“Research and education are the sinews of economic war”: trying to build a European spirit


Jacques Delors. Image licensed under Creative Commons.

In January 1989, Jacque Delors (President of the European Commission) gave a lengthy speech to the European Parliament. His topic was the implementation of the Single European Act – signed off, among others, by Margaret Thatcher – which created a single market across the ten twelve member states. Creating the single market, he said, required more than moving to free trade within the EU. It also meant giving the European Community ‘a little more soul’.

Liberalising capital movements, harmonising standards and mutual recognition of diplomas were all essential steps. But, he said, the trouble is that people ‘cannot fall in love’ with a single market. In order to win their consent, Delors proposed that the Commission had to think broadly about how to build a ‘European consciousness’.  And it was in this context that he proposed to expand the Commission’s role in education and research.

Delors’ rationale for a European education policy was couched in strictly economic terms, as a matter of competitiveness. Hence the vivid metaphor:

At a time of profound change, research and education are the sinews of economic war

He was also clearly pondering cultural battles, worrying over Japanese domination of audio-visual communications technologies and American domination of content, as well as environmental regulation, international aid, workers’ rights, monetary policy and a variety of other themes. But it is striking that he started with education and research as a means of engaging young Europeans and providing ‘tangible proof that the Community is not a technocratic machine but a human venture’.

This speech also marks the start of Delors’ attempt to broaden ideas of education beyond schooling, and to embrace what he would subsequently call ‘lifelong learning’. He acknowledged that the Commission’s powers over education were limited, but suggested that this could be changed, not least because the challenges facing education itself were changing: “Ten years after we leave school or university, our skills can be obsolescent’.

I stumbled across this speech online, thanks to the European Parliament’s digitisation programme. I missed it twenty years ago, when I was researching for a book on European Union policies for education and training. It therefore helps fill in a gap in the history of European policies for education, and shows that the idea of lifelong learning was there from the start.

Delors’ speech also gives us an indication of what the EU has been missing in recent years. I’m not arguing for or against his political strategy, but rather noting that he had one which involved trying to engage citizens in the process of European construction. Jean-Claude Juncker presumably has strengths, though the only one I know of is designing business-friendly tax regimes, but thinking strategically about how you get people to ‘fall in love’ with a free trade area is not among them.

The fall-out after Brexit rather illustrated this point. Here in Germany, a large number of commentators have lamented the inability of Europe’s currently leaders to win hearts and minds. Meanwhile, in the UK, it turns out that there is a cultural chasm between those who turn out to have developed some kind of European identity and those who identify strongly with their nation.The first group felt bereft after the vote, the second group were jubilant.

I’m not so concerned about the rights and wrongs of this as the extent of the division, and the way in which the referendum has laid it bare. How do we deal with it? And does Europe need a new Delors in Brussels – a Delor for our own times? Or is it once more a project for technocrats, and a playground for globalisation’s winners?

The European crisis and the intellectuals: Habermas and Vargas Llosa


Habermas: photograph by Wolfram Huke, licensed under Creative Commons

Jürgen Habermas, long a promoter of a common European identity and values, has responded to Brexit by restating his call for a ‘core Europe’. Angela Merkel, he said in a newspaper interview, had ‘throttled the very idea of further European integration at birth’ by insisting on involving all the 27 other states, ‘knowing full well that a constructive agreement with authoritarian nationalists like Orbán or Kaszyński is impossible’.

Based on the Eurozone nations, Habermas believes that the values of his new core Europe would win over the ‘polarised populations of all the member states’, including those currently outside the Eurozone. Within a single currency zone, the nation state can no longer guarantee social welfare or democracy. As a precondition, Germany must abandon its ‘resistance to closer cooperation in financial, economic and social policy’.

So far, so familiar: Habermas is simply saying what he has often said before. The interview sheds no new light on the Leave vote, other than as a specific example of a Europe-wide phenomenon. As for hostility to Europe, Habermas understands this as the product of ‘drastically increased social inequality and the feeling of powerless, that one’s own interests are no more represented among the political classes’. It will, be believes, be resolved through a common social policy and stronger democracy.

