Sustainable growth in the EU – why we cannot go soft on education

Androulla VASSILIOU — Member of the European Commission responsible for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth

Jean Monnet Conference/ECSA World Conference

Brussels, 16-11-2012 — / — Ladies and gentlemen

Dear friends,

I am very grateful for this opportunity to address you on a topic of such importance – the role of education and training for sustainable growth.

No one today would challenge the notion that education and training are important for growth – but if we really want to rise to the occasion of a Jean Monnet Conference, then I believe we need to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

Today and tomorrow we should focus clearly on how education and training policies can help Europe tackle the economic crisis that still holds our continent in its grip, all the while helping to lay the foundations for a prosperous, sustainable, peaceful and cohesive Europe.

The long term challenge of sustainability is just as important as the search for an exit from the crisis. Our economic and financial problems have revealed cracks in the very edifice of the European project. And, in spite of modern politics’ narrow focus on the short term, we have a duty to take up the major societal challenges which are looming, not to mention the identity crisis that threatens to undermine the very notion of European integration.

Europe has responded to the crisis on many fronts, even if progress has sometimes been slow. But such is our democracy, and it is always a price worth paying. The tools of a new and deeper solidarity have taken shape in the face of relentless financial storms; our Member States have set up new solidarity funds –such as the ESM – at a time of fiscal consolidation. A banking union is already in the making. Plans for a fiscal union are afoot. The need for a new treaty is agreed, and its contours are being explored.

It will be some time before we can say that the crisis is behind us, and that we have emerged stronger from it. But that is the direction we have taken, and that is where we wish to arrive.

Today, in the tradition of our Jean Monnet meetings, we will discuss how to make Europe stronger, and explore the role of education in building a more dynamic, more resilient and more united Europe.

Some might question the relevance of discussing education – always a long term project which bears fruit over time – at a moment when people want quick remedies for acute ailments. But I am convinced that education holds the key to both our immediate response and our prospects in the fast-changing and unpredictable world that lies ahead.

Today, more than ever, it is education that can deliver social progress. When we invest in education, we commit ourselves to the development of our citizens and the welfare of our society.

But if education and the spread of knowledge are rightly valued for their contribution to innovation, employability and economic progress, I would stress that, just as Jean Monnet’s vision for Europe went far beyond a common market, so too our vision of education, knowledge and culture shall never be reduced to mere utilitarianism or functionalism.

The success of education depends also on its ability to nurture “empowered Europeans” who can adapt to an ever-changing environment; who are willing to contribute as citizens to a society that values solidarity as much as it does freedom. That is why the health of a society depends on the quality of the education it imparts to its citizens.

To feel at home in the world, with all its diversity and uncertainty, has always been the mark of an educated, well-balanced individual. But the world we need to understand today is profoundly complex, and much of its impact on our lives originates beyond the frontiers of our individual states.

I believe we need to develop a new awareness of what ‘Europe’ means today if we want to understand the world in which we live; if we want to take advantage of its opportunities and fend off its threats.

In this, the mission of education has not changed: the “liberal arts” that are taught in our universities (and to which economics belongs as well) bear that name because they can indeed liberate their students, and help them reach their full potential as human beings.

The crisis, if anything, has intensified our focus on education. It has, firstly, revealed serious weaknesses in Europe’s educational systems. As the economy slowed, those hit first and hardest were invariably the unqualified and the low-skilled. This shows the perils of allowing too many young people to fall by the wayside during their education, and it demonstrates the urgent need to tackle educational failure – in particular early school leaving.

Secondly, it has sharpened our sense of expectation from our education systems. We are clear that many of Europe’s citizens need an upgrade in their skills to be able to meet the demands of the labour market. And that Europe’s enterprises need more highly skilled people in order to compete globally.

The question now before us is how to address these failings, how to ensure that education delivers more fully on our expectations from it. What is the best and most efficient way to develop Europe’s skill base in order to boost competitiveness and employment? How can we best cope with the demands of rapid technological change and innovation? How can we modernise systems when our public finances are so strained?

Education has a proven track record when it comes to supporting economic growth. Most countries having experienced a protracted period of economic expansion, had initially invested substantially in improving the education levels of its citizens. Raising educational attainment rates powered the engine of the European and American economies after the war.

The same phenomenon underpins the sometimes spectacular growth of emerging economies; its absence explains why others lag behind.

But the point I want to make today is that the sustainable growth evoked in the theme of this Conference is more than sustained growth. There are several possible engines of growth. Past and recent history provides examples of economic growth led by an expansion of the construction or financial sectors, by sudden inflows of foreign direct investment or even by spiralling levels of public or private debt. All of these engines have shown that at some point they can stall. We know what happens when they do.

But there has never been an educational bubble. No crisis was ever triggered by educational overreach or hyperinflation.

