11 November 2011
Europe must invest heavily in improving the quantity and quality of higher education if it is to meet the challenges of youth unemployment and an ageing population, the President of the European Commission said today. Warning that the "wrong sorts of cuts" could plunge the continent into recession, Josť Manuel Barroso said education had to be a priority if the European Union was to "emerge stronger and more competitive."
With university funding slashed by governments focussed on stabilising debts and deficits, it was "important to look at alternative and innovative effective governance and funding mechanisms for the higher education sector," Barroso said. To create "the jobs and ideas of tomorrow" the commission has proposed to invest €15.2bn in education and training and €80bn in research and innovation between 2014 and 2020 – increases of 68 per cent and 46 per cent respectively compared with the previous seven year funding period.
Speaking at a conference on higher education at the University of Lisbon, he admitted that the crisis had hit Europe hard and "growth underpinned by knowledge" was the only way to build a more sustainable economy for the future. It was "emblematic of our challenge" that one in five young people could not find work, because this generation had to be able to support the continent's ageing population, he said. "We have to take the right decisions and implement the necessary reforms to enhance our capacities in education, research and innovation. They are key to addressing major economic and social challenges."
Barroso said Europe had a strong tradition in higher education stretching back hundreds of years but warned that competitors abroad were now investing more and putting more young people through university. "We see in Europe the number of skilled jobs outnumbering the supply of students with higher education qualifications. While 35 per cent of all jobs in the EU will require high-level qualification by 2020, only 26 per cent of the workforce currently has a higher education qualification." Insisting that education was central to the EU's Europe 2020 strategy to get the economy back on track, the president said: "We cannot afford to lose a generation of young people not being either employed, studying or in training. Young Europeans, too often the ones first and worst hit by the crisis, need to gain knowledge, skills and experience. Europe needs young brains. This is why we have set an ambitious but realistic target on educational attainment in the Europe 2020 strategy.
"By 2020, we want both to reduce early school leaving to 10 per cent from the current 15 per cent; and increase the share of young Europeans having successfully completed higher education from 31 per cent to at least 40 per cent." He said access to university should be extended to under-represented groups, and more support should be given to higher education institutions in poorer regions of the EU to drive regional development. But Barroso also cautioned against focusing purely on quantity at the expense of quality. "Our aim should be more and better," he said, adding that rewarding good teaching, making it easier to spread best practice across borders, and making education more flexible to the needs of the labour market could all help achieve that goal.
Though education was member states' responsibility, Barroso said the EU had an important role to play in supporting modernisation and ensuring the single market made opportunities available to all. He praised the Erasmus programme, which will by 2013 have given three million students the chance to study part of their degree in another country – and said the commission would soon propose an Erasmus Masters Degree Mobility Scheme. "Recognition of professional qualifications beyond borders is one of the 12 key actions of the Single Market Act adopted by the commission in April to unlock the full potential of our internal market," he added.
Barroso encouraged the creation of so-called knowledge alliances between universities and industry so that knowledge was spread to people who turn it into businesses that benefit society. "This is exactly the purpose of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, the first European initiative that I proposed in 2005 to boost Europe's competitiveness by fully intensifying the interaction and integrating higher education, research and innovation with a strong emphasis on entrepreneurship." He claimed there would be a true single market for knowledge by 2014 with the completion of the European Research Area.