On 23 February the EESC adopted two opinions addressing the issues of education and training and vocational skills development in the EU. Initiatives intended to promote high quality education for all could be meaningless, the EESC warned, if the austerity measures still in place in many EU countries prevented these from making the highly needed investments. As for the Commission's New Skills Agenda, the EESC wishes to see more innovative solutions focusing on social and gender perspectives, non-formal and informal learning and entrepreneurship as a life skill.
At its February plenary session the EESC adopted an exploratory opinion on High Quality Education for All drawn up following a request from the Maltese presidency of the EU. While welcoming the Maltese presidency's focus on this issue, the EESC made it clear that if Member States were to pursue the austerity policies put in place following the crisis, they would not be able to make the investments required to make high quality public education effectively available to everyone. This must be a top priority in order to fight poverty, which is fast spreading in Europe: according to Eurostat, in 2015 around 25 million children, accounting for 26% of the population aged 0 to 17, were at risk of poverty or social exclusion in Europe, while the most recent studies and reports point to a close connection between educational poverty and low income.
The EESC identified a set of priority areas for action, among them:
- improving the support to early childhood education and lifelong learning;
- ensuring education responds to the challenges of globalisation, digitalisation and changes in the world of work;
- creating training opportunities for young school-leavers, low-skilled workers and migrant workers;
- recognising non-formal and informal education;
- improving investment in teacher training;
- provide teachers with better working conditions and salaries;
- improving public investment in education and training;
- investing in educational infra-structure and tools, such as ICT;
- making better use of EU Funds, especially the European Social Fund and Horizon 2020, to support quality E&T, research and innovation;
- strengthening EU-wide mobility opportunities for students, academics, teachers, trainers and researchers.
"Making high quality public education available to all Europeans is of the utmost importance, not only to fight unemployment and ensure Europe's competitiveness, but also to offer our people better life prospects. IT is also key to build up a European society where fundamental rights and values have a strong foundation", said opinion rapporteur Benjamin Rizzo (Malta – Various Interests Group).
The EESC also took a stance on the European Commission's New Skills Agenda. Currently, while 70 million Europeans lack adequate reading, writing and numeracy skills, and more than 20% practically can’t work with computers, over 30% of highly qualified young people work in jobs that do not match their talents and aspirations and 40% of European employers cannot find people with the right skills to grow and innovate. To address this continuing skills deficit and mismatch, the Commission has proposed a new set of measures. However, in the EESC's view, the new agenda is more of a step in the right direction than a game changer as it mainly focuses on improving existing tools, their application and functioning. But adjustment will not be enough. More innovative solutions in the fields of education and skills development are called for: some such solutions are already in place in some European countries and could be transferred to others, but the agenda fails to hold them up as models. Social and gender perspectives also need to be brought into play, non-formal and informal learning need to be recognised and entrepreneurship as a life skill promoted.
The EESC also regrets the lack of new financing to back up the Agenda: "The EESC cannot accept that there is no new financing envisaged to enforce the new Agenda and firmly believes that making the best use possible of existing funding programmes will not be enough to underpin the Agenda’s ambitions" said rapporteur Indrė Vareikytė (LT – Various Interests Group). The EESC suggests incorporating the Agenda into an enabling macroeconomic framework, where investing in people’s skills and capabilities is not treated as a cost, but an outlay which will bring positive benefits over time. In addition, contributions made by the Member States to cover expenditure in education and training should not be included in the framework used to calculate their budget deficit.
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