In terms of modernising educational systems, Commissioner Vassiliou says, “We have a long way to go”.
As an 18-year-old, Androulla Vassiliou had her heart set on studying fashion design in London, but her parents insisted she read law instead. Later, as Vassiliou’s legal career took off, she hoped to become a judge. But the judiciary system in her home country, Cyprus, wasn’t ready for women judges at the time. So she switched gears again and went into politics.
During Literacy Week, the EU Commissioner reads to children in The Hague, Netherlands.
Now, as European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth, Vassiliou sees lessons for Europe’s students in her own career history. “Adaptability is a very crucial competence for young people, especially now as we are going through difficult [economic] times. You have to take what is available and try to make the best out of it. Whatever I decided to do, I put my heart in it. That was my principle.”
Vassiliou’s passion now is propelling Europe’s schools and universities into the 21st century – as quickly as possible. Rote learning and rigid curricula are out. To succeed in a global knowledge economy, students need a raft of skills including digital literacy, as well as competence in maths, science, technology and foreign languages. Creativity and critical thinking are vital. But Europe’s schools and universities are steeped in centuries of pedagogical tradition, and not geared to churning out multidisciplinary graduates who think laterally and creatively. “We are a 4 out of 10” in terms of completing that modernisation, says Vassiliou. “We still have a long way to go.”
The good news: the European Commission is making education, research and innovation a top priority. Under the Commission budget proposal for 2014-2020, education, training and youth would jump 73 per cent to €15.2 billion – the highest budget increase across all policy sectors – while research and innovation would get €80 billion, up 46 per cent. “All European leaders without exception realise that the way to exit this crisis stronger is via education, innovation and research,” says Vassiliou.
Where will the money be spent? On a panorama of new and existing programs to modernise schools, bolster creativity, improve teaching quality, advance student mobility, promote campus entrepreneurship, encourage collaboration between education and industry and support lifelong learning. One key goal is to double the number of young Europeans studying and training abroad, from 400,000 per year to 800,000. Such programmes expose students to the soft skills needed to live and work in a foreign culture, says Vassiliou. A related proposal: a low-interest loan guarantee fund through the European Investment Bank that would help 50,000 students a year finance a master’s degree abroad.
But can bigger budgets and new programmes remake Europe’s educational culture? And if so, how quickly? Andreas Schleicher, advisor to the Secretary General at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) on education policy, worries that Europe’s core countries, including France and Germany, are not moving quickly enough, and that policymakers need to take more a more radical approach.
Schleicher, author of the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (the Pisa study), points to Shanghai as a model. Its students ranked first among those from 65 cities and countries in reading, maths and science in the most recent Pisa study. Among Shanghai’s innovations: the best teachers and administrators are sent to the worst schools.
Vassiliou insists Europe too is working on programmes that break with the past. In 2010, she launched “Youth on the Move”, an initiative designed to reduce the school dropout rate, help young people gain high-level skills and qualifications and help them land a first job.
She points to a recent OECD study which shows that, even if education systems provide high levels of skills, “it’s no guarantee of success in the job market if countries don’t have the right innovation-friendly policies in place to back them up.”
The biggest challenge in Europe, Vassiliou says, is bridging the gap between industry and academia. Governments need to create the kind of environment that nurtures innovation and leverages a skilled workforce. Finland is a role model both for secondary education (it was the European leader in the Pisa study) and universities (Aalto University, created from a merger of three existing institutions, is a pioneer in multidisciplinary learning). “Finland decided [25 years ago] education is key – and that’s something we all now realise,” says Vassiliou.
To promote a culture of entrepreneurship, the Commission in 2008 created the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), which links universities and industry across key technologies. The following year, the EIT started three cross-border Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KICs) focused on innovation in climate change, clean energy and information technology. Acting as catalysts, the KICs now have 30 start-ups in the works.
“It is the first experiment we have in creating a triangle of research, industry and education. In the past, education was the missing partner. Now they all realise it has to be included,” says Vassiliou.
Under the Commission’s budget proposal, the EIT would receive a substantial increase in funding, which, Vassiliou says, could help bring the kind of step-change in attitudes that Europe needs. Six additional KICs are planned between 2014-2018.
This year the Commission is launching two pilot programmes also designed to break down the barrier between academic research and enterprise. The “European industrial doctorate” is aimed at giving doctoral students the opportunity to work within a company, and to bring companies closer to the research universities – a new element of the 15-year-old Marie Curie programme, which has supported 50,000 researchers in Europe. The second programme, EU Knowledge Alliances, will help create partnerships between researchers and industry to bring innovative ideas to market.
Vassiliou is also determined to improve Europe’s grade for literacy and digital literacy. A recent OECD study showed that nearly 17 per cent of European students lack the skills to move easily through the digital environment and most students are not able to use information technology in a critical and creative way. Likewise, many of Europe’s educators are not prepared to take advantage of digital technology. “There is a clear implementation gap when it comes to using information and communication technology (ICT) in formal education,” Vassiliou said. “Even now, with so much unemployment, especially youth unemployment, we have about 2 million vacant jobs, because we don’t have the ICT skills to fill [them].”
To tackle that problem, the Education Commissioner is launching an initiative in 2012 called “Creative Classrooms”, to encourage teachers to experiment with new pedagogical methods. Says Vassiliou: “For me digital capabilities are among the most important tools we have, because beyond providing a basic competence, they are a tool for learning more.”
With so many initiatives under way, how will Vassiliou measure the Education Commission’s success? “When I see our first grads starting their own businesses,” she says. “This will be the real indication that we are ready to make Europe more competitive and attractive in this globalised world.”
This article was originally published in Issue 9 of the Futures Magazine.