Education and Training: where do we stand in 2014?

By Bogdan Pavel, guest writer at the European Sting

The Directorate-General for Education and Culture – Unit A.2 issued on the 12th of November its “Education and Training Monitor 2014″, a support tool for the implementation of the strategic framework for European cooperation in education and training (ET 2020). Its opening states “The purpose of education is to prepare individuals for life and to instil a sense of democratic citizenship; […] quality education and training fuel inclusive, sustainable growth”. I took inspiration from this to interview Rita Asplund from the Research Institute of the Finnish Economy (ETLA) on the topic of education policy and its current and future state and definition.

B.P. : What appears clear from their evaluation and monitoring on a cross-national level is that “education is not used to its fullest potential”. How would explain or how do you motivate this claim? Is it a political affirmation that speaks about the national situation or more a consequence of the supranational / global economic crisis?

R.A. : This claim – “education is not used to its fullest potential” – appears, in effect, only once in the Monitor text and can obviously be seen as an overall conclusion drawn based on the analysis reported in the Monitor. It’s not always easy to explain or motivate this type of claims, as they represent a kind of “EU language”. ☺ If the underlying idea is, by and large, the following, then it could serve as an explanation or, at least, as one of them.

There is a broad theoretical literature highlighting the economic as well as social benefits arising from investment in education and training. These benefits gain principally all levels of the economy and society, starting from the individual. This line of thinking is also expressed in the 1st para of the Monitor’s foreword: “The purpose of education is to prepare individuals for life and to instil a sense of democratic citizenship; and to do so for all learners, regardless of socio-economic and cultural differences. Quality education and training fuel inclusive, sustainable growth as learning outcomes translate into the productivity and innovation of the working-age population.”

However, these benefits arising from investment in education and training are not easy to assess and, moreover, in a cross-country comparative way, especially when – today – as many as 28 countries + EEA and candidate countries are to be covered. For these purposes, the Commission created a number of reasonably simple education and training indicators, simple in the meaning of being relatively easy to produce by Member States and also to understand by different users and stakeholders. These indicators and, ultimately, the targets set for them make up the basis for ET2020 and, hence, for Europe2020 (previously for the Lisbon Strategy).

The achievement of Member States with respect to the targets set for these indicators is regarded as all too weak, since many countries are still far behind these targets and/or have only marginally, if at all, narrowed the gap to these targets. With the onset of the financial and economic crisis in 2008 coupled with a prolonged economic downturn, or even recession, due to global challenges, there have rather been cutbacks than increases in investments in education and training. This means that there is an obvious risk of Member States moving in the wrong direction: away from the targets instead of closer to them. Taken together, this certainly implies that “education is not used to its fullest potential”: all the benefits arising from education cannot be gained as Member States underinvest in it. Simultaneously we need to recall that there are huge differences across Member States which is also evident from the cross-country information provided in the Monitor.

The above also provides my answer to the complementary question: Is it a political affirmation that speaks about the national situation or more a consequence of the supranational / global economic crisis? – Already before the onset of the present crisis, there were remarkable differences across Member States in the ‘indicator-specific’ levels as well as in their progress towards the stated indicator-specific targets (=political affirmation that speaks about the national situation). With the onset of the crisis and due to its prolonged nature, Member States are struggling with public finances, etc. which is reflected also in public investments in education and training, more in some countries, less in others (=consequence of the supranational / global economic crisis).

B.P. : “Public expenditure on education has been reduced in nineteen Member States in 2012”. As above, is this data, according to your research explicitly refering to a negative economic situation of these member states or is it linked to a stall in the policy-making (at national and European level) in the education sector?

R.A. : In view of the remarkable efforts made by the Commission with respect to education and training, e.g. in Europe2020 and its accompanying documents, initiatives, etc., it’s hard to find any evidence in support of “a stall in the policy-making (at national and European level) in the education sector”. Indeed, the importance of investing in education is emphasized in practically all relevant contexts.

A negative economic situation is the obvious explanation for the situation. Public expenditures are dominated by education, health and social affairs. Accordingly, larger cuts hit inevitably also the education sector. However, it’s not irrelevant how these cuts are realized, a matter that receives all too little attention in the public and political debate. An example: the consequences can be assumed to be very different if a cut of a certain size is made mainly at the primary (basic) education level or mainly at the tertiary (university) level. The line of thought here is, in effect, quite simple but well supported in the research literature: if primary education is not available on an equal basis for all children, this means that access to upper secondary and tertiary education is not a reality to all children irrespective of background (socioeconomic, ethnical, etc.). This inevitably means that children do not have the same opportunities and the society will not be able to fully gain from the potential of the young generation. Indeed, the literature firmly shows that early investments (kindergartens, pre-schools, primary level) in education are the most important ones and also the ones from which the economy and the society can reap the highest benefits. From an individual point of view, the possibility to participate in basic education irrespective of family background opens up the way into upper secondary education and, ultimately, into tertiary education (social mobility). A recent study for Germany provides an illustrative example: immigrant youth reveal a much lower probability of participating in the dual system of vocational education than native youth. The main reason for this was found to be their relatively weak basic education, when compared to native youth. Those immigrant young people who succeeded in entering the dual system managed equally well as native young people. Moreover, kindergartens, pre-schools and primary education have the potential of making up for a disadvantaged family background. Since an all-inclusive primary education is a basic pre-condition for individual as well as societal success, cuts in its quantity and/or quality will inevitably have detrimental effects, effects that are much larger than cuts at the tertiary level. Moreover, over the past decade or so there has been a lively academic and political discussion about the need to make universities (tertiary education) more efficient when it comes to money use. It is often argued that the financing responsibility of the public sector is too large; there should be more private-sector fund racing. Again, this is a broad literature containing also diametrically different opinions. So in brief, cutbacks at the tertiary level are not too difficult to balance up with funding from the private sector, but cuts in public financing of early investments in education might be disastrous both from the individual’s and the society’s point-of-view.

