Prof. Dr. Dr. habil. Godehard Ruppert: Educational biographies in the context of life – Educational research as a requirement for educational policies

Education is one of the most important and heavily discussed topics in the modern knowledge-based society. It affects everyone. Education is the key to economic growth and prosperity. It is a characteristic and requirement for our complex and networked world. There is no doubt when it comes to the importance of education – but what do we actually know about educational processes and educational pathways? Certainly not nearly enough to be able to act in a politically responsible manner. That is why educational research exists.

 

Educational research regards learning as a process that lasts a lifetime and takes place in many different learning environments. Of course, formal educational institutions such as childcare facilities, schools, univer­sities and apprenticeship programmes all play an impor­tant role in this, but informal opportunities like music classes and hobbies, media reception and the family environment also influence whether and how a person learns specific skills. Additionally, a person’s education is also shaped by individual decision-making processes and structural factors.

However, the knowledge of what makes education successful and how disruptions in an educational biography can occur is still very limited. Thus far, insufficient research has been conducted on how knowledge is ob­­tained over an entire lifespan and how the individual edu­cational phases interact with one another. Which abilities and skills do children possess at a very early age and which do they obtain later in life? What roles do different learning environments play in children’s devel­­opment? How do subsequent factors like the choice of a course of study, grades earned or social contacts in­­fluence people’s careers after leaving the university. How does vocational training prepare future members of the labour force for the demands of the workplace? And which paths lead to success and recognition? Which paths through the education system are more likely to make people happy, and which less so?

Scholars in various disciplines working at the University of Bamberg and many other educa­tional institutes are ap­­plying their ex­­pertise in empirical research to the examination of these very ques­tions – and their findings have a tre­­mendous impact on Ger­­many’s edu­­cational policy making. This is due to the fact that Ger­­many’s social changes in the era of globalisation also pose a challenge to the educational system. The changes in so­­ci­ety’s guiding principles from generation to generation, combined with the demographic challenges posed by low birth rates in an environment of a steadily ageing popula­tion, constantly cast doubt on the efficiency of the educa­tional system in the context of international competition.

The longitudinal approach to researching education that is pursued in Bamberg is ideally suited to observing developments over time, as one would a film, rather than merely viewing a cross-sectional snapshot of a particular condition. In order to better understand social processes and to ultimately make a contribution to the long-term improvement of educational offerings in all age groups in Germany, Bamberg’s scholars are researching educational biographies as factors embedded in the context of life experience.

National and international networking. The greater the task, the more important interdisciplinary exchange and institutional networking – both across Germany and around the world. Over time, the University of Bam­­berg has established itself as an important institution for empirical educational research, thanks to comprehen­­sive, interdisciplinary projects: The German Research Foundation (DFG) has been supporting the “Educational processes, competence development, and selection deci­­sions in preschool and school age” (BiKS) project since 2005. From 2006 to 2011, the project “Personality and learning development of primary school children” (Perle), carried out jointly by the universities of Bamberg and Kassel, was funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). Today, students can gain the practical skills required for such research in two master’s degree programmes: Survey Statistics; and Educational Research. The fact that this interdisciplinary competence network is an ideal breeding ground for empirical social science research is further highlighted by the decision to include the Bamberg Graduate School of Social Sciences (BAGSS) in the Excellence Initiative sponsored by Germany’s federal and state governments, thereby cultivating an innovative, structured and international work and education environment for highly qualified Ph.D. candidates.
Additional evidence underscoring the significance of Bam­­berg as a hub for empirical educational research is the establishment of Germany’s largest socio-scientific educational project, the National Educational Panel Study (NEPS), in Bamberg. The project examines educational processes and competency development in Germany be­­ginning in early childhood and extending into advanced adulthood. NEPS oversees six panel studies which begin in various stages of life. These panel studies are supplemented by additional cross-sectional studies. NEPS reg­­ularly makes its most recent data avail­able to the national and international scientific commu­nities in the form of so-called anonymised Scientific Use Files. This data pro­­vides a rich and diverse analysis poten­­tial for various academic disciplines dealing with education and training processes (such as demographics, educational science, economics, psychology and sociology), and this in turn creates a basis for improved education-related reporting and political consulting in Germany. Hans-Peter Blossfeld, the Bamberg sociologist, invested many years in prepar­­ing the study. In 2009, NEPS was ready to be launched as a project funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).

Competence has an impact, and it is always on the look­­out for new partners and cooperative opportunities. NEPS, in academic and scientific terms, is therefore a trans-regional project. Research institutions from all over Germany participate in the success of the project as a consortium and as cooperation partners.

 

Robert Erikson, the internationally renowned social strat­­ification scholar, sociology professor from the Swedish Institute for Social Research (SOFI) in Stockholm and member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, is involved in the development of NEPS in his role as chair­­man of the internationally staffed scientific board. Thus it has been possible, not least thanks to the international support, for NEPS to be converted from a fixed-term project to a stable research institution with permanent financing. Since the beginning of 2014, NEPS has been run by the specially created Leibniz Institute for Educational Trajectories (LIfBi) at the University of Bamberg. In addition to the administration of NEPS, LIfBi is also In­­corporated in the PIAAC-L study, the cooperative, longi­tudinal follow-up to Germany’s PIAAC study (Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies) in Germany. Furthermore, LIfBi carries out locally focused research projects like the BiLO study (Educational Land­­scape of Upper Franconia).

When it comes to long-term empirical studies, the world has its eye on Bamberg. As was recently affirmed by the German Council of Science and Humanities, NEPS provides invaluable, pioneering work as a “research infrastructure institution that is the only one of its kind worldwide”. Educational researchers from around the globe come to Bamberg to learn more about the work being done by local scholars. Similar studies being con­­ducted in Poland, the Czech Republic and Russia have based the structure of their studies on Bamberg’s suc­­cessful model. Of course, both sides benefit from this cooperation. Mutual knowledge transfer is absolutely es­­­sential for not only maintaining cutting edge research, but also for driving it forward.

Godehard Ruppert, born in 1953, studied Catholic theology, philosophy, education and journalism in Bochum, Münster and Würzburg. Beginning in 1991, he held the chair for religious education and teaching at the University of Bamberg and was active in numerous functions in the university’s self-administration throughout this period. In 2000, he was elected to the position of university rector, and in 2007 he was elected president. He has been president of the Virtual University of Bavaria since 2002. From 2011 to 2013, he was chairman of the Universität Bayern e.V., and since 2012, he has been a member of the Administrative Board of the International Association of Universities (IAU).