EU lawmakers call for measures to close digital gap in education deepened by COVID-19

High drop–out rates, absenteeism and segregation have long been the hallmark of education access for Roma children in Europe. [EPA/KOBI GIDEON]

EU lawmakers called on the member states on Thursday (22 October) to increase efforts to close the digital gap in education across the bloc, which has been deepened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a result of the global health crisis, education has changed dramatically over the past few months, with the distinctive rise of e-learning, whereby teaching is undertaken remotely and on digital platforms.

However, according to latest estimations by UNESCO, even in the world’s most developed countries, access to digital education was around 90%, with 10% of school pupils still being left behind, during the first COVID-19 wave.

In their resolution, EU lawmakers pointed towards “still severe discrepancies at EU level”, with up to 32% of students being without access to education for several months in some member states, while for many, the lack of access stemmed from an absence of digital equipment, inadequate digital skills or pre-existing disadvantage.

Such a situation would “threaten a loss of learning for an entire generation of students”, they warned, which could “potentially negatively impact labour productivity growth and competitiveness for the EU as a whole”.

“Many countries are still unprepared in the face of the second wave that is now hitting Europe,” MEP Victor Negrescu (S&D) of the Parliament’s culture and education committee (CULT) told the chamber.

“More should be done to guarantee access to quality education and training for all, and for that, we need to invest in education,” he said in the debate proceeding the vote.

He expressed the committee’s “deep regret” that the current EU budget agreement has proposed substantial cuts to programmes supporting education and training, while the European Parliament had argued member states should increase their own public spending on education.

“The Commission must prioritise investments in education in its recovery plan,” Negrescu said.

The European Commission laid out plans in September to boost the education of citizens in digital skills across the bloc with its Digital Education Action Plan, meant to reflect lessons learned from the COVID-19 crisis.

Health crisis pushes EU into era of digital education 

The European Commission has laid out plans to boost the education of citizens in digital skills across the bloc, as part of a drive that it hopes will aid Europe’s long-term economic stability while the continent rebounds from the after-effects of the coronavirus crisis.

It proposed a set of initiatives or high‑quality, inclusive and accessible digital education in Europe and called upon member states to facilitate stronger cooperation at EU level.

“Education and training have faced huge disruption due to COVID-19 and a quick shift to distance and online learning. The mass use of technology has revealed gaps and exposed weaknesses.” Commission Vice-President for Digital Margarethe Vestager said then.

“This is also an opportunity to reset education and training for the digital age. 95% of respondents to the public consultation on the Digital Education Action Plan see the crisis as a turning point for the way technology is used in education and training.”

In their call, MEPs particularly deplored “the lack of coordination or exchange of best practices at European level” during the pandemic, and called on member states to be more active in coordinating between themselves.

A “better cooperation and coordination among the member states and a more ambitious EU education and training policy would have improved the effectiveness of the response to the COVID-19 crisis,” the resolution read.

“We welcome the education package put forward by the Commission at the end of September; however, it is only the first step,” rapporteur Sabine Verheyen (EPP) said after the vote, adding this must now be “backed up by concrete measures and with the funding to deliver them.”

Although the EU action plan for digital skills for all was broadly welcomed, Amanda Crowfoot, secretary-general of the European University Association (EUA), warned that the European initiatives “must ensure that digitally enhanced education does not get branded as an emergency mode, but instead foster forward-looking strategies and actions beyond the crisis which are paramount for resilience and innovation”.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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