If confirmed, Vassiliou, a former member of the Cypriot parliament, said other key priorities of her mandate would be matching EU citizens' skills to the needs of the job market and widening their access to education and training.
"50% of university graduates in the EU are unemployed: in some countries it is 80%. We need to match skills and knowledge to what the market needs. We'll launch studies to find out what this is," she said.
Match skills to job market
Visibly growing in confidence as the hearing progressed, Vassiliou, wife of former Cypriot president George Vassiliou - who led the island from 1988 to 1993 - expressed a desire to boost mobility for young people in the fields of education, culture and sport, and create an environment that nurtures culture and creativity in Europe.
"We should make sure that every EU programme we apply has a direct impact on citizens' lives," said the commissioner-designate, who held the health portfolio in Commission President José Manuel Barroso's first administration following compatriot Markos Kyprianou's February 2008 departure to join the government in Nicosia (EurActiv 29/02/08).
Admitting that "not enough of our universities match the best in the world," Vassiliou said education and training for young people and adults alike needed modernising.
Lamenting that one in six people in the EU leave school early, one in five 15-year olds have poor reading skills and 80 million people are trying to survive with only low or basic skills, a well-prepared Vassiliou called on MEPs to help her secure the support of governments to increase the EU budget for education and training. "If we connect learning to business, then business will invest too," she said.
Quizzed by S&D member Mary Honeyball (UK) about the social dimension of the Union's new '2020' strategy, Vassiliou said she was keen to ensure that EU policies take into account the needs of disadvantaged groups like immigrants, the poor and children from broken homes.
EU competence limited on education
Asked by Finnish MEP Hannu Takkula (ALDE) what she would do to address disparities in the quality of education across the EU, the Cypriot said the Commission's competence was limited as "we cannot have a unified, harmonised education system".
"We can only encourage member states to cooperate," Vassiliou said, explaining that the difficulty lay in identifying best practice and national weaknesses "without naming and shaming". The Commission will propose new EU literacy benchmarks this summer, she added.
Vassiliou dismissed fears that the multilingualism budget would be slashed now the issue is no longer dealt with under a separate portfolio. "We need to strengthen our multilingualism programmes and increase the budget," she said, announcing plans to unveil new benchmarks for language learning by 2012.
As for culture, the commissioner-designate said the EU executive would produce a Green Paper in 2010 in a bid to unlock the potential of Europe's creative industries to boost creativity and innovation.
Vassiliou highlighted trade agreements as "a good way of promoting cultural diversity," announcing plans to make ratification of the UNESCO Convention on the issue a pre-condition of the EU’s relations with external countries.
Responding to accusations from Danish MEP Morten Messerschmidt (ECR) that taxpayers' money had been wasted on EU policies to promote European identity, the Cypriot said her priority would be to make sure that money is spent on areas that can make a difference, citing the European Heritage Label and the Capital of Culture scheme as examples.
EU sport policy's 'key social role'
As for the EU's competencies on sport enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty, Vassiliou said supporting grassroots sport would be central to the new policy.
Asked by UK member Emma McClarkin (EPP) and Ireland’s Alan Kelly (S&D) to be more specific, the Cypriot said she envisages "concrete actions" aimed at "promoting the educational and social functions of sport," and said addressing violence and racism in sport would be her priorities.
Telling MEPs that "sport is a basis for building the future independence of young people," Vassiliou said "whatever I don't know I'll learn from my services".
MEPs will vote on the appointment of the entire Barroso II Commission on 26 January.