Benchmarking adult learning across the European Union

The European Union’s latest Education and Training Monitor reports on progress against the 2020 targets, originally adopted in 2010 as part of the EU’s ten-year strategy for growth. There are six targets, all sharing the virtue – and pitfalls – of clarity and simplicity. In respect of adult learning, the target is that by 2020, 15% of Europe’s adults aged 25-64 shall have received formal or non-formal education or training in the four weeks leading up to the annual Labour Force Survey.

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Progress against this target has so far been, let’s say, modest. Participation stood in 2015 at 10.7%, barely a rise on the 9.2% achieved in 2012, and exactly the same as it was in 2014.

As ever, this headline figure masks wide variations between countries. Denmark, Sweden and Finland were Europe’s top performers, with participation rates of 31.3%, 29.4% and 25.4% respectively; bottom were Romania (1.3%) and Bulgaria (2.0%), followed closely by Croatia and Slovakia (both on 3.1%). Of the EU’s big four, France and the UK came above the EU average, while Italy and Germany both fell beneath it.

The report also notes variations within countries, with notably lower participation rates among the low-qualified. It does not report, though, on inequalities of participation by age (we can confidently expect that older workers receive relatively little education and training), gender or ethnicity.

Education is, of course, hardly the only area where the European Commission has set targets which then serve as benchmarks. There are similar 2020 targets for various areas of economic activity, from the share of GDP that is invested in research and innovation to the proportion of the population that lives in poverty.

As Alexandra Ioannidou pointed out ten years ago (see this article), the EU and OECD have developed monitoring and reporting into new policy instruments. The problem for the EU is that, unlike OECD, it has real policy powers in the area of education and training.A failure to meet they targets cannot, therefore, be simply blamed on the weaker member states. In this case, the EU is placing a heavy emphasis on its New Skills Agenda.

As the Agenda was only published in 2016, over half way through the monitoring period, it won’t have much impact by 2020. And of course this benchmark is only one way of measuring adult learning; apart from any other weaknesses, it says nothing whatever about quality.

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Asking guest speakers to produce a passport: Hertfordshire front runners to top Silliest Uni league table

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For some time now, a lot of British universities have asked external examiners to show a passport. This is, apparently, the result of government immigration regulations, which require employers to show that all employees have the right to work in the UK.

It’s a very silly interpretation of immigration law, which universities could happily ignore. Illegal immigrants don’t usually end up examining at universities; and the fee – usually in the region of £150-£200 – is hardly an incentive to people smugglers. But some human resources directors enjoy frightening themselves, and their senior managers, with fearful warnings of what ‘could‘ go wrong.

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The University of St Andrews tries to persuade its staff that it has made a sensible decision

We now seem to have an even sillier refinement of this precautionary approach. Jonathan Webber, Reader in Philosophy at Cardiff University, tweeted this week that the University of Hertfordshire had cancelled two invited talks because he objected to providing a scan of his passport.

The requirement to produce the passport was apparently introduced long after the talks had been arranged. The upshot is that Hertfordshire’s staff and students will miss two talks (one on the nature of shame, and one on the ethics of lying and misleading), and not a single illegal immigrant will be deterred.

It would be nice to see a league table for silliest university decisions. So far Hertfordshire looks like hands-down winner for 2016.