"Germany invented the modern university but long ago lost its leading position to other countries, especially America. These days the land of poets and thinkers is prouder of its 'dual system' for training skilled workers such as bakers and electricians. Teenagers not bound for university apply for places in three-year programmes combining classroom learning with practical experience within companies. The result is superior German quality in haircuts as well as cars. Dual training 'is the reason we’re the world export champion' says Mrs Schavan, the education minister. Azubis (trainees) acquire not just a professional qualification but an identity.Economist special report om Tyskland, "Much to learn", 11 mars
But the dual system is under pressure. The number of places offered by companies has long been falling short of the number of applicants. Almost as many youngsters move into a 'transitional system', a grab-bag of remedial education programmes designed to prepare them for the dual system or another qualification. Often it turns out to be a dead end, especially for male immigrants.
And given that Germany produces far fewer university graduates than many comparable countries, some wonder whether the dual system is producing the right qualifications for the knowledge-based professions of the future. 'The dual system is for 200 years ago,' says Alexander Kritikos of DIW, a research institute in Berlin. 'You have to ask: is it still the right system if we want to be innovative?'
The system is governed by a consortium representing almost everyone who counts: the federal and state governments, the chambers of commerce and the unions. It regulates access to 350 narrowly defined trades. You can train to become a goldsmith, or if you want to manage a McDonald’s you learn Systemgastronomie. Baking bread and pastries are separate disciplines. Schools outside the system may not train Azubis for a reserved trade.
It makes sense to combine theory and practice, says Heike Solga of the Social Science Research Centre in Berlin, but the dual system is rigid and discriminatory. And because the trades are so specialised, getting a job at the end can be hard. In 2005 more than a third of graduates were unemployed a year after completing their course. Ms Solga thinks the number of trades should be greatly reduced, the early stages of training made more general to make switching easier, and the right to train Azubis opened up to a wider range of schools. 'It should not be about where you learn but what you can do,' she says.
The type of secondary school a German attends, the degree he obtains and the exams he passes classify him for life. The distinctions are made earlier and more rigidly than in other countries. 'Nowhere are credentials as important as in Germany,' says Stefan Hradil, a sociologist at the University of Mainz.
Many children are typecast at age ten, which is when most German states decide which of three kinds of secondary school he or she will attend. Traditionally the Hauptschulen, the lowest tier, were the main suppliers of recruits to the dual training system, but they gradually became dumping grounds for children who could not keep up. Upon leaving (sometimes without passing the final exam), nearly 40% of these students find themselves in the precarious transitional system. The dual system now draws its intake mainly from the middle-grade Realschulen, the traditional training ground for white-collar workers, and even Gymnasien (grammar schools), the main route to university.
The state bureaucracy acknowledges four career paths: the simple, middle, elevated and higher services. Bureaucrats in one category can rarely aspire to careers in a higher one. Teachers in Gymnasien enjoy a higher status than those at other schools. and have their own trade union, the grandly named Philologenverband. A Meisterbrief, the highest vocational credential, is not just a badge of competence but in some trades a keep-off sign to competitors.
Germans are now asking themselves whether this way of doing things is fair, and whether it is working. Although income is distributed relatively equally, opportunity is not. 'Germany is one of the most rigid among the relatively advanced societies,' says Karl Ulrich Mayer, a sociologist at Yale University.