The Commission´s education and training policy for the next 5 years: diverse systems, shared goals
Forum de la mobilité étudiante
Brussels, 14 February 2005
Speech by Mr Ján Figel
Member of the European Commission responsible for Education, Training, Culture and Multilingualism
Before I turn to the years to come, I would like to say a few words about the role of the European Union in the field of education and training.
As you know, the Union does not have a ‘common policy´ for education, as it does in the fields of transport or agriculture. Instead, the Treaty gives the Commission a supporting role. The Commission does not favour - and does not have the powers - to implement a top-down approach to the modernisation of education systems. Above all, we want to be a catalyst for the exchange of ideas and good practices.
This said, the European Commission is very active in the field of education and training. Our many actions and programmes have one overarching goal: to bring the added value of concerted action at European level, be it in terms of promoting mobility, quality or reform.
Education is primarily the concern of national or regional governments. This means that educational systems differ considerably in structure, both within and between countries. Across the Union , learning is funded, managed, and evaluated in many different ways.
On the one hand, this a challenge for mobility, not only of students but also of workers who may have difficulties in getting their qualifications recognised across borders.
On the other hand, a degree of diversity among our educational systems is a good thing and we should preserve it. I say it is a good thing because this diversity means that we are presented with many different ways of meeting the educational challenges of the present and the future. Some countries and regions are stronger in some areas - such as low school drop out rates, for example - and others are stronger in other areas. Across Europe , we can all learn from comparisons between different systems and approaches - and their effectiveness.
We need to do this in order to raise standards across the Union , remove barriers to learning opportunities, and meet the educational requirements of the 21st century.
A concrete example of this can be seen in the so-called Lisbon Strategy. In 2000, Heads of State and Government, meeting in the European Council in Lisbon , set the Union the goal of becoming: "the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based society in the world."
To achieve this ambitious goal, the Heads of State and Government called for "a challenging programme for the modernisation of […] education systems".
The following year, at the European Council in Barcelona , Ministers of education agreed on three major goals to be achieved by 2010:
1. to improve the quality and effectiveness of EU education and training systems;
2. to ensure that they are accessible to all;
3. to open up education and training to the wider world.
These are the cornerstones of the European Union policy for the coming years, and as such I cannot overemphasise their importance.
In 2002, the role of education and training in the strategy was further specified by the European Council: it adopted the goal that by 2010, Europe ´s education and training systems should be a world reference in terms of quality.
Meeting the Lisbon challenge therefore requires deep reforms of education and training systems throughout Europe . These reforms, of course, must be carried out in each country in accordance with national contexts and traditions.
At the same time, however, they must be driven by a spirit of co-operation between Member States and this is what is happening now within a work programme which we have called "Education and Training 2010"
Using the so-called "open method of coordination", Member States have agreed on common targets (or "benchmarks") in the field of education and training and are sharing experiences and learning from each other in order to adopt the right policies to achieve these targets.
Now, some of you will be aware that the Commission recently adopted its Mid-Term Review of the Lisbon Strategy . We used some straight talking in that review. In essence, the Lisbon strategy had become too unfocussed with too many competing goals and it was not delivering the results. I hasten to add that this judgement applied to the Strategy as a whole and not to the education and training component in particular.
But the Commission did not conclude that the strategy should be abandoned: on the contrary, it concluded that it should be slimmed-down and refocused on growth and jobs. This is not part of some neo-Liberal agenda: it is in fact the only way, in an ageing society, that the European Social model can be saved.
In any case, Europe cannot possibly compete on the basis of cheap labour costs: we can only compete on the basis superior value-added - and that can only be done on the basis of knowledge. And here I conceive of knowledge as a triangle consisting of:
- research - that is, the creation of knowledge;
- education - that is, the dissemination of knowledge, and;
- innovation - that is, the application of knowledge.
For this reason, the revised Lisbon Strategy highlights the role of knowledge in ensuring growth and jobs, and in particular the role of universities. The mid-term review states:
"Spreading knowledge through high quality education systems is the best way of guaranteeing the long-term competitiveness of the Union . In particular, the Union must ensure that our universities can compete with the best in the World through the completion of the European Higher Education Area."
If we are serious about reviving the Lisbon agenda, we should create the best conditions to help our people increase their knowledge and develop their skills. Investing in the knowledge economy is a prerequisite for growth.
To this end, I will in April present a Communication on Universities and the Knowledge Society, which will identify the main challenges facing universities and outline some recommended policy responses. This will be followed in October by the Commission´s second biannual draft report on the Education and Training 2010 Programme. . This will allow us to assess the progress made against the Lisbon education and training objectives and to make recommendations on what needs to be done next.
Public authorities across the continent should fulfil their pledge of increasing investment in our human capital.
Europe has all it takes to regain its position as global leader not only in the humanities but also in scientific education and research.
But if we are to succeed, we need to think seriously about our strategy to improve the quality, attractiveness, and funding of Europe ´s higher education.
This brings me to two other processes named after two fine European cities: the Bologna process of reforms in Higher Education, and the Copenhagen process , which is devoted to Vocational Training.
As for the Bologna Process , the main remark is that it is essentially an intergovernmental process. It currently involves 40 European countries, including all EU Member States, and the European Commission is also present.
The Bologna process aims to make higher education systems converge towards a consistent system based on three cycles: Degree/Bachelor, Master and Doctorate.
Its goal is to develop a European Higher-Education Area by the year 2010.
As far as the European Union is concerned, the Bologna process fits into the broader framework of the Lisbon objectives .
The next Ministerial Conference of the Bologna Signatory States will be held in May this year. Education ministers have agreed that, by that time, all signatory countries should:
1. have adopted a two-cycle system (the third will be covered by the Bologna reforms at a later stage);
2. issue a diploma supplement in a major language to all their graduates free of charge without the need of a request; and
3. have started to introduce a quality-assurance system.
Implementing the various goals of the Bologna Process is crucial and their advantage is obvious. We must pursue them vigorously .
A more standardised structure will make degrees more transparent and portable.
Independent and trustworthy Quality Assurance Procedures would allow citizens to see for themselves which learning institutions are worthy of their confidence.
A common European framework for Qualifications and credits at all levels would allow qualifications to be recognised and understood across Europe and favour both student and workforce mobility.
Let me now turn to the Copenhagen process.
The Copenhagen Declaration of 2002 launched the strategy for improving the performance, quality, and attractiveness of Vocational Education and Training.
The process was given fresh impetus only two months ago by the Maastricht Communiqué on the Future Priorities of Enhanced European Cooperation in Vocational Education and Training.
On 14 December 2004 , in Maastricht , the Ministers responsible for Vocational Education and Training of 32 European countries, the European Social Partners and the European Commission agreed to strengthen their cooperation.
Two main objectives were formulated:
- firstly, updating vocational education and training systems to meet the challenges of the knowledge economy;
- secondly, offering all Europeans, including the young, older workers, the unemployed or the disadvantaged, the qualifications and skills they need to play an active role in our society.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
In conclusion, I would say that the role of the Commission in these processes is to provide the European perspective without which these necessary reforms would not be possible. However, your role is even more crucial, since you are the practitioners and the future of European Higher Education is in your hands. I appeal for your support in the process of modernising Europe ´s Higher Education Systems.
Finally, I would like to congratulate Minister Simonet for holding this forum today. The topic you chose is important and urgent for Europe . I wish you every success.
 Francophone Belgian Quality Assurance in Higher Education does not yet have the level of independence and transparency proposed in the Council Recommendation of 1988.