Sara Gon: Lessons from Germany – University education’s red herring

By Sara Gon*

Sara Gon is a Policy Fellow at the IRR, a think tank that promotes economic and political liberty
Sara Gon is a Policy Fellow at the IRR, a think tank that promotes economic and political liberty

“An option for losers” is a description of the way vocational training is viewed, according to Valerie Hannon, co-author of the book Learning a Living and a director of Innovation Unit (IU) in the UK.

IU is a collaboration of public service practitioners, designers and researchers who work with people who use and deliver services, in order to develop life-changing solutions to social challenges.

Hannon says that the “option for losers is what [such training] must not remain” because this is the form of education that equips youth for employment and creates jobs.

Finland has recently succeeded in changing the public’s attitude towards vocational education. Hannon says: “The vocational route [in Finland] is not seen as an option for losers. There’s flexibility and courses lead to accreditation recognised by employers.”

Technical institutions now attract more than 50% of the country’s student population. The country has shaken off the image of these institutions as a ‘dead end’. “They are a real option in finding a job and an equal route in terms of not being a dead end. Later on in your life if you want to go to university that’s quite possible,” says Mervi Jansson-Aalto, Director, Education Partnerships at Omnia – The Joint Authority of Education in the Espoo Region in the Helsinki Area.

According to Jansson-Aalto vocational and academic institutions receive similar resources from the country’s government. “The national board of education and the ministry of education have treated these tracks equally.”

South Africans still see a university degree as the first prize and vocational options as second choice, at best. Although this is not a South African phenomenon, it has a distinct resonance in South Africa because of the specific aim of apartheid to educate blacks to be inferior to whites.

This has left an enormous legacy – the desire by many young blacks to achieve the highest level of education possible. This is for a variety of reasons: to obtain the education that was intended to be denied to the majority; to provide a path out of poverty to prosperity; and to achieve status and respect.

To see a student graduate with a degree while relatives and friends from her rural village are in attendance, is an extraordinarily moving experience.

But striving for a university degree has its dangers. Employers in this country desperately need practical and technical skills, not academic qualifications.

Also the academic rigor of a university education, anywhere in the world, is only suited to a tiny minority. The majority of those who are awarded degrees, irrespective of race, are likely in their first year in particular, to experience a sense of alienation in an overwhelming environment where the young student is on their own.

Students are overwhelmed by how much work they have to do. They receive almost no assistance to do it. There are no nurturing teachers to help. Making friends is difficult because it’s a struggle to identify a suitable group of friends. Everyone other than the lone student seems to be coping. The lecturers are incomprehensible. The subject matter is opaque. Students just wonder how they got onto this awful treadmill. The shame of disappointing parents is mortifying.

The students who graduate eventually adapt, understand and blend in, but generally university is not the answer to the needs of employers and future employees or entrepreneurs. Society needs many more practical skills. World-wide (and in South Africa), the unemployment crisis is partly due to employers being unable to find local people with the right technical skills.

Local employers don’t prefer to import skills over using South African skills. It is usually more expensive but they have to. Foreign employees are often needed to bring crucial technical skills to an enterprise for it to succeed.

Vocational training is often perceived as not being a path to a good job. Yet “most vocational jobs are highly technical [and] they are very intellectually stimulating. We need [to do away with the notion] that people in vocational training are those that can’t make it to university. If we can turn that around, we’ll see employment get better,” according to Christine Evans-Klock, director of the International Labour Organisation’s Department for Skills and Employability.

Germany is probably the best-known at being successful in vocational training. Germany is Europe’s largest economy and was the world’s third largest exporter in 2014. Technological innovation and the high quality of German goods are seen as the main reasons behind Germany’s success. Eighty percent of German adults have a professional qualification – note, professional not academic.

Vocational education and training is widely respected in Germany. The system offers qualifications in a broad spectrum of professions and it adapts to the changing needs of the labour market.

Germany’s dual system is well-developed, integrating work-based and school-based learning to prepare apprentices for a successful transition to full-time employment.

A major strength of the system is the high degree of engagement and ownership by employers and other social partners. But the system is also characterised by checks and balances at the national, state, municipal, and company levels to ensure that the short-term needs of employers do not distort broader educational and economic goals. The system as a whole is well-resourced by both public and private funding.

The system is not without its problems and some changes need to be made to improve career guidance and to better assess the literacy and numeracy skills of those entering apprenticeships without a school leaving certificate. The system needs to provide better remedial teaching for those in need.

Germany’s system may not be flawless but it is recognised as having a system that puts Germany at the top of the economic pile.

The lessons for South Africa are beyond painfully clear. They don’t have to be elaborated upon here. Government must better respect what business needs and develop really meaningful partnerships with it. Government doesn’t know better than business what skills the economy needs. Government’s ‘mistrust’ of the business is a smoke-screen and unseemly.

By way of encouragement, consider the following: co-founders of Twitter, WhatsApp, the record label Def Jam, and the founders of Dell Computers and the Virgin Group did not graduate from university.

*Sara Gon is a Policy Fellow at the IRR, a think tank that promotes economic and political liberty. Follow the IRR on Twitter @IRR_SouthAfrica


  1. The Statistics Portal, Leading export countries worldwide 2014
  2. Directorate for Education, Education and Training Policy Division , OECD, September 2010, Learning for Jobs, OECD Reviews of Vocational Education and Training in Germany Strengths, Challenges and Recommendations
  3. Bongani Nkosi, Vocational educational not an ‘option for losers’, Mail & Guardian, 14 November 2012,
  4. Fast Company, 5 MINUTE READ/HIT THE GROUND RUNNING, 10 Famous Founders Who Didn’t Graduate From College