If It Ain’t Broke . . .

That’s right, repeat after me: If it ain’t broke, you don’t fix it! Yet that is what it looks like the EU Commission is ready to do to the apprenticeship system in Germany and Austria known as duale Ausbildung or “double education.” Here are a couple of alarmed tweets arising from the German media.


Duale Ausbildung basically embodies the principles that make this sort of training a much-envied example for the rest of the world. Intended for young people who by temperament or lower test scores do not intend to go on to university, it initiates them into advanced technical skills and the sort of (often high-paying) jobs in industry that those can bring through a dual regime of theoretical instruction in a school classroom combined with on-the-job training at a firm that has taken on that person as an apprentice.

This system is certainly no secret, and has been studied on-the-spot by legions of scholars – and of politicians, including some from America, most of whom have thereafter pined after the prospect of bringing the same sort of regime home to address shortcomings in technical training and in employment prospects there.

It’s not so simple to copy, though, as duale Ausbildung depends for its success upon a context of supporting institutions and attitudes that is hard simply to transplant. (Although many do try, as visiting German President Joachim Gauck discovered just last weekend in Bangalore, India.) It’s probably pretty easy to destroy, though, with merely a new bureaucratic restriction and/or loosening of standards thrown in at the right place like the proverbial spanner in the works.

Then again, one man’s high-standard training system can be another man’s insufferably elite institution. The EU Commission – specifically, you’d have to assume the Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities – has announced its intention to eliminate “distortions to competition” in European training regimes, to bring about “eased access.” Such talk has alarmed the President of the German organization that overseas the duale Ausbildung system, Hans Peter Wollseifer of the Zentralverband des Deutschen Handwerks, who told Die Welt:

The dual education system in Germany is in danger from new plans out of Brussels. The European Commission is working intensively to abolish proven and and necessary qualification requirements, and thereby threatens to destroy long-standing standards for education and for quality . . . . the dual education craft system will be hollowed out under pressure from Europe.

Now, the picture put forth by these articles admittedly only represents the German side of the story; surely the Commission already has or will have the chance to explain its intentions more fully. While it is doing that, though, I assume that it will include the legal basis in the EU Treaties under which it wants to make such an intervention: my understanding of that subject is that education and training is a policy area largely left over to member-states, in which the EU has a quite limited remit for intervention.

Beyond such considerations as those, though, you really just have to wonder at the sheer timing of this seeming heavy-handed intervention on a widely-admired institution – one that forms a key element of the economy of what is the EU’s dominant member-state, Germany, to boot. For no one should need reminding that the European Parliament election is less than 100 days away, in May, and that up to now polls indicate a strong showing for far-right anti-EU parties such as the Front National in France, the “True Finns” from Finland, the UKIP, the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom, etc. – and this includes Alternative für Deutschland, a fairly new German anti-EU* party that is already finding its electoral feet. What excellent fodder for their election materials the Employment DG has just provided!

* OK, the Alternative für Deutschland is mainly anti-euro rather than anti-EU. Still, this sort of Commission meddling cannot help.

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