Adult Education in Germany

Dr Peter Brandt 

What is meant in the country when you talk about Adult Education?
There is a broad and a narrow concept of “Erwachsenenbildung” (English “adult education”).

The narrow concept relates to the educational processes that can be referred to as “Bildung” (education) in an emancipatory tradition and is mostly associated with general education. The concept then contrasts with “Weiterbildung” (continuing education) that describes the occupational context and where learning processes take place that do not necessarily contribute to positive personal development (e.g. sales training).
Within the broad concept, adult education and continuing education are more or less synonymous. The reason for this is that occupation becomes an overlapping characteristic and the sectors are increasingly difficult to separate. The second broader usage prevails, especially in internationally comparative discourse.
Both concepts refer to the learning and educational processes that are taken up again after participation in first professional training. They are not tied to a specific minimum age.

What is typical for Adult Education in the country?
Continuing education in Germany is an education sector only slightly regulated by the State. Only certain basic public provisions and otherwise market-based structures are in the public interest. Private and publicly-funded adult education more or less form an interlinked coexistence. Only those providing distance learning require State approval. In science, the sector is described less as a “system” and more as a “field” that is characterised by an average systematisation (Peter Faulstich).

AE in Germany is classically divided into

  • General AE with special areas such as political AE; cultural learning, family learning etc.
  • Vocational AE, where the largest part is company-initiated; also very important is AE especially for those in unemployment.

Both in general and vocational continuing education, there are three types of learning: formal, non-formal and informal.

The distinction regarding higher education is as follows: If a course of studies is carried out extra-occupationally, this is AE; if it is part of initial training, it relates to the tertiary sector.

Legal basis
Due to the federal structure, there are different competencies for the various areas of education. The federal government is responsible for vocational education “Berufsbildungsgesetz” (Vocational Training Act). The “Sozialgesetzbuch” (Social Security Code) law regulates the subsidies for special training for those in unemployment. Another law in the “Aufstiegsfortbildungsförderungsgesetz” (Upgrading Training Assistance Act) stipulates the financial aid for people who want to improve their vocational competencies and become a “Meister”. Other related federal laws are:

  • “Fernunterrichtsschutzgesetz” (Distance Learning Protection Act)
  • “Zuwanderungsgesetz” (Immigration Act) that regulates integration courses for immigrants

The “Länder” (states) have obligations and competencies in general education (as they are also responsible for school education as part of the cultural autonomy). Their “Weiterbildungsgesetze der Länder” (continuing education laws of the state governments) regulate the subsidies for training and courses which are offered by adult education centres. 14 of the 16 states have continuing education laws that guarantee basic public provisions for continuing education.
In addition to this, “Bildungsurlaubsgesetze” (educational leave laws) decide on employee leave for educational purposes.

Responsible public bodies / ministries
Corresponding to the various federal authorities, federal and state ministries are entrusted with continuing education issues; this has made it difficult to create a coordinated policy.

On a federal level, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) is responsible for vocational education. Operating as a subordinate authority is the Federal Institute for Vocational Education (BIBB) that, in addition to initial training, researches and develops vocational continuing education.
The Federal Ministry of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth (BMFSFJ) is also interested in AE issues as far as senior learning (demographic change) or learning in and for voluntary work is concerned.
The Federal Ministry of the Interior (BMI) controls activities on political education and operates the Federal Agency for Civic Education (
On a state level, political education is mostly classed with the State Ministries of the Interior – with the corresponding associated State Agency for Civic Education.
The responsibility for general continuing education resides with the Education, Culture or Science Ministries, dependent on the state. They are the most important public bodies of the continuing education policy.
In addition to this, the Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs have an influence on vocational continuing education and qualifications in the states.
On a communal level, cities, districts and communities are often supporters of adult education centres, securing basic public provisions.

