In the Federal Republic of Germany responsibility for the education system is determined by the federal structure of the state. Unless the Basic Law (Grundgesetz) awards legislative powers to the Federation, the Länder have the right to legislate. Within the education system, this applies to the school sector, the higher education sector, adult education and continuing education. Administration of the education system in these areas is almost exclusively a matter for the Länder. Detailed regulations are laid down in the constitutions of the Länder and in separate laws of the Länder on early childhood education, on the school system, on higher education, on adult education and on continuing education. Responsibility for the laws governing career paths, remuneration and pensions of civil servants (e.g. teachers, professors and junior professors) also lies with the Länder.
The scope of the Federal Government's responsibilities in the field of education is defined in the Basic Law, according to which the Federation bears responsibility primarily for the regulations governing the following domains of education, science and research:
- In-company vocational training and vocational further education
- Admission to higher education institutions and higher education degrees (here the Länder may enact laws at variance with the legislation of the Federation)
- Financial assistance for pupils and students
- Promotion of scientific and academic research and technological development
- Child- and youth welfare (in particular early childhood education and care in day-care centres and child-minding services)
- Legal protection of participants of correspondence courses
- Regulations on entry to the legal profession
- Regulations on entry to medical and paramedical professions
- Employment promotion measures as well as occupational and labour market research
Furthermore, the Federation has legislative authority over the status-related rights and duties of civil servants, as well as the legislative authority over foreign affairs.
In addition to the division of responsibilities described above, the Basic Law also provides for particular forms of cooperation between the Federation and the Länder within the scope of the so-called joint tasks (Gemeinschaftsaufgaben). Pursuant to Article 91b, paragraph 1 of the Basic Law, the Federation and the Länder may mutually agree to cooperate in cases of supra-regional importance in the promotion of science, research and teaching. Additionally, pursuant to Article 91b, paragraph 2 of the Basic Law, the Federation and the Länder may mutually agree to cooperate for the assessment of the performance of educational systems in international comparison and in drafting relevant reports and recommendations. Furthermore, pursuant to Article 91c, the Federation and the Länder may cooperate in planning, constructing, and operating information technology systems needed to discharge their responsibilities.
An amendment to Article 104c of the Basic Law entered into force in April 2019 which enables the Federation to grant financial aid to the Länder for investments by the Länder and municipalities that are significant for the nation as a whole in order to increase the efficiency of the municipal education infrastructure. The new Article 104c is the constitutional basis for the DigitalPact School 2019-2024 (DigitalPakt Schule 2019–2024), with which the Federation and the Länder, among other things, pursue the goal of creating digital education infrastructures suitable for the future.
For more detailed information on the collaboration between the Federation and the Länder in the education sector, see the chapter on administration and governance at central and/or regional level.