Anglo-Americans habitually disparage the “socialist” Europeans, as if it were just or fair to lump all Continental economies under one pejorative label. Rather than relying on epithets, however, would-be economic and educational reformers should take a closer look at Germany, where the combination of regulated markets and the welfare state (what the Germans call the Soziale Marktwirtschaft, the “social market economy”) has produced six decades of prosperity.
In Germany, the youth unemployment rate hovers below nine percent, less than half the E.U. average and closer to one third of Spain’s catastrophic numbers—not to mention almost half of the current rate for American youth. Germany’s general unemployment rate is below that of most industrialized states, and the robust German manufacturing sector offers the kind of well-paying skilled and semiskilled jobs that Americans have come to believe are gone forever. The combination of a well-educated workforce and an economy that can provide jobs for so many workers is as appealing as it is rare elsewhere these days.
Much of the credit for that combination goes to the German system of education and vocational training. But the relationship of those successes to particular quirks of German society means that this success has been difficult for other nations to replicate, even in Europe.
The most important element of the German educational and training system is its tradition of partnerships between industrial firms, labor organizations, and a strong state. This pattern of corporatist cooperation (the Germans prefer such phrases as “social partnership”) has reinforced the German tradition of medium- and smaller-sized firms by spreading subsidies broadly and sharing the cost of training between the public and private sectors. Critics of this system have noted that it can make the labor market too rigid by raising barriers to entry and making it difficult to let people go. Supporters emphasize the regularity and relative social stability that the system has produced. A key question, of course, is whether you can have one without the other. Stability requires structures, which can of course become too rigid, and thus require regular monitoring and adjustment. Such monitoring and adjustment requires careful attention, which brings us back to the importance of management structures. Germany’s success at striking the proper balance between stability and growth has made her the envy of her neighbors.
Drawing on traditions that go back to the Enlightenment, Germans embrace a governmental model of educational management, which means there is a strong degree of state regulation. The experiences of the Nazi years, however, led to a generalized suspicion of unitary national control of culture and education. The result has been a compromise, first established within the Federal Republic of Germany and extended to include the former German Democratic Republic after reunification in 1990. Education at all levels is primarily the responsibility of the federal states (Länder), with some coordination with the federal minister of education and research and regular meetings of the state ministers.
Control of education does not, however, extend downward to the local level. The idea of individual communities having individual boards of education that could make decisions for a particular school district would not make sense to most Germans, nor would the idea of different communities within the same Land having different levels of funding for public education. The Land enforces broadly equal funding for all public schools within its jurisdiction, drawing on Land tax revenues rather than local property taxes. Teachers are civil servants, part of the Land workforce, and enjoy civil-service protections of which the most ambitious American NEA functionary could only dream. The lack of local control is one of the markers of the German situation that makes it difficult to imitate, but it also suggests a link between broad-based educational quality and broadly equivalent systems of funding and organization that American reformers should keep in mind.
German elementary schools differ from their American counterparts in calendar and curriculum. They are built around a slightly longer school week and year, but a shorter day. Students often attend school for parts of six days of the week, usually ending by one or two in the afternoon. The actual vacation schedule varies among the Länder, in part to control the flow of holiday travelers, though generally students receive two weeks at Christmas and around Easter, and six weeks in the summer. Some Länder also offer a week’s holiday around Pentecost, and during Carnival. The greater spread of instructional time allows for a more diverse curriculum.
The vacation schedule reveals a peculiar element of the German system, which is its connection to religion and religious education. For all the current observations about Europe and especially Germany becoming secularized, religious and political institutions are still strikingly intertwined. In Germany, citizens register as members of a religious community (the overwhelming majority are either enrolled in the Catholic Church or the Evangelical Lutheran Church, though in recent years other communities have emerged, including Islamic ones), and they pay a portion of their income tax to the support of that community. Formal registration in a religious community and payment of the “church tax” is required if someone hopes to marry or be buried in his church or religious community. All of this explains why, despite atrocious Sunday attendance rates, German churches are generally quite well funded. To request formal release from one’s religious community (Kirchenaustritt) is a legal process, resulting in an official document declaring that one is not bound to pay the church tax. Intellectuals of a particular persuasion—such as a German-language instructor who taught my wife in Bonn once upon a time—are known to carry that document with them, to display it with a flourish as proof of their secular bona fides. Even those who escape the church tax, however, enjoy the benefits of public holidays related to religious observances, from the Feast of the Ascension to the Immaculate Conception to the Protestant Day of Prayer and Repentance (Buß- und Bettag).
