Education and the Brexit saga

One thing seems to be consistently clear in the debate over the UK’s relationship with the EU: our participation in the EU’s education and training programmes is set to continue. That shouldn’t surprise anyone, as all the main UK parties have said repeatedly that they would like our participation to continue. And now the political declaration attached to the latest withdrawal agreement confirms it.

What exactly this will mean in practice is another matter. Given its track record, the question of whether the U.K. Border Agency is capable of distinguishing between students and illegal immigrants at point of entry is a good one. And I have no idea whether we are reaching the end of the beginning in the never-ending story of Brexit.

Still, it seems clear to me that those who value international exchanges now have work to do if they are going to shape the scope and scale of future U.K. participation – especially if they are involved in areas other than the well-represented and lobby-rich sectors like schools and higher education.

Should we mourn a UK exit from Erasmus?

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Image created by the Erasmus+ project Home Sweet Home

One consequence of the Brexit decision is that our educational institutions will at some stage have to withdraw from ERASMUS+, the European Commissions’s scheme for staff and student mobility. Or so says the Guardian, in a report that has been widely circulated – and lamented – on social media. The Guardian quotes Ceri Jones, formerly the Commission’s Director General for Education, describing the UK exit from ERASMUS+ as “a tragedy of staggering proportions for universities throughout the country”.

As usual, the reality is more complicated. First, although Guardian story describes ERASMUS+ as a scheme for university student mobility, it is of course much broader in its reach, encompassing schools, adult education and vocational training. Second, the UK remains part of the programme until the actually UK leaves the EU. Third, if and when the UK does leave the EU, its membership of ERASMUS+ (and other educational and research programmes) can continue, if the UK and rest of the EU so decide. Fourth, the UK can replace ERASMUS+ with new partnerships, but with different countries.

So hardly a “tragedy of staggering proportions”. Of course, continuing membership of EU programmes or the development of new exchange programmes will cost money. The simplest solution would be to use the resources currently allocated to ERASMUS+ to fund the new schemes. In practice, I imagine that a few Vice Chancellors (including those publicly lamenting the UK’s departure from ERASMUS+) will then start lobbying to have direct control over the funds, and then promptly switch it to other activities. But that’s no reason for not having exchange schemes.

My own preference would be the development of an entirely new exchange scheme. I’m not a great fan of ERASMUS+, mainly because it is yet another case of public funding being directed towards the most privileged. A HEFCE report in 2010 found that UK participants were “disproportionately young, female, white and middle-class, and are academic high-achievers”. A subsequent House of Lords enquiry reported that “students from ethnic minorities; with a disability; who were older; or who had parents from a non-professional background, were less likely to participate in the Erasmus programme”.

These are not new findings, of course. And neither is it surprising that an attractive but costly education opportunity appeals most to the socially and culturally best endowed. Nor is it surprising that part-time students, those with caring responsibilities, and those with best reason to be concerned about racism are largely excluded.Then there is the whole question of language competence, which in the UK is tightly tied to the school which you attend, which in turn is of course socially biassed towards the middle class.

The House of Lords report also confirmed that the European Commission had limited data about the effects of the scheme, and didn’t even know much about who took part in it and what they did. Again, this had been known for some years.

As I say, then, ERASMUS+ is deeply flawed. I found it something of a tragedy (though not of staggering proportions) that the European Commission did not take the opportunity to reform and modernise it. But then an organisation that is happy with the Common Agricultural Policy is unlikely to be dissatisfied with ERASMUS+.

Leaving ERASMUS+ offers some attractive possibilities. First, it allows for a bit of attention to equity and justice when designing new programmes. Second, it allows for an expansion of bilateral partnerships, which might differ by country rather than all taking a standardised shape. Third, it allows for an extension of partnerships beyond the limits of EU membership (though it could certainly include EU members). Fourth, we could rebalance the distribution of funding, so that it no longer strongly favours higher education.

All of which would be no bad thing. If we recall the intentions of the scheme’s founders, European student mobility was designed to foster a European identity. It seems to have done that rather successfully among one part of our population, but it did little or nothing for those who are the losers from globalisation. The consequences are with us now.

