More equivalence is essential!

A plea for the juridification of the German Qualifications Framework

Friedrich Hubert Esser

When the German Qualifications Framework (DQR) was adopted in 2012, education and training stakeholders expected it would deliver an important impetus for the equivalence of general and vocational education. However, the agreement, concluded by the Federal Government, the federal states and the social partners, still lacks formal legal status. In light of the increasing loss of appeal of VET, a broad debate on the validity of VET qualifications is more necessary than ever. Juridification of the DQR could make an important contribution in this respect.

The prestige of occupations has changed massively

Which issues are of concern to young people as they leave school and prepare to embark upon life’s further pathway? If they are considering entering the workplace or undertaking vocational education and training as a possible alternative to higher education study then, as BIBB investigations show, they will face a range of questions. Is the occupation the right fit for me? What is my earning potential? Does the job offer secure prospects? Young people are examining the kind of flexibility and work-life balance their own work organisation is able to provide. A further question is also particularly pertinent. What level of prestige does the occupation enjoy, and how educated will it allow me to appear within my immediate social environment? (cf. Granato/Ulrich 2018; Oeynhausen/Ulrich2020).

This casts a spotlight on the prestige of occupations in our society, something which has significantly changed over the past few decades due to two major developments. Firstly, since the 1960s in particular, a structural shift has been occurring which could be described as a continuous transformation from an industrial to a so-called knowledge society. The result of this is that skilled worker profiles and the profile of the knowledge worker have been increasingly competing with each other. Secondly, the expansion in education from the 1960s onwards and the associated educational policy promise of “career advancement through education and training” must be mentioned. This pledge of upward mobility became firmly enshrined as the very ideal of a cross-generational change of environment in many families and domestic communities – ditching the overalls in favour of a white-collar milieu. The pathway into higher education study via the upper secondary school-leaving certificate is now a “silver bullet” option for a broad section of the population. At the same time, an increasing loss of prestige is particularly being suffered by occupations associated with demanding mental and physical working conditions.

In the light of huge skilled worker shortages in the healthcare, craft trades and industrial manufacturing occupations, the question arises as to how this deeply rooted advancement and educational ideal can once again be more closely linked with existing training and career pathways in VET. However important all-encompassing vocational orientation may be, this is not sufficient in itself to enable us to counter VET’s loss in esteem.

We need to talk about equivalence!

The DQR represented an important cross-cutting agreement on the equivalence of general and vocational education when it was introduced ten years ago1. For this reason, the DQR is a particularly suitable starting point for an overall societal discourse on equivalence. It is the only instrument which justifies and visualises the equivalence of vocational and academic education via an interpretation of education and training which is independent of learning pathways and learning venues.

The DQR is a familiar term amongst experts in education and training. Amongst the public, however, it remains largely unknown. For this reason, the current debate regarding the firm legal anchoring of the DQR is an excellent foundation for initiating and supporting the urgently required macrosocial discourse on equivalence. Juridification of the DQR would mean formal commitment on the part of the state to the equivalence of general and vocational education and would send a strong signal that societal discourse desperately needs. It would be worthwhile in multiple regards (cf. Mölls 2022).

Positive effects of DQR juridification

The DQR is an instrument of transparency which helps enhance the attractiveness of vocational education and training. Career pathway concepts and associated opportunities for advancement in VET will not merely be rendered visible. Their equivalence to academic education will also be legally manifest. This also fulfils the prerequisite for comparability of educational pathways under collective wage bargaining law, something which definitely plays a role in young people’s decisions. Especially in the public sector, it will also open up points of access to advanced and higher grades for persons who have competed a VET qualification. Recognition will only spread out into society if the state supports it with vigour. In addition, a firm legal foundation will lead to the stipulation of a cross-cutting definition of competency. The notion of competence has become the main category for target benchmarks in the German education system. A binding definition has, however, hitherto been absent in the relevant legal foundations, such as the Vocational Training Act. Firm legal establishment will provide a secure basis for regulatory work stipulations in the education system. At the same time, this will provide a vehicle for finding a “common language” across all educational sectors and thus create a foundation for the credit transfer and recognition of qualifications or learning achievements that will facilitate the structuring of transitions between areas of education and training. Policy initiatives such as ESCO2 are currently making use of self-developed competency descriptions with no guaranteed match to VET policy competency descriptions. A legally binding DQR will also establish cross-cutting rules for alignment processes in both the formal and non-formal sector. This would otherwise only be achievable via a continuing training act. Legitimation of the institutions responsible for alignment to DQR reference levels is a further associated factor, and this would help offer protection against misuse – which is not in place presently. This is the only way to avoid situations in which providers in the non-formal sector sometimes avail themselves of fictitious, self-selected DQR level alignments for their programmes and thus suggest a quality-assured categorisation which does not actually exist. By way of contrast, no such power is currently in place for state bodies.

The ball is in the policy makers’ court

Austria3 and Switzerland4 have created a firm legal basis for their National Qualifications Frameworks (NQF) and are already benefiting from the advantages this offers (increase in awareness, acceptance and relevance).

In Germany, a legal opinion commissioned by the BMBF has reactivated the discussion surrounding juridification of the DQR (cf. von Coelln 2021). In his expert report, von Coelln examines the issue of juridification based on various facts and circumstances and approves the legal option each time. Von Coelln states that, as is mostly the case with legislative proposals, policy makers will need to decide whether they wish the DQR to have a greater legally binding status or not. Insofar as the necessity to regulate may not yet be urgent, he advises juridification at least for the prevention of misuse.

All in all, the ball is now in the policy makers’ court in terms of using juridification of the DQR to truly commit to the equivalence of vocational and academic education and thus put their cards on the table. This would be an important impetus which VET urgently needs in order for its attractiveness to be increased.


Coelln, Ch. v.: Gutachten zur Klärung juristischer Fragen im Kontext der weiteren Umsetzung des Deutschen Qualifikationsrahmens für lebenslanges Lernen (DQR). Köln 2021

Granato, M.; Ulrich, J. G.: Die Attraktivität von Ausbildungsberufen und Ausbildungsbetrieben für Jugendliche. In: BIBB (Ed.): Datenreport zum Berufsbildungsbericht 2018. A.a.O. 2018, pp. 437–439

Mölls, J.: DQR quo vadis? In: BWP 51 (2022) 1, pp. 48–50. URL: www.bwp-zeitschrift.de/dienst/publikationen/de/17699

Oeynhausen, S.; Ulrich, J. G.: Das Bedürfnis nach sozialer Anerkennung bei der Berufswahl von Jugendlichen. In: Brüggemann, T.; Rahn, S. (Eds.): Berufsorientierung. Ein Lehr- und Arbeitsbuch. Münster 2. Aufl. 2020, pp. 97–108

(Alle links: status 13/3/2023)

Prof. Dr. Friedrich Hubert Esser
President of BIBB

Translation from the German original (published in BWP 1/2023): Martin Kelsey, GlobalSprachTeam, Berlin