Androulla Vassiliou is the EU commissioner in charge of education, culture, multilingualism, youth and sport. She has been representing Cyprus in the College of EU Commissioners since 2006, when she was appointed health commissioner in place of the departing Markos Kyprianou, who in turn became Cypriot foreign minister.
She spoke to EurActiv Managing Editor Daniela Vincenti. To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.
Europe is currently facing a number of economic, social, and environmental challenges; the most critical perhaps is high unemployment among young people. What measures need to be taken to respond to these problems and challenges?
Unemployment, especially among young people, is a major challenge for Europe. Among the young, it is over 22 % on average; in six member states [Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal, Slovakia, Lithuania] it is between 30 % and 50%. This is not only a terrible waste of talent and resources but also a major obstacle to growth and social cohesion. That is why the EU has put youth unemployment at the top of its agenda. On 18 April, the Commission approved a major new employment package, which sets out ways for member states to encourage hiring by reducing taxes on labour or supporting more business start-ups.
It also identifies the areas with the biggest job potential for the future: the green economy, health services and ICT [information and communications technology].
Our estimates show that 20 million jobs could be created by 2020 in the green economy and 8 million in the health sector. Jobs for ICT specialists have been growing by 3% a year, even during the crisis, and Europe will be short of 700,000 ICT practitioners by 2015 according to current trends.
We need to better prepare our young people to fill these jobs and create new ones. Having the right skill set is crucial. Studying abroad or taking up a work placement in a foreign company, for example, improves language skills, adaptability and self-confidence.
That is why, in parallel to the employment package, I launched a new awareness-raising campaign, 'We Mean Business', which aims to encourage companies to create more trainee placements to boost young people's skills and employability.
The Commission will provide at least €275 million this year in funding from our Leonardo Da Vinci and Erasmus programmes to support 130,000 job placements abroad. We hope to fund a further 150,000 placements in 2013.
What can Europe do to help develop more young entrepreneurs?
According to our Eurobarometer survey, only 45% of European citizens prefer to be self-employed. Attitudes are shaped from an early age and this is why the EU is committed to fostering the entrepreneurial mindsets and skills of young people through education at all levels, from primary school to university.
We are supporting various projects to encourage this. For example, Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs offers EU funding for new or aspiring entrepreneurs who want to learn from business experiences in other European Union countries.
The EU has also set up the European Institute of Innovation and Technology [EIT] which aims to increase European sustainable growth and competitiveness by strengthening innovation in the EU. The EIT brings together excellent higher education institutions, research centres and innovative business in hubs known as knowledge and innovation communities [KICs].
The KICS support start-up businesses and offer masters and PhD programmes with a strong entrepreneurial component, giving students access to real business experience during their studies. The support offered by the EIT's innovation centres ranges from business plan coaching to seed funding and finding clients.
The first successful start-up companies were recently honoured at the first EIT Entrepreneurship Awards and a team of students from the 'Inno Energy' KIC presented their project to a distinguished audience including former US President Bill Clinton at the New York finals of the third annual Hult Global Case Challenge on 26 April.
The team, which competed against thousands of students, representing over 130 countries and six continents, epitomises the ideas and entrepreneurial drive which we want to foster through the EIT.
Mario Monti proposed in Italy that young people starting a business could do so with €1, instead of €10,000. He said he was trying to make it easier for the young Italian ‘Bill Gates’ to come to the fore. Do you think this is the kind of measures we need?
Reducing the cost of starting up a business is a good first step but it is not enough. The Commission is urging member states to introduce simpler and faster administrative procedures to encourage new business start-ups and to make entrepreneurial careers more attractive for young people.
Our Europe-wide objective is to reduce the start-up time for new enterprises to three days and the cost to €100 by the end of this year. A lot of progress has already been achieved: in 2011, the average time and cost to start up a private limited company was 6.5 days and €397. In 2007, it was 12 days and € 485 and, in 2002, it took an average of 24 days to launch a firm at a cost of € 827.
In complement to such measures, we are working on measures to make it easier to sell a business as well as to restart after a business failure.