Relevant umbrella associations and national (service) organisations
The most important supporter groups of continuing education have the following umbrella associations on a federal level:

  • Deutscher Volkshochschul-Verband – dvv (German Adult Education Association):
  • Deutscher Industrie- und Handelskammertag – DIHK (Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce):
  • Bundesverband der Träger beruflicher Bildung – BBB (Federal Association of Institutions of Vocational Education):
  • Dachverband der deutschen Weiterbildungsorganisationen – DVWO (Umbrella Association for German Continuing Education Organisations):
  • Verband deutscher Privatschulverbände e.V. – VdP (Umbrella Association for Private School Associations) –
  • Fachverband für Fernlernen und Lernmedien – Forum DistancE Learning (Professional Association for Distance Learning and Learning Media):
  • Katholische Erwachsenenbildung Deutschland – KEB Deutschland (Catholic Association for Adult Education Germany):
  • Deutsche Evangelische Arbeitsgemeinschaft für Erwachsenenbildung – DEAE (German Protestant Association for Adult Education):
  • ver.di and GEW (Education and Science) trade unions:;
  • Bundesarbeitskreis Arbeit und Leben e.V. – DGB/VHS (Federal Working Group for Work and Life):
  • Arbeitskreis deutscher Bildungsstätten – AdB (Working Group for German Educational Establishments):
  • Arbeitsgemeinschaft katholisch-sozialer Bildungswerke – aksb (Association of Catholic Social Educational Organisations):

National service organisations:

  • Deutsches Institut für Erwachsenenbildung – DIE (German Institute for Adult Education – Leibniz Centre for Lifelong Learning):
  • Bundesinstitut für Berufsbildung – BIBB (Federal Institute for Vocational Education):


  • Deutsche Gesellschaft für Erziehungswissenschaften – DGFE (German Society for Educational Sciences), Adult Education department:
  • Deutsche Gesellschaft für wissenschaftliche Weiterbildung und Fernstudien – DGWF (German Association for University Continuing and Distance Education):

Providers of Adult Education
In Germany, it is estimated that there are approximately 25,000 continuing education institutions (2008). These are: institutions that provide regular and publicly organised education as a primary or secondary task. This includes commercial units, i.e. institutions with branches are counted several times.

  • 37% of the institutions offer general and vocational continuing education
  • 56% only vocational continuing education
  • 6% only general continuing education (with political and cultural education)
  • 41.3% are private providers
  • 23.5% are “Volkshochschulen” (adult education centres)

(all figures from

Estimating the full amount of money spent on AE is a difficult task. The last attempt has been made in 2007 – published in DIE-Trendanalyse 2008 ( ): Approximately 1.2% of the GDP in Germany was then spent on AE. This was approximately 28 billion euros (conservative estimate, only direct costs).

The most important financers of AE in Germany are the participants themselves, followed by companies (again only direct costs). Public sponsors (federal government, states, communities, EU) take third place with taxes and revenue from unemployment insurance used for educational measures for job-seekers.

In 2012 public sponsoring reached an amount of 6 billion euros (federal government: 1,1 billion euros; states: 1,3 billion euros; communities: 0,3 billion euros, Federal Employment Agency (Bundesagentur für Arbeit): 3,4 billion euros);
Data from

In recent years, a reversal of demand financing was observed, i.e. public funds are assigned to individuals demanding it via vouchers, bonuses, loans or tax relief. Institutional support for the providers is also in decline.

The federal government and states invest public funds increasingly in structure and model projects that are assigned in competitive procedures.

Participation rate
The federal government aims to increase the participation rate in continuing education to 50% by 2015. This is realistic according to the latest figures available. The recently increased participation rate reached 49% although this result is depending on the course design.

According to the Adult Education Survey (AES), these are the following rates for 18 to 64-year-olds in Germany (2012):

  • Percentage of those participating in non-formal education: 49% (= continuing education participation)
  • Percentage of those participating in formal education: 12%
  • Percentage of those active in learning: 68% (those who were in formal, non-formal or informal education)

AES distinguishes participation in relation to occupations:

  • 18% of participation was not related to occupation
  • Out of the 82% of participation related to occupations, the majority was organised by companies (69%) and considerably less were organised by individuals (13%)
  • 27% of all participation took place with the own employer.
  • 31% of all participation took place at adult education centres.

Since AES was first carried out in 2007, a range of different years is not available. However, this can be seen by the Reporting System for Continuing Education (BSW) who delivered a participation rate of 43% for 2007 (compared with 44% for 2007 AES).

  • The rate has constantly increased from 23% in 1979 to 48% in 1997 (until 1990 only West-Germany).
  • After a decline to 43% (2000) and 41% (2003), it increased again to 43% (2007)Following a structurally similar trend were the participation rates in general continuing education (2007: 27%) and vocational continuing education (2007: 26%).
  • The most significant factors that influence participation in continuing education are gainful employment, secondary school qualification and professional qualification.

