Continuing education in Germany is regulated by the state to a lesser degree than other areas of education. The rationale for this is that the diverse and rapidly-changing demands on continuing education can best be met by a structure which is characterised by diversity and competition among the institutions and the range of courses and services on offer. A central principle of continuing education courses is that attendance should be voluntary.
The activities of the state in the field of continuing education are, for the most part, restricted to laying down principles and to issuing regulations relating to organisation and financing. Such principles and regulations are enshrined in the laws and ordinances of the Federal Government and the Länder. State regulations are aimed at establishing general conditions for the optimum development of the contribution of continuing education to lifelong learning.
The joint responsibilities of the Federation and the Länder include research and pilot schemes in all sectors of continuing education. In addition, Federation and Länder are responsible for statistics on continuing education and for drawing up reports on continuing education in their respective areas of responsibility.
The responsibilities of the Länder include in particular the following powers to regulate and promote:
- continuing general education
- continuing education leading to school-leaving qualifications
- continuing academic education at higher education institutions
- continuing cultural education
- some elements of continuing political education
- some elements of continuing vocational training
The prerequisites and principles for the promotion and funding of continuing education are laid down in continuing education legislation and employment release legislation of the Länder. Continuing and adult education legislation describes continuing education as an independent education sector which incorporates continuing general and political education and continuing vocational training and the development of which is the responsibility of the public sector. Continuing education legislation guarantees a diverse range of institutions maintained by a variety of organisations and lays down a state approval procedure for such institutions. All Land legislation includes regulations which recognise the maintaining body’s freedom to prepare curricula and independence in staff selection.
In addition to continuing education legislation, school legislation at Land level contains regulations on continuing education within the school system (e.g. the attainment of school-leaving qualifications) and higher education legislation regulates the development of academic continuing education. Regulations regarding continuing education offers at Berufsakademien are contained, if necessary, in the Berufsakademie legislation.
In 14 of the 16 Länder legislation allows employees to attend continuing education courses (paid educational leave – Bildungsurlaub, Bildungsfreistellung or Bildungszeit) for up to five working days per year with no loss in earnings, provided that certain conditions are fulfilled. The exemption mostly refers to political and vocational continuing education and training, in some Länder also to parts of general continuing education and training, especially qualification for an honorary office. The legal basis differs from Land to Land.
Over the past years, the Länder have encouraged innovative offers and developed numerous programmes to support further education and training that take into account the various aspects of the demand for continuing education on regional labour markets and the increased importance of professional and vocational continuing education. Special attention is hereby paid to less qualified, as well as educationally deprived persons, and older employees.
In addition to the above-mentioned responsibilities, which are carried jointly by the Federation and the Länder, the Federal Government's responsibilities include in particular:
- continuing vocational training outside the school sector
- further vocational training regulated by ordinances
- basic regulations for the protection of those on distance learning courses which are offered under private law
- some areas of continuing political education
- international cooperation in continuing education, including within the European Union
Regulations for the continuing education sector have been adopted at national level in the following legislation in particular: Book Three of the Social Code (Drittes Buch Sozialgesetzbuch – Arbeitsförderung), Upgrading Training Assistance Act (Gesetz zur Förderung der beruflichen Aufstiegsfortbildung – AFBG), Vocational Training Act (Berufsbildungsgesetz – BBiG), Crafts and Trades Regulation Code (Handwerksordnung – HwO), Federal Training Assistance Act (Bundesausbildungsförderungsgesetz – BAföG) and Law on the Protection of Participants in Distance Education (Fernunterrichtsschutzgesetz – FernUSG).
The responsibility for the promotion of continuing vocational training according to Book Three of the Federal Government’s Social Code lies with the Federal Employment Agency (Bundesagentur für Arbeit – BA), and the responsibility for supporting benefit recipients in accordance with Book Two of the Social Code (Zweites Buch Sozialgesetzbuch – Grundsicherung für Arbeitsuchende ) with the Jobcenters. Promotion under Books Two and Three of the Social Code includes the following measures:
- Further vocational training: schemes to assess, maintain, extend or adapt the vocational knowledge and skills of adults who have a vocational qualification or appropriate work experience.
- Vocational retraining leading to a qualification in a anerkannter Ausbildungsberuf (recognised occupation requiring formal training): targeted mainly at unemployed people with no vocational qualifications and low-skilled persons.
Through the Upgrade Training Assistance Act participants in vocational upgrade training schemes, for example to a Meister, Fachwirt, Techniker or Erzieher, have received financial support since 1996. They receive an amount to help cover the costs of the continuing education irrespective of their income, and in the event of full-time schemes they also receive an amount for their costs of living depending on their income. This grant is partly a subsidy and partly a low-interest loan provided by the Reconstruction Loan Corporation (Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau - KfW). In 2021 there were just less than 192,000 persons who received this grant.
Under the Vocational Training Act and the Crafts and Trades Regulation Code, responsibility for examinations in further vocational training generally rests with the chambers (e.g. chambers of handicrafts and chambers of industry and commerce). Where there is a interest in uniform national regulation, examinations in further vocational training are regulated by ordinances of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung – BMBF) in close coordination with employers' and employees representatives. The content of examinations is laid down by regulations of the competent bodies or by ordinances passed by the Federal Government. Further vocational training allows, amongst other things, for the attainment of the complex vocational knowledge, skills and competences that enable individuals to assume middle and sometimes also higher management responsibilities within companies.
With the amendment of the Vocational Training Act (BBiG) on 1 January 2020, a multi-level system of nationally regulated further training qualifications was established to strengthen higher-qualification vocational education and training. Since then, further training regulations can be issued at three levels. Graduates of further training regulations at the first level will then have the title of Geprüfter Berufsspezialist/Geprüfte Berufsspezialistin (Certified Specialist), at the second level Bachelor Professional and at the third level Master Professional.
The Federation and Länder cooperate in various projects to secure the profits of lifelong learning for the design of individual educational and working lives. The key focus is on the topics literacy and basic education, competence balancing, quality management, networking and counselling as well as municipal education management.