What steps can educational systems take to promote entrepreneurship?
Entrepreneurship education is rarely based on a textbook course and there is much more to it than teaching someone to run a business. Educational systems should continue to embed entrepreneurship. We need to instil our young people with a positive attitude towards risk-taking and not to be afraid to start again if they experience failure.
The EU will continue to support entrepreneurship education initiatives through the EIT and our new 'Erasmus for All' programme, which is due to start in 2014. Our Erasmus for All proposals, which are now under discussion in the European Parliament and Council, would allocate more funding for investment in entrepreneurship, employability and creativity, as well as enhancing cooperation between educational institutions, youth organisations, businesses, local and regional authorities and NGOs.
The new programme would create 400 'Knowledge Alliances' and 'Sector Skills Alliances'. The former are large-scale partnerships between higher education institutions and businesses to promote creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship by offering new learning opportunities and qualifications.
The sector skills alliances will promote partnerships between education and training providers and businesses to promote employability by creating new sector-specific curricula and innovative forms of vocational teaching and training.
How is the Commission funding entrepreneurship education and programmes to equip young people with better employability skills under the Erasmus initiative?
The Erasmus programme supports entrepreneurship education in higher education institutions and through individual grants for students to experience education and job placement opportunities abroad. I hope to increase this support under the new Erasmus for All programme.
Universities and enterprises can apply for projects to develop new curricula and/or to improve cooperation to better equip students with the skills needed in the world of work. In the 2012 'call' [invitation to present project bids for funding] that closed in February, 250 applications were submitted. This represents an increase of 60% compared to 2007.
More than 230,000 students are supported through Erasmus grants each year. While the majority opt to study abroad for up to 12 months, one in six (around 40,000) are choosing to take up work placements abroad (this number has doubled since this possibility was introduced in 2007).
Some of the study courses are more entrepreneurial in nature, such as business administration. But the knowledge acquired through all Erasmus courses deliver valuable skills, such as the ability to speak a foreign language and to work in multicultural teams, where adaptability, problem solving and interpersonal skills are paramount.
In addition, teaching staff from the higher education institutions can receive funding for training to develop innovative teaching methods.
Does this also mean that there should be more cooperation and co-funding between DG Education and DG Enterprise and Industry?
The Commission Directorate General for Education and Culture [DG EAC] has a strong tradition of collaboration with their counterparts in the Enterprise and Industry DG – especially in the field of entrepreneurship education.
Examples of this collaboration include the 2006 Communication on "Fostering the Entrepreneurial Mind-set through Education and Learning", 2008 survey on Entrepreneurship in Higher Education, 2009 European Year of Creativity and Innovation, and the setting up of high-level reflection groups on entrepreneurship education. My own counterpart, Vice President Antonio Tajani [Industry and Entrepreneurship], is very supportive of our 'Youth on the Move' and 'We Mean Business' campaigns.
Very recently, DG EAC established a new working group on entrepreneurship education, which involves the Enterprise and Employment DGs, as well as the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training, European Training Foundation and 33-country Eurydice network, which provides information on and analyses of European education systems and policies. One of the aims of this group will be to create a handbook on entrepreneurship education to support member states' policies in this area. DG Enterprise, in collaboration with DG EAC, will also organise two workshops for teachers on this theme.
What else can be done to make sure this generation is not lost? Is there a case for more harmonisation on education?
Our new Erasmus for All programme will make an important contribution to improving young people's skills, personal development and employability. Under my proposal, up to 5 million people will receive EU grants to study, train or volunteer abroad in 2014-2020 which is nearly twice as many as today.
The Commission has no intention, or competence, to harmonise education in Europe. But I feel very strongly, especially in the current political and economic context, about the need to facilitate the exchange of information so that countries can better learn from each other.
This will improve the skills-base and reduce imbalances in labour markets. I am committed to working with governments to achieve these objectives. The young people of today are responsible for the future prosperity of Europe; we cannot afford to have a 'lost generation'. There is no time to lose in addressing our future needs now – and getting Europe back on the path of sustainable growth and job creation.