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.

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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“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?

The European crisis and the intellectuals: Habermas and Vargas Llosa

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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 education and the referendum

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As with the Scottish referendum in 2014, the UK’s European Referendum provided a fantastic opportunity to engage adult learners in civic debate. Living in Germany, I’ve had to watch the campaign from a distance (the media here only started covering the issue in depth when it became clear that Leave was gathering support in the polls). But I tried to look out for any examples of adult education providing a space for open and reasoned debate.

And there were plenty of examples of adult educators promoting active citizenship in just this way. Branches of the Workers Educational Association held a number of open discussions, often working with the active citizenship consultancy Talk Shop. In Leicester, for instance, the WEA teamed up with Talk Shop to run a fun, open and balanced discussion ‘in a thoughtful and friendly atmosphere’.

Some local trade union organisations held similar open discussions, as in Haringey. And a number of colleges, libraries and community centres hosted one-off meetings or mock debates around the issues.

Universities didn’t have their finest hour. Some individual academics contributed their expertise to public events organised by others. MOOCs came into their own, with FutureLearn commissioning a small set of courses, such as the terrific Towards Brexit course from Edinburgh.

Otherwise, universities have promoted events for their students but seem to have done little or nothing for the public. That hasn’t stopped them from sitting on their hands and complaining that voters don’t really know enough to make a decision.

Even in its much depleted state, then, the adult education system responded. The WEA and other providers have helped show what was possible. We can imagine how much better-informed the debate might have been if adult education providers had been in a position to support a much earlier and systematic campaign of public information and discussion.

My favourite event was undoubtedly this one, held in a pub/microbrewery that describes itself as ‘more folk than punk’ (a sly dig at the BrewDog brand, as my fellow ale-lovers will realise). The Twisted Barrel in Coventry regularly hosts debates under the name of Skeptics in a Pub.

New Picture (1)It really sounds my kind of place. But that is the core of the problem. While people like me will feel at home in a bar where we can drink craft beer and discuss politics with like-minded people, quite a lot of people would feel deeply uncomfortable in that environment. I sense that we have a declining number of spaces for face-to-face dialogue, particularly with those who do not share our views and values. Adult education used to be one of those places, and we kill it at our peril.

Ignorant citizens and the European referendum

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If my Twitter feed is anything to go by, quite a few people seemed appalled to discover from a survey for the Independent that most British adults are remarkably ill-informed about the European Union. Personally, I wouldn’t be too critical of the 95% who couldn’t name their local Member of the European Parliament. That’s mainly because I am among them (one name springs to mind, David Coburn, who is an oaf), and anyway the elected Parliament has hardly any powers, and the constituencies are huge.

Some of the other misconceptions were rather more significant, though most were rather less dramatic than the Independent‘s headline suggested. Shortly afterwards Michael Gove, a leading figure in the Leave campaign, triggered another Twitter storm by telling an interviewer that ‘I think the people of this country have had enough of experts’. Or did he?

Certainly that is how he was quoted by many commentators, including the academic and university leader Ferdinand von Prondzynski (you can read his blog here). I’ve read the interview transcript, though, so here is a longer quotation. You decide whether the quotation is so selective that it was misleading:

GOVE: The people who are arguing that we should get out are concerned to ensure that the working people of this country at last get a fair deal.  I think the people of this country have had enough of experts with organisations from acronyms saying that …

Faisal Islam: The people of this country have had enough of experts, what do you mean by that?

GOVE:  … from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong because these people …

FI: The people of this country have had enough of experts?

My own judgement is that a lot of people think it is fair to twist and invent stuff in referendums, and that the selective quotation was produced in order to discredit Gove (something he usually seems perfectly capable of doing for himself). It’s not something I expect to see academics doing, but I don’t want to make a meal of it. And anyway quite a few people mistrust at least some experts for some of the time.

More interesting by far is the narrative that this “quote” helped to create. Like the widespread misinformation uncovered by the Independent, it feeds a story of the Leave voter as not only ignorant, but as wilfully ignorant. Usually, this ignorance is blamed on a biassed media, whose blatant mistruths are swallowed wholesale by those too stupid to ask questions.

This narrative is based on pretty naked class contempt, of course, as well as the sense of superiority felt by the well-educated over the less-educated. I also think it reeks of rank hypocrisy. Universities across Britain have set about demolishing their contribution to an educated citizenry, closing adult education departments and rushing to recruit ‘world class researchers’. The University of Leicester recently told its local newspaper that it was shutting its adult education programme because it was “committed to focusing on its world-class strengths”, which sounds laughable in terms of logic, and short-sighted in the extreme.

If we want to know why we have ignorant citizens, Rupert Murdoch is the least of our problems. We should start by looking at the failure of nerve that led our universities to walk away from the role of educating local citizens. If some of those citizens now reject the academy, then I can’t resist the temptation to say: Schadenfreude. We are reaping what we have sown.