Ansip: Europe ‘still has some way to go’ on digital skills

Andrus Ansip

Andrus Ansip [European Commission]

This article is part of our special report EU Code Week 2015.

SPECIAL REPORT / 40% of the population in Europe has insufficient digital skills, according to Andrus Ansip, who says this “is a real cause for concern” as most jobs today require at least basic knowledge of ICT, including coding.

Andrus Ansip is a former Prime Minister of Estonia who assumed office for almost ten years – from 2005 to 2014. He is now Vice-President at the European Commission, in charge of the Digital Single Market.

Ansip answered to EURACTIV’s questions in writing.

The previous Commissioner in charge of digital affairs, Neelie Kroes, was quite personally involved in promoting coding as part of official school curricula. Do you share her passion?

Absolutely. Digital skills are essential and programming is part of a broader package aiming to advance digital skills in Europe as planned in the Digital Single Market Strategy presented in May by the Commission.

For most youngsters, coding is more like a pastime. So does coding really need to be taught? 

You are right that today, most coding activities take place outside of the school classroom, which means that it is mostly kids who have the coding bug, or whose parents are aware, that take part. 

But we need to reach all children. If programming were taught in schools, more children would get the opportunity to learn the basics. Having said that I would like to underline each EU country is responsible for its own education and training systems. As change may take time, in the meantime we have to support other initiatives, such as EU Code Week. This promotes coding – in the classrooms and in other places – and tries to bring all kinds of partners together to offer more coding activities the whole year around.

After all, every week is code week! Learning programming is learning how to create with code. Humans have been moulding the world with clay, stones, wood and brick for centuries. Today, you create digital content with code. You build apps, games, steer robots, make animations and much more. I want as many people as possible – not only children – to find out that you can do more than play, like, share or digital content. You can actually make something. 

It is also important to learn some coding to understand how our digital society is built. Today we use computers all the time, and more and more devices are connected. You need these skills to understand how our world is working.

Furthermore, learning how to code means you learn computational thinking; logical thinking, step-by-step analysis, breaking up a problem in bits and pieces, abstraction, generalisation, adapting an idea and using it for something else. These skills are important in schools and in work. 

But most of all it is fun to code!

Do you consider Europe as a leader or as a laggard on coding, and digital skills more widely? What in your view should be done to improve the EU’s standing in this regard? Have you quantified the expected benefits in terms of stimulating economic growth or tackling unemployment?

Europe is making some progress in coding. According to the European Schoolnet’s report, published this week, coding is compulsory for specific levels of education in seven Member States (Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain). In Slovakia, it is compulsory in primary education, and in the UK, coding is compulsory both in primary and secondary.

Overall, however, there’s still quite a way to go. While we know that most jobs, in whatever sector, already require some digital skills, in Europe we still have as much as 40% of the population and 32% of the workforce with insufficient digital skills. Only 25% of students are taught by digitally confident and supportive teachers with access to ICT, and 40% of businesses encounter difficulties in recruiting ICT professionals.

This is a real cause for concern, and things could get worse, as we see that education systems are currently slow to react to increased market demand for people with digital skills. 

This cannot go on. Today you need digital skills for a career in, for example, engineering, accountancy, architecture, and also nursing, medicine, art, and many more. For a career in any of these fields, basic coding skills will soon be essential. 

The ICT sector grows quickly. Some 120,000 new jobs are created each year. Still, if we fail to address the digital skills shortage, Europe could lack more than 800,000 skilled ICT workers by 2020. And this is despite high unemployment, especially among the young.

Technology-based education and digital skills pedagogies should be a ‘must have’, not just a ‘good-to-have’, for all ages. This is why the Commission supports and promotes campaigns like Code Week, to make learners fit for 21st century life and work.

Overall, the DSM strategy should contribute around €415 billion per year to the growth of our economy and create hundreds of thousands of new jobs. 

Do you have any measures in the pipeline to promote coding at national level? How could the European Commission cooperate with the private sector (i.e via the European Coding Initiative)?

If we do not appropriately address this issue, at European and national level, we may miss out on important opportunities to create growth and jobs. This is why the Commission is supporting the EU Code Week (which currently involves more than 40 counties in Europe and beyond) and has launched initiatives such as the Grand Coalition for Digital Jobs and Opening up Education.

The Digital Single Market Strategy supports an inclusive digital society where people have the right skills to embrace the opportunities offered by the internet and raise their chances of getting a job.

Early next year, the Commission will present an EU-wide skills agenda prepared by my colleague Commissioner Marianne Thyssen. Stepping up Europe’s digital skills will be part of it.

The Commission also supports other independent initiatives such as the European Coding Initiative (involving Microsoft, Liberty Global, SAP, Facebook, and European Schoolnet) under the Grand Coalition for Digital Skills and Jobs. Since its launch in October 2014, the Initiative’s partners:

  • Have jointly contacted Ministers for Education raising their awareness about the importance of bringing coding skills to all European kids, including by training teachers on how to teach these skills;
  • Set up a new “all you need is {C<3DE}” website with coding resources for kids, teachers and adults;
  • Published the EUN report “Computing our future – Computer programming and coding, Priorities, school curricula and initiatives across Europe”.

The Grand Coalition for Digital Skills and Jobs, a European multi-stakeholder partnership, aims at making ICT careers more attractive, at facilitating cooperation among business, education providers, public and private actors to address the mismatch in digital skills in European labour.

The Grand Coalition has already inspired the creation of thirteen national coalitions, something we hope to see in all member states. These initiatives aim to boost digital skills, including programming, for different target groups. 

The Commission and the member states have also proposed to strengthen cooperation at European level in the field of education and training up to 2020. In the draft joint report, recently published, digital learning and skills – including coding – is a priority

What is your vision in this field in ten years’ time?

In ten years’ time, I would like all Europeans to be digitally competent and to see more people pursuing a career in ICT. We will have a fully functional European digital single market, and the EU will be the world leader in this field.

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