On the 9th of December 2021, experts from across the European Union will participate in the Fourth Education Summit, a discussion about the state of education in member countries, whose ministers of education and finance jointly stated that investing in skills and competences development and training must be considered a strategic priority for Europe. The European Commission strongly agrees with this position and has reiterated the importance of Education within the Next Generation EU recovery plan, further supporting the creation of a European Education Area (EEA). Commission President Ursula von der Leyen committed to achieving the institution of a functioning EEA by 2025. As stated in the Communication on Achieving the EEA by 2025, issued by the Commission in late September 2020, the current state of education in the EU, meticulously analysed by the Education and Training Monitor 2020 (ET 2020), is key to developing a strategy to meet the EU’s ambitious goals in this field.
What emerged from ET 2020 is that, while improvements have been made with regards to early childhood education and tertiary education attainment levels, disparities remain massive between different Member States and all EU countries did not manage to decrease the proportion of underachievers in basic skills. Young adults have shown alarmingly low performances in digital competences, despite being commonly viewed as ‘digital natives’, which demonstrates how more efforts in the digital transition are needed. During the Covid-19 crisis, many disparities between different European education systems emerged. In fact, countries that had invested in digital training for both teachers and pupils in previous years reacted promptly to the pandemic, guaranteeing access to education. On the other hand, many other Member States failed to face the crisis effectively, leaving a significant portion of pupils without any or little education, which is what happened in Italy, where 48% of students did not receive an adequate education, according to the ET 2020 report. Reasons for such situations spread from lack of access to digital devices or Internet connection to both teachers and pupils not having received sufficient digital training. More than half of European teachers did not receive any ICT training and a fifth of students in the EU lacks basic digital skills. Although all Member States adopted measures to tackle the crisis, it is evident that further action is needed to reduce discrepancies in EU countries’ students’ preparation.
Source: European Commission
The ET 2020 report highlights how the single most significant factor in determining educational outcomes in the EU is socio-economic background. Students from a migrant social background tend to underperform, especially in Germany or France, as well as pupils born in a poor environment. This factor’s effects on a child’s education are furtherly amplified by the fact that pupils from similar cultural or financial situations are usually concentrated in certain schools, often receiving different levels of teaching quality than their peers. Differences between Member States can be observed also in this case, with France, Luxembourg, Hungary, and Romania demonstrating a greater correlation between one’s socio-economic background and educational outcomes or hindered upward social mobility. In some States, regional disparities persist, such is the case of Italy. As a consequence of this and other factors, some data from the ET 2020 report ought to be analysed more attentively. For instance, the fact that around 40% of people aged 30-34 have a tertiary education diploma appears to be less of a success when as little as 25.8% of Romanians or 27.6% of Italians can claim to have a degree.
Source: European Commission
Having set the realisation of the EEA as one of the EU’s priorities, the European Commission presented its plan to achieve it in the Communication on Achieving the EEA by 2025. The Commission’s strategy takes into account the ET 2020 report’s findings and develops along six dimensions: quality, inclusion, green and digital transitions, teachers and trainers, higher education, and the geopolitical dimension. In summary, the above-mentioned plan is based on mainly on three approaches, to remedy the lacks and defects of the current European education systems, to foster cooperation between Member States’ educational institutions, and to protect the European values and identity on the global stage, mainly through its network of universities. As to the first point, the Commission lucidly recognized what the faults of the current systems are and pledged to support the implementation of policy reforms that will concern curricula contents and assessment practices in such a way to help those students who perform poorly to develop basic skills, especially digital competences. A more inclusive teaching method will be promoted, one that delivers transdisciplinary knowledge and soft skills, namely critical thinking and entrepreneurship. Most importantly, it will allow for a deeper inclusion and encourage the participation of pupils from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds in education. The need for a green and digital transition is strongly underlined by the Commission, which puts great emphasis on the large number of initiatives developed for this purpose. As a countermeasure to the stunningly poor performance in digital skills reported in the ET 2020 document, a portion of the Next Generation EU recovery plan will be dedicated to financing digital education. The last two approaches are strongly connected to each other and represent a more ambitious vision of the EEA.
Leuven's University is one of the 41 European Universities chosen by the Commission. Source: Wikimedia Commons
As far as cooperation between European tertiary education institutions is concerned, the EU has already launched the European Universities initiative in recent years and intends to develop it furtherly. European Universities are alliances between universities in the EU, based on interdisciplinary curricula delivered across the various universities that make up the cooperation programme, offering students the possibility to experience mobility. This initiative is tied to the Erasmus+ programme, created to help a broad range of students to study in a different European country. Although European Universities are still at an experimental level, the Commission hopes that they will have an official legal status by 2023. In this context, the creation of a European degree has also been proposed in the Communication. Such an instrument would finally allow for automatic mutual recognition of study titles across Member States. Great value is put on these initiatives’ goal to promote European values and identity, which is the core of the Commission’s strategy described in the Communication as far as the aforementioned geopolitical dimension of the EEA is concerned. As a matter of fact, the argument that the EEA can contribute to the geopolitical goals of the EU is brought forward in the document. Through fostering global cooperation with strategic partners such as China and the US, the Commission proposed to further strengthen the already important position the EU occupies in terms of international mobility and education, accounting for more than half of it worldwide, by expanding programmes such as the Erasmus Mundus Joint Master Degrees, with the declared goal of “further promote the internationalisation, attractiveness and global competitiveness of universities in Europe” as well as, again, spreading the European values and identity.