On being European. Or: where is Iceland?

I love Iceland, a country of majestic and sometimes awe-inspiring beauty. On most criteria, it is also a good place to live. In the OECD’s Better Life Index, Iceland ranks at the top in jobs and earnings, and above the average in social connections, subjective well-being, health status, environmental quality, personal security, and education and skills.

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A volcanic crater in the Grimsnes area, and cold enough in June for me to need a hat. Shortly after this photo was taken, though, a naked couple jumped in for a swim.

But is it European? This thought originally struck me during the global wave of laughter that greeted England’s humilating defeat by Iceland in the Euros. Don’t think I have the slightest interest in soccer, because I don’t. And I’m certainly not demanding that the Euros be replayed just because Iceland isn’t really European.

This isn’t a matter of EU membership. Europe is not identical with the European Union, and it is perfectly possible to be European and outside the EU.It’s ironic, though, that newspapers and others greeted England’s ignominious defeat with cries of “Brexit2”, conveniently forgetting that Wales was still in the tournament while Iceland had never been in the EU.

Then I remembered visiting the area around Þingvellir (or Thingvellir), a marvellous national park that includes a rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. This means that Rejkyavik, and therefore most of Iceland’s population, live in America rather than Europe.

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Not that this geological argument carries much weight with Icelanders, who like to think of themselves as Europeans and definitely not Americans. That got me brooding on why they might think of themselves in this way. And why so many other nations seem to be really keen to enjoy such symbolic markers of Europeanness as – wait for it now – the Eurovision song contest.

I enjoy a bit of pedantry; it can be a lot of fun. In this case, though, the question of Iceland leads me to ask what we mean when we say we are ‘European’, and who we then define as the non-European. The non-European unperson can be the refugee facing the enormous steel fences that Europe (= EU) is erecting along its borders, or the supposedly uneducated and insular Sun-reading cultural dopes who voted for Brexit.

The ‘European’ by contrast is cultivated and cosmopolitan. In a piece of desperately bad timing – or good, depending on your point of view – one academic published a piece in mid-June that celebrated the European (=EU) student mobility programmes as the modern Grand Tour.Well, Erasmus+ schemes certainly take the most privileged full-time, young, white undergraduates, though that wasn’t what he meant to pount out.

This world view rather neatly encapsulates a certain condescending mindset, which celebrates the cultural and educational construction of a cosmopolitan elite, the winners of the Euro-globalisation race. By contrast, the ‘other’ – the loser from globalisation – is constructed as brutish, stupid, and hopelessly provincial.

 

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Brexit: a wake-up call for adult education?

An article with this intriguing title features on the EPALE website for Germany. Google provides an English translation which is all but incomprehensible (here), so here’s a few tasters in the meantime.

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The author, Susanne Lattke, is a researcher at the German Institute for Adult Education; while she is presumably writing in a personal capacity, she is an experienced and informed commentator on European education policies.

Lattke starts by suggesting that actual Brexit is not inevitable, and even if it takes place most member states will move quickly to protect their interests through bilateral deals with the UK. She suggests that the rest of the EU are likely to want the UK to remain within the education programmes, offering a similar relationship to that already enjoyed by Switzerland.

Of course, we cannot be sure that all the four devolved education ministries will wish to fund participation in Erasmus+ in general and Grundtvig in particular. Even if they do, Lattke points out that it will become harder to secure British participants, and this will be a loss for other European partners.

The ‘wake-up call’ is, in her view, a challenge to the self-image and self-understanding of adult education as a space of tolerance and openness. She sees the Brexit debate as characterised by ‘a culture of political confrontation’, in which there was ‘little trace of respect for other opinions or a responsibly-exercised “active citizenship.

Unlike some in the UK, Lattke does not think that inadequate knowledge and low education alone explain the poor quality of the British debate. However, she does think it reinforces the need for ‘political-social education and learning’, not so much to transmit the ‘right’ attitudes and information as to open up options for ‘the growing number of potentially frustrated citizens’. And that, she concludes, is not solely a lesson for the UK.