This is why the European Union targets growth; but not just any kind of growth. Our strategy for the future, Europe 2020, champions policies favouring growth that is smart, inclusive, and sustainable.

It includes a double target in education, reflecting our aim both to widen skills and to raise them to new heights: by 2020, fewer than 10% of young people should be leaving school early, with no or few qualifications; and 40% of young people should be completing higher education.

And let us not forget that quite apart from solving its economic crisis, Europe needs to make important transformations. I have already mentioned how our immediate need for an exit strategy should not overshadow the issues that are shaping our societies in the long-term: the challenges of dealing with globalisation; ageing societies; technological disruption; and climate change.

This is why education figures prominently in the annual country-specific recommendations adopted by the Council on a proposal of the Commission regarding what is needed to get Europe’s economies back on track. Education is now a fully-fledged pillar of the Europe 2020 strategy, the EU’s vision for the future. We have witnessed a real qualitative shift at European level: Education is now part of European Economic governance through the European semester.

It is in this perspective that the Commission recommends that Member States continue investing in education even if these are hard times; times when tough choices have to be made.

Because education is not a “soft issue”; it is neither a luxury nor an option but a necessity.

Education is not a soft issue when every year one in seven students drops out of school with no qualification. Education is not a soft issue when more than one in five young people are unemployed.

Education is not a soft issue because the crisis has also underlined the value of higher education. In stark contrast to their low-skilled peers, higher education graduates have fared better even in the most crisis-hit economies, with lower rates of unemployment across the continent. High-skilled jobs have proved more resilient in the downturn, and high-skilled individuals have been better able to cope and adapt in a difficult labour market.

Education matters when almost 80 million Europeans have no or low skills – that is 30% of the workforce.

Education matters even more when we know that by 2020 35% of new jobs will require highly-skilled people: 16 million more than at present, while the demand for low skills will have dropped by 12 million jobs.

The truth is that the entire world’s economic and social landscape is changing dramatically. We are moving from one era to the next. The West faces “the rise of the rest”, as commentators have put it. And the speed and sheer scale of scientific discovery and innovation means that the technological frontier has decoupled from the economic frontier. What we need today is not merely commercial success involving the re-making of products and businesses: the whole of society must embrace change and innovation as a way of life.

Innovation is risky, we know. But sticking to what was done yesterday is far riskier than making a new tomorrow.

If we want to thrive in this “brave new world” we need to build a more flexible economy, an economy that can adapt quickly to new demands and changed circumstances; an economy that can absorb shocks and promptly bounce back on its feet. Such an economy can only thrive in a society which is confident and cohesive, composed of people with high skills who embrace change.

This is why focusing on quantitative educational targets alone is not enough.

Quality is vital. Because the globally positive picture of the employment situation of graduates that I have just painted does not hold for everyone. Graduate unemployment – or “under-employment”, where graduates work in comparatively low-skilled jobs – is a real and growing problem in some Member States. This is partly due to today’s harsh economic climate. But it is also in part a reflection of graduates leaving university without the kind of profiles, knowledge, skills and experience they need to succeed in the labour market.

For all these reasons, the role of education in fostering sustainable growth is a decisive one; getting our policies right is one of the most vital policy issues we face, both at European and national levels.

These and other questions will be the subject of your discussions at our meeting today. Your ideas will most certainly help the European Commission in shaping its future initiatives.

I thank you in advance for your input; it could not come at a better time.

I am now finalising a strategy on “Re-thinking education”. It starts from the frank acknowledgement that, in spite of the progress achieved over the last few years, European education and training systems still fall short when it comes to providing all the students with the right skills for employability.

The ideas on which we are working, and you will already be familiar with some of them, include the development of transversal skills, such as the capacity to think critically, take initiatives, solve problems and work collaboratively.

They will be extremely important in preparing individuals for today’s and tomorrow’s varied and unpredictable career paths.

The strategy also highlights the need for more high quality vocational training, in particular in partnership between business and education/training institutions. For this purpose, we want to promote apprenticeships and other models that facilitate the transition from learning to work and a better match between the supply and demand for skills and competences.

Our strategy also recognises that, in order to make all proposed educational reforms succeed, the support and active engagement of teachers and faculty is essential. Without them, no progress is possible.

The European Commission is committed to supporting higher education institutions in their effort to improve the quality and relevance of their teaching. This is why we have recently launched a new High-level Group to examine ways to promote and enhance quality in higher education teaching at all levels. Recommendations will be published next summer.

While most higher education students will largely continue to come directly from secondary education, more and more older learners are seeking access to higher education.

This demand comes not only from people who have never been to university, who see a higher education qualification as a way to improve their chances in a competitive labour market. It also comes from people who already have a high-level qualification, but want to up-date their skills or potentially retrain for another career.

