A European education area: How to make it work for Europe

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President of the European Council Donald Tusk and Sweden's Prime Minister Stefan Lofven and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker speak during the EU Social Summit for Fair Jobs and Growth in Gothenburg, Sweden, 17 November 2017. The Social Summit will gather EU heads of state or government, the social partners and other key stakeholders for an open discussion on how to promote fair jobs and growth.

President of the European Council Donald Tusk and Sweden's Prime Minister Stefan Lofven and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker speak during the EU Social Summit for Fair Jobs and Growth in Gothenburg, Sweden, [EPA-EFE/JONAS EKSTROEMER]

In line with Emmanuel Macron’s speech and discussions at the recent Social Summit in Gothenburg, let’s puts education at the heart of a more social and prosperous Europe, argue Michael Gaebel and Thomas Jorgensen.

Michael Gaebel is director of higher education policy and Thomas Jorgensen is senior policy coordinator at the European University Association (EUA), representing more than 800 universities in 47 European countries. Combined, they are the single largest beneficiary of the Framework Programme for Research and Innovation (FP9).

A new dynamic is emerging in Brussels following a recent European Commission proposal to create a European Education Area. The move, accompanied by French President Emmanuel Macron’s push for coordinated networks of universities, and discussions at the recent Social Summit in Gothenburg, finally puts education where it belongs – at the heart of a more social and prosperous Europe.

Major changes in the European education landscape, and in society in general, have been underway for years now in relation to digitalisation and changing labour markets. We have closely followed these changes and believe that the development of an education area rightly addresses some of Europe’s most difficult challenges.

Digitalisation, a tool that supports much-needed innovation, is also a distinct disruptor of the labour market. It changes the skills we need to participate in the workforce. Moreover, it modifies the way we learn skills, and teach them – especially considering the many new means of creating and sharing knowledge that go well beyond universities.

Teaching methods and aims are clearly changing, and the demand for lifelong learning is up. Universities are therefore well-placed to explore the many impacts of digitalisation and to create the solutions our societies need to face it.

These developments cannot be detached from the social dimension of education that has been percolating in Europe over the years: Student populations are changing. They are bigger and more diverse than ever before.

People are on the move and searching for new paths to enter into an ever-evolving labour market that increasingly needs highly-skilled workers. Universities cater to students of different ages and backgrounds and, therefore, require different contents, teaching formats and funding models to prepare them to succeed in a rapidly-changing world.

A European Education Area could address all of this. However, before moving forward, decision-makers need to consider that collaboration at the EU policy level through such an initiative would need careful alignment with existing frameworks such as the Bologna Process, whose geographical scope goes far beyond the EU and includes governments and stakeholders alike.

They should also consider initiatives under the Renewed EU Agenda for Higher Education launched in May of this year, as well as the European Research Area. We strongly recommend the integration of these activities to avoid policy fragmentation and the creation of parallel processes.

Furthermore, if we are to enhance education in Europe through initiatives addressing issues such as the Europe-wide recognition of diplomas and the advancement of learning and teaching, policymakers need to take a good look at what is already being done.

Both of these areas, for instance, have strong foundations as many achievements have already been made. The process should therefore build on existing activities, such as the EUA Learning and Teaching Initiative.

Finally, we must not forget the 9th Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, whose future design is currently under debate. In our recommendations, released earlier this month, we point to the need for a better link between research, education and innovation in policies at the EU level.

Future EU funding programmes should support universities as institutions in their efforts to improve provision, especially through digital means and for lifelong learning. This is will be a key to helping Europe face its important challenges.

A coordinated, more integrated effort in education could very well do the trick in helping Europe face its societal changes, but the initiatives that are already in progress should not be overlooked or end up on the back burner.

Otherwise, we risk that ambitions become diluted and that the education area becomes like a Swiss army knife — a tool with many functions that does not do anything very well. Instead, a focused, clear and purposeful education policy is what Europe needs.

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