Britain stood up against the European Commission at a meeting of education ministers in Brussels yesterday (14 February), refusing to cooperate with the EU in setting national targets on early school leavers and higher education.
EU education ministers gathered yesterday to discuss their efforts to achieve the education targets set out in the 'Europe 2020' strategy for growth and jobs.
Many of the ministers were given low grades by Androulla Vassiliou, the EU commissioner for education, culture, multilingualism and youth, when they came to Brussels for their Council meeting yesterday (14 February).
According to the Cypriot commissioner, national plans to tackle early school drop-outs and promote tertiary education are "not ambitious enough".
"In many cases the national targets are not ambitious enough to achieve our goals at European level on early school-leaving and graduates," warned Vassiliou.
Meanwhile, the British delegation came to the meeting in a defiant mood, refusing to set national targets as previously agreed and arguing that they are under no legal obligation to do so.
Back to the drawing board
The commissioner asked ministers to go back home and try harder to come up with new targets that will make a bigger contribution to achieving the common objectives which have already been agreed at EU level in the framework of the 'Europe 2020' strategy.
There are two specific targets in the field of education. The first is to ensure that nine out of every 10 young people complete their secondary education, by reducing the drop-out rate to less than 10% from its current level of around 14%.
The second is about improving access to tertiary and higher education, with the aim of raising the proportion of young adults who obtain a university degree or some other kind of college diploma from around 33% to at least 40%.
"We have asked member states to match these European targets with national targets, and most of them have already done so," explained Vassiliou on Monday.
Dutch delayed, British belligerent
Unfortunately for the commissioner, it seems that she cannot count on the cooperation of every EU member state. Two countries even failed to finish their homework in time for the Council meeting on Monday morning.
The Netherlands gave the excuse that it could not decide on provisional targets because it has a 'new' government, which in fact is already four months old. But at least the Dutch have promised that they will set their targets soon.
A more serious problem was presented by the United Kingdom, which is behaving like the difficult child at the back of the class by refusing to cooperate with the commissioner.
Vassiliou said the UK is claiming that it is under no obligation to come up with national targets, despite the fact that it voted in favour of the EU-wide goals when they were agreed by the European Council in the summer of last year.
The conclusions of the European Council meeting on 17 June 2010 clarify the headline targets of the 'Europe 2020' strategy, making it clear that "member states must now act to implement these policy priorities at their level".
EU leaders agreed that member states "should, in close dialogue with the [European] Commission, rapidly finalise their national targets, taking account of their relative starting positions and national circumstances, and according to their national decision-making procedures".
The British are now arguing that the conclusions of the European Council are not legally binding on the UK. They point to a footnote in the annex, which refers to "the competence of member states to define and implement quantitative targets in the field of education".
By refusing to announce national targets in such a key policy area, the British could be accused of undermining the whole 'Europe 2020' strategy, the success of which depends on close cooperation between the EU institutions and member states.
More ambitious targets needed
Speaking to journalists after her discussions with ministers, the commissioner complained that many of the national targets currently on the table did not go far enough.
"We hope that when the member states present their final national targets and their reform programmes they will be more ambitious, so that we are in a position to reach our targets that we set up for the year 2020," said Vassiliou.
Responding to a question from EurActiv, the commissioner conceded that the success of the 'Europe 2020' strategy would depend on close cooperation with national governments.
"We can only encourage member states to be more ambitious," she said, admitting that the Commission "cannot exert force on them".
Vassiliou believes that lessons have been learned from the experience of the Lisbon Strategy, launched in 2000, which suffered from having "too many targets" and also because "member states did not take ownership of the targets set".
Context of austerity measures
At their meeting on Monday, ministers addressed the contribution of education and training to the overall goals of the 'Europe 2020' strategy, and the need to invest in education despite pressures on public spending as a result of austerity measures.
Presenting the conclusions of the meeting, Rózsa Hoffman, Hungary's Minister of State for Education, said that "efficient and targeted investment in education" is needed to achieve the 2020 objectives and "lay the foundations for lasting prosperity".
This point was underlined by Commissioner Vassiliou, who said "it would be short-sighted to reduce our ambitions for higher education just when our competitors in other parts of the world are increasing their investments in response to the crisis".
The education ministers also discussed the Commission's proposals on the flagship initiative 'Agenda for New Skills and Jobs', which highlights the need to invest in education and training in the framework of the 'Europe 2020' strategy.
According to Vassiliou, the initiative is designed to "provide people with the right skills to enhance their employability" and "enable them to upgrade their skills by boosting adult learning and making lifelong learning a reality".
Highlighting the importance of basic skills such as reading and writing, the commissioner mentioned that she had recently launched a high-level group of experts, which has been tasked with finding ways to raise literacy levels throughout the EU.
The UK Permanent Representation to the EU confirmed to EurActiv that it does not agree with the European Commission's interpretation of how the 'Europe 2020' strategy should be implemented in the field of education.
The UK insists that the headline targets agreed by the European Council in June 2010 are not formally binding on member states. It believes that individual countries should "set their own level of ambition" when it comes to translating these targets into national policies. In this way, the specific characteristics of their different education systems can be taken into account, it argues.
According to a British diplomat, the UK government has "introduced ambitious proposals for reform to improve the education system and its overall contribution to growth". In the area of secondary education, the UK wants to focus on raising overall attainment levels rather than looking only at the drop-out rate, the official said.
- 24-25 March: EU leaders meet in Brussels for spring summit.
- 28-29 March: Informal meeting of EU education ministers in Godollo, Hungary.