Row over blurring of academic and vocational titles

A law introducing new degree titles for vocational further education has been approved by the German federal parliament, despite strong criticism by higher education heads, who fear that it could damage the Bologna higher education reform process.

According to Federal Education and Research Minister Anja Karliczek, the new law on the modernisation and strengthening of vocational education (Berufsbildungsmodernisierungsgesetz – BBiMoG) provides for an enhancement of Germany’s vocational education and training system, which she refers to as “one of Germany’s trademarks” that “other countries envy it for”.

The dispute over the bill, which also addressed issues such as apprentices’ pay levels, focused largely on new terms for vocational further education degrees which, it is claimed, could be cause for confusion and a devaluation of occupational titles.

The new ‘Bachelor Professional’ and ‘Master Professional’ higher vocational degrees have already been discussed for several years by the Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training (Bundesinstitut für Berufsbildung or BIBB) with representatives of the education sector, industry and politicians. The BIBB conducts research on vocational education and training, supports the development of the sector and provides advice.

Early last October, the senate of the German Rectors’ Conference (Hochschulrektorenkonferenz or HRK), representing the heads of universities in Germany, adopted a resolution on the new proposed terminology for higher vocational degree levels outlining the organisation’s objections.

The resolution stresses that the HRK has been cooperating with employers’ and employees’ organisations for a number of years to ensure that vocational and higher education are regarded in society as equivalent options, but that the ruling Christian Democrat, Christian Social Union and Social Democrat coalition bill is counter to that objective.

The HRK points to a “lack of transparency”, claiming that the bill “refers to two completely different educational paths with almost identical terms”, whereas the unambiguous assignment of a degree title to the academic or the vocational area is “essential for both fields”. It further argues that the bill will create uncertainty both among young people opting for a career and employers seeking new staff.

Instead, the HRK suggests developing a separate unmistakeable terminology for the vocational sector, arguing that the two new terms in the bill “by no means enhance vocational further education vis-à-vis higher education degrees. Rather, the opposite can be reckoned with”.

Following higher education terminology would “ignore the practical relevance of further vocational education and weaken established terms such as the ‘Meister’ (as in Master Craftsman) or the ‘Fachwirt’ (Certified Specialist)”.

The HRK further holds that attempting to reduce the inequality of vocational and higher education by intentionally blurring differences is a wrong approach. Instead of creating more appreciation of vocational skills, they are “obscured by a seemingly academic veneer”.

Bologna goal achievements ‘jeopardised’

Above all, the organisation warns that the bill “jeopardises the goals already achieved in the Bologna Process, one of the most important European reform projects of the last decades that is jointly supported by the federal and state governments and universities”.

At a European level, it could lead to “constant misunderstandings at the expense of graduates and employers alike, given that Bachelor and Master degrees are clearly perceived as academic degrees throughout Europe”.

In the debate in parliament, the new terminology was sharply criticised by Nicole Höchst of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) opposition party, who maintained that previously highly esteemed and established occupational titles were now being questioned and that “a Babylonian state of conceptual confusion” had been created.

Referring to widespread criticism of the new terms, Beate Walter-Rosenheimer of the opposition Greens called for “a new consensus that really deserves to be called so”. And Jens Brandenburg of the opposition Free Democratic Party maintained that an “academic label” had been “bulldozed through” against the “opposition of numerous experts and stakeholders” in an “unprecedented manner”.

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