Today’s fast moving economy will inevitably increase the need for such “up-skilling“ and “re-skilling”, including among the already highly skilled. And higher education systems need to be in a position to respond with new study programmes, better use of new technologies and more flexible study patterns.

Finally, and I am now addressing you as academics and university professors, there is another important way in which higher education institutions can contribute directly to Europe’s economic recovery:

It is by channelling their expertise and knowledge for the benefit of the wider economy.

We see many examples of institutions cooperating with companies and other organisations to develop new products, services and systems. And public authorities are increasingly recognising that higher education institutions are economic players in their own right.

Patterns of cooperation vary. There is certainly no one-size-fits-all model. But the many successful examples of cooperation show what can be achieved when higher education institutions work actively with other actors – both at local and regional level and on a national or international scale.

Breaking down barriers between higher education and the surrounding world – supporting the direct engagement of higher education institutions in economic and social affairs – is crucial to building a better and more successful economic model.

Education and business need to engage more decisively in structured forms of co-operation. The enterprises that will create new wealth and employment over the next decade will depend on people that have both a deep understanding of science and technology; and a talent for applying it to meet the needs of markets and society.

It is only by combining entrepreneurship education and interaction with business, that students develop the practical skills, knowledge and attitudes that will allow them to innovate – to have ideas on how to improve the local community, to start up a business, or to initiate and push forward an innovation process in their work place.

This is a key objective of the Erasmus for All programme that I have proposed for the 2014-2020 period and which will include a new scheme, the Knowledge Alliances.

These are partnerships which bring together partners from business and academia committed to delivering new and innovative teaching methods and approaches, and to promoting entrepreneurship and more entrepreneurial mind-set.

Two pilot calls were launched in 2011 and 2012 and the overwhelmingly positive response showed us that this type of structured partnership meets a very real need in the educational sector when looking for a reliable way of connecting with business.

Long-term partnerships between business and the highest levels of education and research of the kind we have been spearheading with the European Institute of Innovation & Technology, and which we will support with Erasmus for All, are vital to boosting innovation in Europe.

These partnerships will help us to develop a sustainable and flexible education system that meets the social and economic challenges of the future.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Erasmus for All will continue the Jean Monnet activities.

In light of its specific efforts to promote excellence in education and research on EU integration, the Jean Monnet Initiative will share the delivery mechanisms of the integrated programme, but will continue within it as a distinct activity.

There are four areas where we would like to focus our future work:

First, I want to ensure the participation of a new generation of professors and researchers in Jean Monnet projects. We need your high quality teaching and research on European Union topics to continue in the future. This is why I call on you to strongly encourage your younger colleagues to apply for Jean Monnet projects.

Second, European integration now touches all areas of society. This should be reflected in our educational curricula. I therefore would like the Jean Monnet programme to reinforce European integration studies in faculties not traditionally involved in the subject. Of course, such modules would have to be targeted to meet the specific needs of the students in question.

Third, I believe that it could be beneficial to create a Jean Monnet label of excellence for those institutions interested in securing recognition of the quality of their European integration studies programmes. Our new programme will move in this direction.

Fourth, we want to emphasise the “think tank capacity” of the Jean Monnet Professors’ network, the aspect of Jean Monnet we are engaged in here today. The Jean Monnet network’s role is very important in promoting policy debate and exchanges between the academic world and policy-makers on EU priorities.

Finally, the Jean Monnet initiative will continue with specific support to academic institutions which have a clear objective of supporting the European integration such as the College of Europe and to the European University Institute.

However, to give a chance to the increasing number of academic institutions active in the field of European integration to access this support despite the limited budgetary means, we want a competitive and multiannual open call for proposals to be launched to reward the best projects. I acknowledge this last point is the subject of discussions with the European Parliament and the Council, but I hope the compromise will be reached, allowing new institutions to be supported.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Today I made the case that education is not a soft issue. It is perhaps the most powerful civilising force we have ever known. And we need all of that strength when we know that the future will bring profound environmental, economic and societal challenges.

Change will be forced on us; we must prepare for it, understand it and shape it – in this way change can be for the better. In the end, preparing for the future is just another way of defining education.

This is what education does for sustainable growth. This is what it does for sustainable development and a sustainable society.

In support of my case, I would like to borrow, and slightly adapt, a key concept of the Nobel-prize winner Amartya Sen: “Education and culture are crucial to making growth and development sustainable not only because they sustain the needs and the living standards of the future generations, but because they sustain, and this is their unique contribution, the freedom of future generations to have or safeguard what they value and to which they have reason to attach importance”.

Education and culture sustain growth, development and social progress first and foremost because they give meaning to them.

This is why a sustainable society is a well-educated society.

Thank you.


Comments are closed.