would be reduced by two thirds by 2020. Altogether 28 percent of 30- to 35-year-olds in Germany have a degree from a university or other higher education institution, three percentage points below the EU average.
Neglect of lifelong learning
If raising the retirement age is to translate into longer working lives, the qualifications of the workforce must keep pace with the growing demands of the knowledge society. In a survey of working people, 20 percent of respondents said they were performing tasks for which their training had not qualified them sufficiently. One reason for this is that nowadays knowledge is becoming superannuated ever more rapidly, and many new professions are emerging while others are declining in significance.

Generally, additional training on the job makes more sense than having to re-qualify after losing one’s job. For the requisite level of training to be possible, however, new models are required to enable employees to attend further training and work in parallel. Employers and their staff would need to collaborate to produce such models. Universities, which until now have carried primary responsibility for qualifying a new generation of graduates, should in future also play a key role in lifelong learning programmes. In view of the shortage of skilled professionals, companies must ensure that staff at every level of qualification reach a higher standard of training. This “elevator effect” would then free up more jobs in the less skilled sector, which would be easiest to fill.
Without offering better educational opportunities to those with insufficient qualifications and without continuing education that will make a longer working life possible at all, Germany will find it very difficult to compete with the world’s threshold nations, which are young and thirsty for education. Therefore it is important for the whole of society – from children to parents to the working population – to become more aware of the effects of insufficient education on people’s entire working lives. 

Here you will find the full Discussion Paper (in German) as a PDF.