B.P. : “Graduate employment rate is only 75.5% and education and training systems could be used more effectively to counter socio-economic and cultural inequalities”. Do you have any comments related to this important data? How could these systems be effectively improved?

R.A. :  Employment and unemployment rates are tricky measures when it comes to young people, for several reasons. One major reason is that young people are moving between different ‘statuses’ to a much higher degree than adults: education, employment, unemployment, outside the labour market, etc. Also the way of measuring employment and unemployment affects markedly the outcome when it comes to young people. These aspects are much debated in the literature. This means, inter alia, that the employment rate of 75.5% might be of a clearly different size if measured, say, one month later or one month earlier.

But if we accept that the stated employment rate of 75.5% comes close to the truth, then it of course reflects the current weak economic situation and the fact that the economic crisis hit young people first and the hardest (temporary job contracts, business-cycle sensitive branches, etc.). Moreover, it may be expected that young people will be late to benefit from the economic upturn, when it finally starts. This vulnerable situation of young people is well documented in the literature.

But it’s not only a question of being employed or not. First, many young people may be underemployed and/or in jobs that cannot grant them a decent living (low pay) and/or jobs that affect them negatively physically and/or mentally (quality of the job). Also such aspects should be accounted for in one way or the other. Second, it’s also a question of how young people spend their time if not employed: Do they eventually return to education and training? Do they register as unemployed, in which case they have the possibility to be subject to ALMP measures? Are they only temporarily unemployed or is their unemployment spell prolonged? To what extent – and at which phase of their unemployment – do they participate in ALMP measures and programmes, cf. the youth guarantee? Or do they withdraw entirely from both education and the labour market – and for how long – and why?

A pre-condition for fighting socio-economic and cultural inequalities is that all children are offered the possibility to participate in education and training – on an equal basis at all level, and measures are taken so that this is also realized. Opportunities are not enough; the system needs to work also in practice. It also means that special needs of children are identified and covered, notably by special education arrangements. These are, however, matters of high risk of being overlooked especially at times of tight public finances.

The Nordic countries, notably Finland, are good examples when it comes to school equity and special education, investments that also show up in PISA results. School equity refers to principally free education at all levels, up to tertiary education, and educational opportunities on an equal basis irrespective of family background (the Nordic countries score highest in research on social mobility). Special education in Finland is well-known internationally. Much resources are used on special education in order to provide all children basic education adjusted to their particular needs. We have different types of individualized curricula depending on the needs of the child. We also have school assistants helping children in the classroom, thus providing support also to the teacher. At the moment we have seen hot-tempered political discussions when many municipalities planned to cut down radically on their use of school assistants. Some municipalities have taken back their decisions, others have not. The results of such unfortunate cuts will be seen over the next years with more children facing problems in primary school and more children dropping out from education and facing the risk of being marginalized both economically and socially. The cost to society will be high in comparison the savings made in terms of low-paid school assistants.

So far, much less attention has been paid to the fact that the digital competence of children differs a lot. We need more information on such differences and, ultimately, on how to level out such differences. Otherwise we might soon be facing inequality in yet another dimension: digital knowledge.

B.P. : What should young people expect from the immediate future and the new European Commission? Which policies should they propose via any instrument for participatory democracy?

R.A. : A near-future challenge of the education sector and education system is the ongoing re-structuring of labour markets and jobs. The education sector needs to get better in responding in a relevant way to what is happening on the surrounding labour market. We cannot afford to have young people educated for jobs that do no longer exist or are diminishing.

Also the young people themselves need to become more aware of the labour market they are educating themselves for and, especially, the changing skill demands and changing job structures. It’s not enough to know what I want to do when adult. Before making their decisive educational choices, young people should look for information on the employment prospects for their dream occupation, pay levels and career possibilities. Realism!

Finally there is reason to emphasise that education policies are so far mainly national policies, that is, on the responsibility of the nation, not of the Commission. The Commission may set ambitious targets, give recommendation, even directives. But it’s the country’s own policymakers who make the final decisions. This means that young people should, in the first place, approach their own country’s policymakers and use the platforms available in their own country – or create new ones, if needed.

Note from the Editor: The interview and its content is hosted, as given, at the European Sting platform as external editorial work. The responsibility for the accuracy of the content lies on the guest writer that unconditionally shared his work with the media. For further info Mr Bogdan Pavel, author of the content, can be reached at the following email address: mas.1990@hotmail.it

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