Young people in particular suffer disproportionately during a financial downturn, making higher education more critical than ever for the social and economic development of every nation in Europe, writes Microsoft Europe chairman
How can higher education institutions contribute fully to innovation, economic growth and youth employment in Europe? That is the overarching question the High Level Group for Modernisation of Higher Education, launched by he European Commission, will be addressing as part of our three year mandate, starting this month. The importance of higher education, and critically the collaboration between the European Union and member states in this area, has been recognised as an integral part of the EU's 2020 growth strategy over the coming decade.
The group brings together eight experts on education from different member states and walks of life, with former president of Ireland Mary McAleese holding the chair. Improving education systems is, of course, predominantly in the hands of national authorities, and rightly so. The idea of the group is to use our collective industry, academic and political experience to provide a fresh look at education policy and reform at the EU-wide level.
Indeed, there has already been considerable progress in the modernisation of EU higher education and we are fortunate to be able to build on this. I am particularly mindful of Europe's efforts to advance the Bologna Process
, which has made it easier for students to study abroad and have their qualifications recognised throughout Europe – something which could not be taken for granted when I studied computer science more than 25 years ago in the former Czechoslovakia.
Educators in Europe are currently under considerable pressure – to provide quality education that can enhance graduate employability – while at the same time delivering this to ever greater numbers of students. In fact, member states have set a target that 40 per cent of young people aged 30-34 should have a higher education qualification or equivalent by 2020. That is why for our first year the group will focus on 'teaching excellence', an area that has in my opinion been sidelined somewhat in academic research. In setting up the group, Commissioner for Education Androulla Vassiliou emphasised that teaching excellence is "a precondition for innovation, jobs and growth". I could not agree more.
Specifically, through our convening of expert witnesses, relationships with working groups and evaluation of research data, we will measure teaching excellence and make relevant policy recommendations. Initial ideas on the table include incentivising a culture of teaching excellence through reward mechanisms, and raising awareness among public authorities of ways to improve retention and attainment levels.
The group's focus for the second year concerns a subject particularly close to my heart – learning in the digital age. Worryingly, commission estimates that 38 per cent of Europeans do not have any basic e-skills, and the European information and communications technology sector will face a shortfall of 700,000 skilled workers by 2015. Through my involvement with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development Skills Strategy
, I recognise that there are three pillars needed to tackle this: developing relevant skills, activating skilled people, and putting skills to effective use.
And this starts at an early age, with the best education systems embracing digital technology to personalise the learning experience, and help ordinary students realise their extraordinary talents. Within the high level group, I will be highlighting the advancements in cloud computing, gamification and mobile devices to reach an increasingly diverse student population and help bridge the gap between student abilities and market needs.
So how will our recommendations achieve concrete results during our three-year mandate? The benefit of a united Europe is that there are a host of ways of implementing a recommendation at the EU-wide level. Financial tools such as Erasmus for all
or the Horizon 2020 Framework Programme can be leveraged, as well as political instruments such as the European Semester and ET2020.
To summarise, it is clear that education is critical for the social and economic development of every nation. Young people in particular suffer disproportionately during a financial downturn, due to a lack of job opportunities and budget cuts in the education sector, meaning the actions of the high level group are even more vital. Enhancing teaching excellence and ensuring a solid foundation of skills through digital learning will provide a firm basis for Europe to stay competitive and help higher education institutions prepare the students of today for the jobs of tomorrow.
Jan Muehlfeit is the chairman of Microsoft Europe