Mario Vargas Llosa, who lives in Spain but comes from Peru, has drawn parallels between between diminishing popular support for the EU and the fate of Venezuela. Again, he was speaking in an interview, in response to a question about the range of current protest movements in Europe. Vargas Llosa described these movements, from Syriza and Podemus to Pegida and le Front national, as speaking to a yearning for ‘the small community’ which ‘supposedly offered more security, spoke the same language, went to the same church, drank the same beer’.

For Vargas Llosa, the electoral popularity of the socialist Hugo Chávez represented an ‘obscure nationalism’ which appealed to a people who rejected ‘the unpredictable, the unmanageable, against globalisation and capitalitm’. Chávez’ period in office ‘poisoned the climate with neighbours, caused isolation even in foreign policy – all with the segen des volkes, who believed that they could remove themselves from the wider direction of the world, and return to a predictable because closed society’. His conclusion: ‘Venezuela today is corrupt, one of the poorest countries in the world, Caracas the city with the hightest crime rate’.

I’ve provided my own translations, on the assumption that some other people might be as interested as I am in knowing what these thinkers make of the current crisis in Europe. If you want my opinion on the interviews, I find them both a little underwhelming. But just don’t ask me to do better!


Adult learners in England still under attack

In the UK, you could be forgiven for thinking that participation in public adult learning could not get much worse. Data updated today, available here, show that after repeated declines in recent years, the number of adults in England taking courses funded by the Skills Funding Agency fell yet again last year.

New Picture (1)

The detailed results of the Statistical First Release show that the collapse was sharper than average among those taking ‘Full Level 2 courses’ –  i.e. precisely the skills level that government is prioritising. This group fell by 12.7% over the year. Even worse, though, was the collapse in those taking ‘below Level 2 courses (excluding English and Maths)’, who fell by 21.4%.The numbers in community learning courses fell by 7.2%.

The system did little better by basic skills learners. The number of ESOL learners fell by 5.8%, Maths learners by 6.6%, and other English learners (mostly literacy students) by 5.5%. In fact, the only groups to increase were adult apprentices (very welcome, but they are still well below their peak level two years ago) and those – relatively few – who took Level 4 courses.

Of course, there will be alternatives to publicly provided adult education, with a thriving commercial sector and a very active third sector (think men’s sheds and the U3A). Meanwhile, the poorest and those with the least cultural and social capital will be left behind.

Little wonder that the All-Party Group for Adult Education, chaired by Chi Onwurah, recently reported widespread fears of a ‘stated danger that national policy for adult education could disappear by 2020’. And this for a country with an aging working population, and a poor productivity record, facing massive technological and social changes.





The Social Progress Index – how does your country rate?


New Picture

We expect to see countries ranked and compared all the time. This seems a natural enough process in sporting occasions such as the European Football Championships under way now (though as with the EU, the list of participating nations helps to define what we understand as “European”). And there are hundreds of international league tables for everything from health, wealth and education to crime, corruption and war.

I’m always interested in attempts to produce league tables that are a bit more thoughtful and informative than the average. One of these is the Social Mobility Index, which I blogged about here. And now along comes the 2016 Social Progress Index (SPI), a composite table that draws on a range of social and environmental outcome indicators, with the aim of informing policies to improve well-being.

The resulting league table tells you which countries over-perform on social progress in relation to GDP (per capita). Costa Rica leads this group, suggesting strong social progress; however, it is followed by Kyrgyzstan, which is probably down to economic decline.

Those who come top overall are those which are both prosperous and socially progressive: Finland ranks first, followed by Canada, our friends the Danes, and then Australia. Three oil-rich countries lead the table for low social progress relative to GDP. Saudi Arabia is way out ahead, followed by Kuwait and then the United Arab Emirates. Significantly, the USA also makes it into the top 20 for this group, just ahead of Venezuela.

I take a particularly close interest in the fortunes of Germany (15th) and the UK (9th), as these are the countries where I live. Interestingly, the UK is among those who are high on social progress relative to GDP, though with some problem areas, including perceptions of crime. Despite its higher GDP, Germany is the other way round, thanks mainly to low scores on health and wellness and even lower scores on tolerance and inclusion.

New Picture (2)

I like the way that SPI applies an outcomes approach to wealth, rather than treating it as the main indicator of well-being. Rather than relying directly on measures of wealth, it treats health, education and freedoms as the outcomes of wealth. And what it tells us is that while being rich certainly helps, what also matters is how you use your riches.