MEP: Europe’s digital education strategy is key to future recovery

S&D MEP Victor Negrescu. [CC BY 2.0]

As part of the European Commission’s recently revised long-term budget proposal, an increased outlay could go towards the digital up-skilling and re-skilling of citizens. EURACTIV caught up with MEP Victor Negrescu to talk about why this issue has risen to the top of the EU agenda.

Victor Negrescu is a Romanian MEP affiliated to the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group in the European Parliament. He has recently been appointed rapporteur for the Culture Committee’s report on the EU digital education strategy.

For many of us, digital tools have allowed to maintain a sense of normality during the lockdown by allowing to keep contact with colleagues and loved ones. How do you reflect on Europe’s resilience during the outbreak?

Luckily, Europe has had access to a certain level of digital infrastructure which has enabled societies not only to continue many work activities, but also to maintain a significant degree of social interaction, compensating, at least partially, the effects of mandatory social isolation.

Unfortunately, this infrastructure is not available equally across Europe, so we need to invest more in access to broadband, 5G connections, robotization but also in the digitalization of our public administrations.

This same period has highlighted several prominent problems that our societies will continue to face, irrespective of the digital transition.

First of all, not all jobs and activities can be performed online. Additionally, in many instances, these jobs are precarious, and staff are overworked and underpaid. Also, some sectors of our societies, such as education and healthcare, can undoubtedly benefit from a better digital infrastructure, while some activities will not be able to move online entirely – at least for the foreseeable future. And these are the sectors that have suffered, in many countries, from staff reductions, budget cuts and austerity over the past decades.

You’ve recently been appointed Parliament Rapporteur on the EU digital education strategy, which the Commission will be presenting in Q3. What are your priorities for the report?

The European Union’s digital education strategy is one of our most prominent instruments in addressing many of the challenges brought forward by this intense period. The digital transition risks exacerbating inequalities already present in our systems, but at the same time digital education is a huge tool for modernisation.

We in the S&D Group have very clear priorities in this area.

  • Firstly, we believe we must work more together, in creating a true common European Education Area, which would allow for more equal development across countries and regions, sharing resources and best practices, but also very concrete benefits, such as faster EU-wide diploma recognition.
  • Secondly, we support the creation of instruments to develop digital competencies across generations.
  • And thirdly, we firmly believe in supporting the educational process through more resources, by increasing the funding of education both at EU and at national level. We consider that education should be mainstreamed across all EU policy fields, and digital education plays a special role in this.

My report will ask for clear funding for the digitalisation of education at the EU level and will emphasise the concept of parents, students and teachers as co-creators of the digital educational process, which must be harmonised and coordinated with the classic education process.

We’re also expecting the Commission to present an update to the skills agenda in Q3. Do you think the coronavirus pandemic has taught us anything about the specific skills that the executive should prioritise in terms of Europe’s future growth?

Half of the current workforce will need to update their skills within the next five years – this was highlighted in a recent Commission document. Needless to say, the digital and green transition will pose additional challenges from this point of view.

The big challenge is matching qualifications with actual labour market needs. The current Skills Agenda mentions a concept which sounds pretentious, but describes a real necessity – “skills intelligence”, that is understanding the current trends in demands for jobs and skills. There are skills shortages in many economic sectors, both traditional (like construction) and new, and we need to build cooperation networks to address them – including education institutions, companies, trade unions.

These networks are currently not developed or functional enough, and I hope the adjusted agenda proposes solutions for that. The documents released by the Commission on their proposal for a recovery plan show that the needs for investments in social infrastructure at EU level have raised by 60% while in education and livelong learning alone we speak additionally about more than 15 billion euro per year.

Of course, an obvious skills-related necessity, emphasised by the COVID-19 crisis, is developing digital competencies widely and across all age groups, as there are huge discrepancies between EU regions in this respect.

We are asking for support from the EU budget to national initiatives on digital education, training, up-skilling and re-skilling of workers, as well as for enshrining media and digital literacy on all educational levels – this is a problem for all generations and, especially in times of crises, it becomes critical. Digital skills are needed in many fields and occupations now, in farming as well as in business start-ups, in healthcare as well as in e-government or cultural heritage protection.

How does the landscape vary across Europe in terms of the digital skills of citizens? Do we see large variances across member states?       

The level of individuals’ digital skills varies greatly across the EU. The latest average for EU-27, according to Eurostat data from 2019, is 56%, but in the Netherlands it’s 79%, while in Bulgaria it’s 29%. And it’s not only about skills, but also the access to digital equipment and infrastructure which can help greatly with the acquisition of skills: in Sweden, almost all students have access to highly digitally equipped and connected schools, while in Romania their percentage is below 20.

How bad is Europe’s digital divide? Are the differences seen not only across member states but also across genders, ages, social classes and ethnicities? 

We know for example that digital skills are lower for EU citizens living in rural areas (48%), compared to people living in cities (where the figure rises to 62%) – according to 2019 data. This is an average, but in certain countries the gap between these categories is much wider.

We do need more data regarding the main variables influencing the digital divide, and a closer look at its relation with income levels. We do have a somewhat clearer picture regarding gender. The Commission’s “Women in the digital age” 2018 study emphasised that only 24 out of every 1000 female tertiary graduates had an ICT related subject and only six went on to work in the digital sector.

All in all, if we are looking to boost up Europe’s ICT capabilities and development, we need to do that in a manner that does not enhance or reproduce the inequality and exclusion patterns our societies try to overcome.

You’ve also recently developed an educational tablet for use in schools. What was the motivation behind this, and what are the broader objectives for this technology?

The idea behind setting-up this campaign starts from this reality, that moving education in the digital sphere enhances systemic inequalities. Quite simply put, a high proportion of children in my country do not have the devices or internet access needed to attend school online – many teachers are also in the same situation, which meant that during the school closures, they were (and still are) cut off from the educational process.

Alongside several partners from the tech and NGO sphere, we tried to help, and developed the first Romanian educational tablet, which is being made available, through a social program, to children coming from underprivileged backgrounds.

However, the systemic problems need a strong Europeans response. We cannot talk about developing digital skills when a large part of European children does not have access to digital education. One of the solutions resides in implementing faster the European Children Guarantee, ensuring full access to all European children to education and healthcare, but again in the Commission proposal for the future we do not see any clear commitments, just a possibility to have it somewhere starting 2021. If we remain behind the pay wall, then we are in fact institutionalising inequality.

It is for this reason that I called for the creation of EU-wide digital education instruments, such as a truly European educational digital platform, created by pooling together resources, capable of supporting the national education systems. I believe that allocating more resources for education is one of the main paths towards preparing the next EU Generation for the future.

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