All data from the recent publication on Adult Education Survey:

The central tasks of AE in Germany include the ability to participate in society – as political and vocational participation. For occupational-related education, adaptations to changes in technology and globalisation are necessary; whereas on a personal level, adaptation is required for the challenges and impositions connected to these.

With regards to social cohesion, political education is just as important as the integration of immigrants, as well as the literacy and basic education of those who were not able to learn the relevant cultural techniques at school.

In 2012 one third of all AE activities was on “economics, work, law” (33%), followed by “nature, technique, computer” (25%), “Health, sports” (19%), “languages, culture, politics” (13%), “education and social skills” (8%). Data again from Adult Education Survey 2012.

The volume of classes with the five main institutions for general adult education was 2012 divided into the following topics (

  • Languages: 23,8%
  • Health: 29,2%
  • Work/Professions: 10,2%
  • Culture/Design: 16,1%
  • Basic education/Secondary school qualifications: 2,2%
  • Family/Gender/Generations: 8,8%
  • Politics/Society: 4,8%
  • Religion/Ethics: 3,4%
  • Environment: 1,4%

Following the analysis of Mikrozensus data, 2009 worked at least 325.000 persons as adult education professionals in Germany. This is probably underestimated due to different reasons. Volunteers are not calculated here although they play an important role in the field.

The average age is 41,3 years (Median: 42 years); 56,6 percent are female.

Only 42 percent are employees, of which 58 percent are full-time employed.

One third (32%) belong to the group of solo-freelancer, of which 35 percent haven’t got any social security or retirement provisions.

A considerable number of persons work in the field of adult education as a second job or on an interim basis.

The average monthly net income is 1.320 euros (compared with 1.680 euros in the whole working population). Most of the persons earn between 900 and 1.100 euros.

(All data from Martin/Langemeyer 2014)

In 2012 a minimum wage was enacted for employers in special areas of AE, especially courses for job-seekers funded by the Federal Employment Agency.

There are still no mandatory qualifications for employment in adult education, even though the recruitment of staff with the required qualifications appears to have increased thanks to the introduction of study courses specialising in adult education/continuing education.

Further education opportunities for continuing education staff are listed in a nationwide database on DIE’s website:

There are also study opportunities listed in an online prospectus at:

Quality system / insurance
There are various quality management systems in Germany’s continuing education. In addition to ISO models, there is the EFQM and the “Learner-oriented quality testing in continuing education” (LQW) model. To apply for public financial assistance, the introduction of a QM model is a part requirement. In this way, the State wants to avoid costly validation processes for continuing education establishments and substitute this for a self-imposed quality assurance.

Latest developments / main problems in the discussion

Important current topics are:

  • Networks and cooperatives, particularly on a communal level
  • German qualification frameworks, competencies, recognition of qualifications acquired abroad
  • Demographic change; intergenerational learning
  • Inclusion (participation in society by disadvantaged groups); social determination of participation in education; literacy
  • Outcome and efficiency of the system
  • Transitions within the educational field of lifelong learning
  • Advice on learning and education
  • Educational marketing
  • Social backgrounds
  • Minimum wage in adult education

Relevant links/ further Information 

Information for Germany:

German Literature:

  • Arnold, R./Nolda, S./Nuissl, E. (2010): Wörterbuch Erwachsenenbildung. URL:
  • Nuissl, E./Brandt, P. (2009): Porträt Weiterbildung Deutschland. Bielefeld, 91 Seiten, ISBN: 978-3-7639-1970-3
  • Martin, A./Langemeyer, I. (2014): Demografie, sozioökonomischer Status und Stand der Professionalisierung – das Personal in der Weiterbildung im Vergleich. In: DIE-Trendanalyse 2014, S. 43–67
  • Deutsches Institut für Erwachsenenbildung (2014): Trends der Weiterbildung. DIE-Trendanalyse 2014. Bielefeld, 208 Seiten, ISBN 978-3-7639-5313-4
  • Horn, H./Ambos, I. (2012): Weiterbildungsstatistik im Verbund 2012-Kompakt. URL:
  • Bilger, F./Ganhs, D./Hartmann, J./Kuper, H. (2013): Weiterbildungsverhalten in Deutschland.. Resultate des Adult Education Survey 2012. URL: ISBN 978-3-7639-5239-7