The European Commission has recently published two documents that offer us insights into its thinking on lifelong learning. First, it has issued its Education and Training Monitor for 2015; ostensibly a ‘state of the art’ report, the Monitor also provides insights into the EC’s current priorities. Second, the Commission has agreed a Communication on its Work Programme for 2016, concentrating on what it calls ‘the big things where citizens expect Europe to make a difference’; one of these ‘big things’, it seems, is skills.
What do these documents together tell us about the Commission’s thinking? Well, it seems reasonable to start by saying that learning and skills are a rather greater priority for the European Commission than they are for most of the member states. Both of the documents also confirm the continuing importance of gender equity in the Commission’s thinking about the labour market. Beyond that, though, the two papers differ in purpose and scope.
To some extent, the Monitor treats adult learners as peripheral. Most of it is devoted to schools, higher education and initial vocational training, with adult basic education and upskilling being classed as examples of the need to modernise vocational education and training systems. Apprenticeships are seen as something for young people, in which learning at school and work are combined, while e-learning and MOOCs are treated primarily as a sub-set of higher education.
So far so familiar. But four pages of the Monitor are devoted to adult learning, focusing on participation rates and the benefits of learning. It asserts – reasonably enough – that there are ‘clear social and economic benefits to engaging adults in continuing learning activities’.
On participation, the Commission notes that in 2009 the member states set a target for 2020 of 15% of working age adults participating in learning during a given four-week period; the current rate stands at 10.7%, with only six member states (Denmark, Sweden, Finland, France, the Netherlands and the UK) reaching the 2020 target.The Commission concludes that the weak evidence of progress implies ‘a rethink of adult learning policies’. It then draws on an as-yet-unpublished meta-study of the effectiveness of particular adult learning interventions, which are ranked according to the strength of the evidence. The most effective, according to this exercise, are public co-financing of employer training, aligning provision with skills forecasting, and targeting funding on provision for the disadvantaged and difficult to engage groups.
Quite how the Commission will persuade member states to rethink their adult learning policies is unclear. It can pull some levers – including publishing comparative benchmarking reports like the Monitor – but education is a responsibility of national governments, and at European level it is dealt with under the so-called ‘open method of co-ordination’. This effectively leaves it to the member state to decide whether they take any notice of European-level policies or not – which is why the 2020 targets will be missed.
On the other hand, the Commission does have powers over vocational training. The 2016 Work Programme is going to include a ‘New Skills Agenda’, which takes an explicitly human capital approach to investing in skills throughout life in order to improve competitiveness. This includes raising participation in the labour market by women, but otherwise the new agenda is nebulous in the extreme.The European Commission has a long record of interest in adult learning. Perhaps its most influential intervention was the European Year of Lifelong Learning, a largely symbolic gesture which nevertheless reached out to governments, providers and other actors such as trade unions and voluntary associations. Much of the excitement that surrounded the European Year has evaporated, as has the social democratic vision of Europe that was associated with its then president, Jacque Delors.
In current circumstances, it probably shouldn’t surprise us to find that the Commission’s view of adult learning is an instrumental and impoverished one. Nevertheless, the fact that the Commission is debating adult learning and skills offers opportunities for advocacy and a chance to try and broaden out the terms of debate.