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.

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.

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

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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?

Comparative and international research in adult and lifelong learning

I’m currently working with some German colleagues on a paper about comparative adult education research. Our starting point is our impression that this area of study is not in great shape. And this is in spite of the funding available through European Commission sources to support international and comparative activities.

As a quick way into this area, I carried out a simple search of article titles in three journals. First, I looked for the word “comparative” in titles in the International Journal of Lifelong Education and Adult Education Quarterly; then I searched for “lifelong learning” and “adult education” in titles in Comparative Education and Compare. I confined the search to articles published between 1999 and 2015, and excluded book reviews and short notes.

The first thing to say is that this is a very rough and ready measure. Even though I think these are decent journals, there are many others that I could have chosen. And my search terms meant that I missed some important contributions, including an analysis of the OECD’s PIAAC survey of adult skill, while the dates excluded a European comparative study using fresh survey data. But this was only ever meant to provide a starting point, as well as a simple test of whether our hunch about the poor health of the area is accurate.

Second, there are many more papers on adult learning in the two comparative education journals (42) than papers on comparative studies in the adult education journals (9). Compare came out top with 27 papers, thanks partly to special issues on lifelong learning in 2006 and 2009; Comparative Education also had a special issue on lifelong learning, in 1999. AEQ came bottom, with 2, and neither of the adult education journals published a special comparative issue. I’m not sure what to make of that, other than to find it an interesting pattern.

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Annual totals of relevant titles in all four journals

Third, if the trend data don’t show a decline, neither do they suggest an area in rude health.  What they do show is the importance of special issues devoted to research on adult learning; and it is worth bearing in mind that as well as the direct boost of a special issue, the articles that feature in it will then generate furthe debate and in turn stimulate more papers. Given this, it is a bit worrying that the last special issue in  these four journals appeared in 2009.

It’s wise not to over-generalise on the basis of limited data and a simplistic analysis, but let me hazard some informed suppositions. I think the special issues were probably largely a response to the rise of policy interest in lifelong learning. It strikes me that the adult education journals aren’t as open to comparative research as the comparative education journals are to studies of adult learning. There is little evidence here of a European effect, though some of the papers may well have drawn on evidence that was provided through EC funding.

All in all, people who care about comparative adult education research have a bit of a challenge on their hands. Or perhaps this is something that we are happy to leave to the OECD and European Commission, who will then undertake surveys that we can contentedly critique, without actually doing much comparative research ourselves?

 

A new skills agenda for Europe – or a drearily familiar shopping list?

The European Commission prearing to publish a position paper entitled A New Skills Agenda for Europe. Due to appear in late May, the paper is concerned with ‘promoting skills’, including the mutual recognition of qualifications, supporting vocational training and higher education, and ‘reaping the full potential of digital jobs’.

Will the content live up to its title – that is, will it really be ‘new’? Judging by the minutes of the Education Council, much of it will be familiar stuff. It will focus entirely on skills supply, with little or no discussion of how to raise the demand for and utilisation of those skills. Employability will be everything; don’t expect any creative thinking about skills for other areas of life. There could be a brief nod in the direction of equity and inclusion, and there will certainly be much rhetorical excitement about the growth potential of the digital economy.

Finally, because responsibility for skills lies largely with member states, several of whom are worried about ‘competency creep’ in the field of education policy, the Commission will largely confine itself to urging other people to do things, few of which will be innovative. So far, then, so familiar.

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Minutes of the European Council, 24 February 2016

Possibly there will be one new feature, compared with past policy papers on skills. The New Skills Agenda is highly likely to refer to the skills and the integration of refugees. Germany’s experience in the last year suggests that refugee integration into the labour market is proving slower than anticipated, partly because of language difficulties, but also because fewer refugees than anticipated hold recognised qualifications.

If my analysis is right, the energy has drained out of the ‘social Europe’project that was embodied during the 1980s by Jacques Delors. But neither are the largely Right or Centre-Right figures who dominate today’s Commission capable of producing creative and imaginative approaches to the skills and knowledge of Europe’s population, whether established or new. I find it hard to see the new paper making much of a splash, but I’d be delighted to be proved wrong when it is published in May.

 

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.

 

Shaping European policies for adult learning

In 2009, the European Union set itself a series of objectives for education and training by 2020. This agenda, known in summary as ET2020, set four common goals, including that of ‘making lifelong learning and mobility a reality’. It also identified a number of benchmarks, one of which is that at least 15% of adults should participate in some form of lifelong learning.

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Since 2009, a number of working groups have been helping to shape European policies in these different areas. The first stage of this process is now over, and the existing working groups – one of them focusing on adult learning – are due to be replaced. The new working groups will function between 2016 and 2018, by which time presumably all will be in place (or not) for the 2020 finishing line.

So who will sit on these working groups? I don’t know the names of the individuals, but the European Commission has published a list of the organisations who will nominate them. In the case of the Working Group on Adult Learning (WGAL) they are:

  • BusinessEurope, an umbrella group of business organisations (including the CBI)
  • The European Association of Craft, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises
  • The European Association for the Education of Adults
  • European Association of Vocational Education and Training Institutions
  • The European Federation of Education Employers
  • The European Trade Union Committee for Education
  • The EuropeanTrade Union Confederation

I notice that the European Universities Continuing Education Network, which previously was represented, is not among the 2016-18 members.

The Commission has also published the ‘mandate‘ for the working groups. WGAL is asked to address the ‘concrete issues’ of  promoting and widening the availability of workplace learning and responding to demands for workforce up- and re-skilling, especially for the low and mid-skilled.

There is no scope, then, for learning as personal development or active citizenship. However, the two vocational goals are understood in comparatively broad terms, so that WGAL will also be asked to consider such matters as migrant integration and intergenerational solidarity, albeit within the context of workforce skills. And there is a separate working group on promoting citizenship, whose remit is currently limited to children and young people; if we wish to expand their remit, then that means a bit of work.