One comment had appeared by today, from Christina Norwig, who largely agreed with Lattke. However, she also pointed out that older adults – who largely voted for Brexit – were the least likely to have participated in EU mobility schemes.

I largely share these views, and posted my immediate thoughts here. It is, though, interesting to see them shared by an experienced German adult educator and scholar. Hopefully a proper translation of Lattke’s post will appear shortly in English, and will generate further constructive debate in both languages. Meanwhile, I commend the EPALE website as a great resource for all who are interested in adult learning.

Student mobility and social inequalities

We’ve known for a number of years that international student mobility programmes tend to increase social inequalities. One recent analysis of patterns of study abroad reasonably concluded that while a number of factors are at work, including sometimes strongly held parental ideas, there is no doubting the importance of access to financial, cultural and social capital. And the same study shows that a period of study abroad has a measurable and positive impact on life chances.

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Infographic from Campus France

I was reminded of this research recently by seeing a French infographic on Twitter. Reporting a survey of outwardly mobile students from France, the authors noted that international student mobility continues to be a key social marker, in terms of outcomes as well as participation.

In terms of participation, the authors found much higher levels of parental support among students from wealthier families, particularly where the parents themselves had gone to university.They didn’t even ask about ethnicity, disability or mature age study.

There was also more institutional encouragement and support in the elite institutions, with the least encouragement being reported by students in health studies. Language was a challenge: as English has become the global language of academic study, so it becomes more important to have studied in an environment where you can develop your English language skills. Finally, money was also an issue, with study abroad costing an average of €6,000 for a six month stay.

What this effectively means is that study abroad programmes such as Erasmus are selectively subsidising the most affluent and advantaged of the student population. Furthermore, the students who have participated in study abroad programmes then get a head start in competing for cosmopolitan positions, which reinforces their privileged position. The net contribution to social mobility is therefore negative.

Researchers have known about the regressive effects of mobility programmes for some time, and have drawn them to the attention of policy makers, who have done precisely nothing to change the situation. Europe’s education policy makers and university leaders alike view Erasmus and similar programmes as a great success, and take every opportunity to say so. This latest French study adds to a body of evidence which ought to make us all ask a few hard questions about what values these programmes represent, and what aims they should be seeking to serve.

 

The future of lifelong learning in the European Commission

Mariane Thyssen, the incoming Commissioner for Employment

Mariane Thyssen, the incoming Commissioner for Employment

Where should political responsibility lie for lifelong learning? Should its home lie in the ministry responsible for education, or in the government department that handles employment? There is a case for each: coherence within education, or synergies within employment. And different countries have different structures, which can also change from time to time.

Within the EU, the new Commission will see a significant shift. Jean-Claude Juncker, the incoming President of the Commission, has announced that several departmental portfolios will be ‘reshaped and streamlined’. Among these, responsibility for adult education and vocational training will be transferred from education to employment, a decision that is almost certain to take effect from November.

This means that two important parts of the lifelong learning system will now sit within an expanded Directorate General for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility. As well as inheriting policy remits and staff who ran programmes such as GRUNTVIG and LEONARDO, the DG also acquires responsibility for three EU agencies: the European Centre for Development of Vocational Training (CEDEFOP), the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound), and the European Training Foundation (ETF).

The good news is that the Employment DG is considerably larger and more powerful than its Education counterpart. It has historically played a major role in promoting labour mobility across the EU, as well as in developing and administering some of the structural funds, both areas where there are synergies for adult learning. It is usually led by a political big-hitter, in this case Commissioner Mariane Thyssen, a former leader of the Flemish Christian Democrats (the same party as Herman van Rompuy, President of the European Council).

In addition, President Juncker has asked both the Commissioners for Education and for Employment to co-ordinate their activities, and to report through the same Vice-President. Previously largely an honorific role, Vice-Presidents in the new Commission will have a portfolio of activities that they are expected to ‘co-ordinate and steer’. In this case, both Commissioners will be steered by the VP for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness.