Almost all of the Länder offer religion as a regular part of education, with families choosing which of the official religious traditions they wish their students to learn. The intensity of religious feeling depends on the region—more secularized regions, such as the city-state of Berlin, also offer a general ethics curriculum as a replacement for religious instruction, while more traditional-minded Bavaria not only requires religion as a regular subject but mandates the presence of a crucifix in every classroom. Even a 1995 decision of the Federal Constitutional Court to remove the crucifixes has not changed the situation, as the Bavarian government has insisted on the principle, allowing exceptions only in rare circumstances when faced with specific legal challenges from teachers or students.
State-sanctioned religion comes with a price. Unlike in the United States, there are relatively few private schools to speak of in Germany, outside of the extremely exclusive boarding schools, and those religious institutions that do exist are closely allied with the two large institutional churches and are subject to the oversight of Land regulations. Furthermore, the requirement that all families enroll their children in publicly recognized schools means there is no homeschooling, even for those who claim that their religious scruples demand it. The legal battle involving the Romeike family, evangelical Christians who have applied for political asylum in the United States to escape local sanctions on homeschooling, is but the most recent illustration of the German insistence on compulsory education.
In secondary education, the German system has long been known for its aggressive tracking of students, which usually happens after the fourth or fifth grade. After a common elementary school (Grundschule), students who plan blue-collar careers attend either Realschule (which includes specific technical training) or Hauptschule (which generally does not). Higher-achieving students—about a quarter of the total—attend the Gymnasium with its college-preparatory curriculum and sit for the Abitur. The Abitur is a famously rigorous examination, one of the models for the International Baccalaureate programs in the United States. It usually combines literature, mathematics, science, history, and foreign languages. Specific organization of the Abitur exam is a Land responsibility but usually includes objective knowledge and a writing requirement, as well as an oral exam. Some Länder, such as Bavaria, are renowned for the difficulty of their Abitur, but in general the examination provides a broad and deep general education for students who intend to pursue a university education and become part of the educated middle class (Bildungsbürgertum).
Tracking has a long tradition in Germany and is common in other European countries such as France. It has, however, become increasingly controversial politically. Left-wing parties, supported by segments of the educational intelligentsia, have been advocating for abolition of tracking in favor of the Comprehensive School (Gesamtschule) for years, citing the American high school as their model. More conservative parties prefer to maintain the split, arguing that it is fairer to students on both tracks, as long as the quality of education remains high for both.
Tracking also shapes the German attitude toward university education. Although there has been some modification of the system through the development of alternative avenues to higher education, and the evolution of professional and technical colleges, German universities focus heavily on traditional subjects in the arts and sciences. The assumption has been that those who would prefer more practical education will get it outside of the university, through practical internship and apprenticeship. Even some professions, such as nursing, that include a university component in the United States are built on an apprenticeship model. Thus, higher education in Germany still has an elitist ring. Although the number of students attending universities has tripled since 1945, Germany still has proportionally fewer university students than the European average.
Nearly all German universities are public. A central office accepts and evaluates applications from across the country. Students list their preferences and await word on which university they will attend. Although universities in more cosmopolitan cities, such as Frankfurt, Munich, and Berlin, are more likely to attract applicants from other regions, students usually end up attending the university in their region. (Tübingen has been called, tongue-in-cheek, the “national university of Swabia.”) The propensity of students to stay close to home has led to concerns that eastern German universities, many of which have been renovated through extensive postunification federal subsidies but are in areas experiencing a significant exodus of young people, are facing disturbing declines in applicants.
The admissions process is largely open, though certain fields of study have limited enrollment space. This leads to a lively secondary market in which students who have been admitted to their desired program at a less-desirable university advertise to exchange positions with students at their preferred school. Since the universities are funded mainly by taxes, direct student fees are minimal. Students enjoy subsidized food and transport, as well as theater tickets and other urban amenities. Efforts to have students pay more toward tuition (say, 500 euros per semester above the minor fees for transport passes) have been intensely controversial. Only a few Länder have instituted them, and recently they have been rolled back, even in Bavaria. The most common argument against them is that society as a whole benefits from the educated students, and that they have already paid through taxation. The counterargument that students in particular should make an extra contribution for something that benefits them individually has not gained much traction.
