The European Union does not have direct powers on education and culture. Nevertheless, there are ways for EU to improve the education systems of its Member States. According to article 165 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, “the Union shall contribute to the development of quality education by encouraging cooperation between Member States”, in fact, EU has covered long distance in the last years to foster the education systems.
In particular, after the Lisbon summit on March 24th 2000, concrete steps have been taken in order to precisely specify problematic issues and draw a road map to improve the education systems of Member States. In 2009, four common objectives have been set under the Education & Training 2020 (ET2020). Its charter plans to address the challenges of education systems by 2020. The objectives included the realisation of lifelong learning initiatives; the improvement of education quality and efficiency; the promotion of equity; social cohesion and active citizenship; the enhancement of creativity and innovation. Moreover, a number of quantitative benchmarks have been set to be met by 2020: at least 95% of the children population should be enrolled in early childhood education; the number of “early leavers” from education aged 18-24 should be reduced to less than 10%; at least 15% of adults should participate in lifelong learning programmes; at least 20% of higher education graduates and 6% of the total population aged 18-34 with an initial vocational qualification should have spent some time studying or training abroad.
In order to achieve these objectives and benchmarks, the European Commission has launched the Investment Plan for Europe. The aim was to bring fresh money into the education sector. These funds have been used in different ways. One of the most recent improvements was the enhancement of the long-living Erasmus programme. With the launch of Erasmus+ in 2014, the budget for Erasmus has been increased to 15 billion euros, representing a 40% increase. After celebrating its 30th year in 2017, the Erasmus programme is still the backbone of the EU’s education plans and it plays a pivotal role for the ET2020 goals. Along with the improvements on Erasmus, Horizon 2020 was also launched: it is the biggest EU Research and Innovation programme ever, with nearly €80 billion of funding available over 7 years (2014-2020). It promises more breakthroughs, discoveries and world-firsts by taking great ideas from the lab to the market. It is considered as an initiative aimed at securing Europe’s global competitiveness. For the time being, Horizon 2020 has the political backing of Europe’s leaders and Members of the European Parliament. Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 to are the two flagship investments of the EU for the following years.
Only 2 years are left before 2020. Checking out if the investments paid off and the initiatives were successful will be for sure an important milestone for EU investments in education. On the bright side, there is consensus around the necessity to spend more in education. Still, the progresses made so far are not completely satisfying: youth unemployment rate is 16.1% in the EU. Despite not being a direct indicator for the effectiveness of the education systems, it certainly shows that more initiatives should be taken in order to tackle this issue. At this point, the important question comes out quite straightforward: How? One of the most recent example of action toward this issue is the investments on STEM (sciences, technology, engineering, mathematics) education, with a specific focus on girls. There still exists a significant gap between the male and female share of students in this area. Girls could be encouraged to get more involved. Reach a gender balance in these subjects should be a priority.. Another important issue is the existence of areas and neighbourhoods that are still out of the reach of educational policies. In order to gain in effectiveness, the impact area shall be expanded. Schools in isolated areas should be involved in EU initiatives.
Moreover, foreign language education is again a field that should be taken into consideration. The integration of language-based exchange programs, where the students stay with a host family, should be encouraged and organised at the EU level. This kind of language exchange programmes could easily be brought under Erasmus+.
Furthermore, the EU is also working on how to equip students with the new set of skills required by the labour market. The ESCO classification system has already been adapted in order to identify and categorise those skills, competences, qualifications and occupations relevant for the EU labor market. However, the system could be expanded to actually give young people the opportunity of developing these particular skill sets in practice. This may increase the policy efficiency and effectiveness.
In a rapidly changing education sector, the EU should renovate its existing projects: additional services should be provided in order to improve the quality of life of every EU citizen. Education is a right for everyone and at every age. It should never be neglected or given less importance compared to other issues. Undeniably, a significant amount of effort has been made toward this sector. Still, the EU should invest more and more efficiently in the following years. The focus should be expanded beyond 2020: long-term objectives should be set in order to have a clearer vision and a solid road map.