So to some extent, the EU is ‘vocationalising’ all of its policies for education, including higher education and schools. But if this is a wider trend, adult learning in particular is being pushed unambiguously into the field of employment and social affairs, and separated out from the rest of the lifelong learning system. It is also moving out of a DG that specialises in student mobility programmes, and into one much more concerned with sharp end policy. What this will mean in practice is, though, still to be seen.

One risk is that in a larger directorate with a strong focus on tackling the current crisis of employment, adult learning will simply get lost in the noise. This risk is higher for me because it comes at a time when the Commission has set targets for reducing its staff levels. So one simple message, then, is that those who are interested in adult learning need to lobby policy makers – including Members of the European Parliament – and ensure that adult learners’ needs and voices are heard.

There is also a danger that the Employment DG will adopt the narrowest, skills-based definition of adult learning. However, against this we can set the experience of many in the UK and elsewhere, who have found that adult learning can thrive when placed alongside strategies for employment and social inclusion.

And it is worth remembering that the Employment DG carries responsibility for social affairs, including the Social Fund; and that as well as ‘promoting vocational training and lifelong learning’, the President has asked Commissioner Thyssen to address a range of issues – including digital skills, population aging and welfare ‘modernisation’ – that also have an adult learning dimension. So how professionals and institutions position themselves in relation to this agenda will affect the outcome.

Overall, then, I see some grounds for concern in the transfer of responsibility to an expanded DG for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility. And of course, this is taking place at a time when the Commission as a whole is shifting firmly to the centre-right. But I also see some potential benefits and synergies, as well as opportunities to raise the profile of adult learning as a field. As ever, it will be partly up to us to shape the direction that events now take.

Why the Scottish Government is wrong about tuition fees and the EU

>If Scots vote to leave the UK in September, the Scottish Government plans to continue to charging tuition fees for students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but not for anyone else in the European Union. I’ve argued before that this is unlikely to happen, and today a former EU Commissioner for Education and Training is quoted as saying that all EU students would have to receive ‘the same treatment’.

Only in Scotland, and only this year, would anyone think this news. The legal position is quite clear. European legislation on free movement of labour – one of the central founding principles of the EU – covers higher education, which is treated legally as a form of vocational training. There have been challenges in the past to the definition of higher education as a form of vocational training, and the courts have always rejected them.

If you’re interested in reading about the origins and rationale of this rather quirky legal status, you can always get a library copy of my now rather dated book on European education policies. But the main consequence was that it allowed the EU to develop a series of mobility schemes and collaborative projects, and still underpins such programmes as Erasmus+.

So under current European law, the Scottish Government must treat all EU citizens equally in respect of access to higher education. Of course, the Government can try to get the law changed, and it might well wish to have higher education redefined as an area of national rather than European competence, but it has not said it will do so. And at present I can’t see how a small, new member state will be able to gather together enough support for the European Commission to change its current stance.

In its White Paper on independence, the Scottish Government effectively says that it will seek an opt-out. It doesn’t use that phrase, of course, which is popularly associated with the Coservative Party. Rather, it says that it will if necessary present an ‘objective justification’ for an exemption, based on the unique and exceptional position of Scotland in relation to other parts of the UK, on the relative size of the rest of the UK, on the fee differential, on our shared land border and common language, on the qualification structure, on the quality of our university sector, and on the high demand for places.

Michael Russell, Scotland's Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning

Michael Russell, Scotland’s Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning

Will this wash? Well, I think it just about possible, but highly unlikely. If accepted, it would open up a massive boîte de Pandore. And here are just a few of the most obvious reasons why.

At the most general level, it runs against current EU policies on higher education, which aim at improving professional mobility by increasing the numbers of students who attend a university in another European country than their own, and aligning the qualifications structures of universities in different European countries. More particularly, it would present a precedent for other countries in similar situations (eg. Denmark/Sweden, Wallonie/France, Netherlands/Flanders, Luxembourg and everyone). It would also annoy the socks off higher education ministers and rectors who have persuaded university staff to teach in English. The practical consequences elsewhere would also be significant, starting with the effects in our neighbouring island of Ireland.

So you can just imagine how other ministers of education will react when Mike Russell, Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, sets out his plans to the European Council on Education. I would like to be in that room.