The emphasis on equal funding means that German universities do not compete on amenities or price. There are some but not many official residence halls, and rooms are distributed on the basis of financial need. The bulk of students seek housing on their own either in private apartments or semiprivate residence halls maintained by religious or social groups. As in other European universities, there are no intercollegiate athletics or the like to gobble up revenue and attention, and there are hardly any development offices to dun alumni for contributions. In general, German universities tend to be overcrowded; neither the construction of facilities nor the addition of faculty has kept pace with enrollment. A recent government “excellence initiative” to funnel more funds to universities on a competitive basis has tried to encourage universities to compete on the basis of research quality and quantity, but the impact has been minimal. Many German universities nonetheless enjoy strong international reputations.
Since the Abitur process provides much of the material that a general-education requirement would provide at an American college, German students enroll directly into a major. The advantage here is that students can concentrate on the subjects that most interest them; the downside is that for many years there was no German equivalent to a bachelor’s degree. Instead, students in the humanities and social sciences would pursue a Magister, which took a minimum of eight semesters (and usually longer) of specialization in one field, while technical subjects led to a Diplom. Both degrees required the production of a specialized thesis at the end. Aspiring lawyers and teachers pursued specialized courses culminating in a formal governmental exam (Staats examen). Over the past decade German universities have begun to adjust their system to make it more comparable to those of its European partners and global competitors, and have introduced the Bachelor, which should take three to four years, followed by the Master. (They use the English word, which emphasizes its newness and its foreignness.)
The German academic world is built on the idea of apprenticeship. One recently granted a doctorate in Germany seeks a position as assistant to a professor, while he or she writes a second book-length manuscript. Only after completing the project known as a Habilitation is the candidate eligible for a full-rank professorial position. The result is a system where there are few full professors, who are well paid and enjoy civil-service status, and a larger infrastructure of graduate students and aspiring professors dependent on them. Here as well, the Germans have initiated some reforms, creating the new role of Junior Professor in the hope both of streamlining the system and of adding more academics to the profession. But they have a long way to go. As a result, many universities in the United Kingdom and United States have brilliant young German academics on their faculties who had to take their impressive preparation abroad in search of academic positions their home universities have not been able to provide.
The guiding principle of apprenticeship reflects an attitude that shapes German policies toward vocational training outside of universities. It has two sides: first, that a complete education should include both classroom and practical work, and second, that the process of training should take place within the framework of a firm, not with the apprentice as a completely free agent. This raises the costs of entry but provides greater stability and security for the worker and for the firm. Aspiring nurses work through hospitals, bankers through banks, machinists through corresponding firms. There is competition for the spaces, which are subsidized with public funds, and a promise of permanent employment afterward.
The German system is far from perfect. It requires significant investment as well as habits of cooperation between state, business, and labor that were the product of decades of wrangling. Even with a broad consensus in favor of making the system work, there are periodic crises in the relationships among the actors. There is no guarantee that the system will provide employment for all, which some consider a significant defect. Furthermore, all those subsidies have to be paid for, and the burden on public budgets is significant. Modifications to the system have been difficult politically, as the German middle class and its allegedly progressive defenders can be quite conservative in resisting change. Massive knee-jerk protests against token adjustments (as on the question of student fees) suggest a culture of entitlement that is not healthy in the longer term. Even when bipartisan solutions are reached, they produce political resentment. When the Socialist government of Gerhard Schröder, recognizing that excessive regulation of the labor market was strangling the German economy in the early 2000’s, initiated a series of reforms called Agenda 2010, a solid segment of the German electorate continued to reject the idea that any adjustments were necessary. Left-wing criticism of Schröder led to his defeat in the 2005 elections, bringing to power the center-right Christian Democratic Chancellor Angela Merkel. Her subsequent governments have embraced and expanded those reforms, providing significant adjustments to the system without abolishing it, leaving the German economy the strongest in Europe.
The German system reflects many values that conform to our stereotypes of German culture—regulation, orderliness, and an acceptance of state authority. Given our professed love of the “free market” and emphasis on individual choice at every level, it is not easy to imagine how elements of the German system could be translated into an American context. But given our recent track record of poor education and joblessness, it might be worth it for us to reexamine the connections between structure and results, training and employment, and the reciprocal social responsibilities of individuals, private firms, and the state.