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Brussels, 11 November 2003

Education and training: the success of the Lisbon strategy hinges on urgent reforms

When it adopted the Lisbon strategy in March 2000, the European Union set itself the objective of making its education and training systems “a world reference for quality by 2010” and of making Europe “the first choice of students and researchers from the rest of the world”. With this in mind, in 2001 the European Council adopted three strategic targets to be attained by 2010: education and training systems should be organised around quality, access and openness to the world. In 2002, the Ministers for Education and the European Commission also adopted a work programme containing European criteria and benchmarks (cf. IP/02/1710) for the attainment of these ambitious but nonetheless realistic targets, in full compliance with the principle of subsidiarity which applies to Community action in the areas in question. Thus, this is essentially a political process which far from seeking to harmonise aims to harness national education and training systems to the pursuit of jointly agreed modernising objectives. So how much progress has been made? Is the Union in a position to attain the set targets by 2010 and to catch up with its main competitors? Today, the Commission has adopted a Communication in which it highlights persistent shortcomings and proposes urgent and now indispensable steps. This Communication will form the basis for the joint report on the implementation of the “Education and Training 2010” programme to be drawn up by the (Education) Council and the Commission for the March 2004 Spring European Council.

“So far, the reforms of education and training systems in the Member States are still falling short and are being implemented too slowly to enable the Union to attain the objectives which it has set itself”. This is the assessment made by Viviane Reding, European Commissioner for Education and Culture, who added that “the Communication adopted today enables us to establish what remains to be done, in full compliance with the principle of subsidiarity, if the objectives jointly agreed by the Member States are to be attained. It is time to move up a gear and translate political commitments into concrete action, for without education, Lisbon will fail”.

The Commission's assessment is based on the reports of the various working parties set up within the framework of the “Education and Training 2010” work programme, the national reports on the development of lifelong education and training and on mobility, and on analyses of recent figures.

All of this reveals that too little progress has been made with respect to the agreed objectives and that the Union as a whole remains well behind its main competitors:

  • Despite the objectives agreed by the Member States at Lisbon, there is inadequate investment in human resources. During the 1995-2000 period, public investment fell in most countries and now accounts for 4.9% of the Union's GDP. Moreover, private sector investment in education and training remains inadequate: it is five times higher in the United States (2.2% of GDP compared with 0.4% in the EU-15) and three times higher in Japan (1.2%).

  • The level of education among Europeans remains inadequate in terms of the needs of the knowledge-based society. Only 75% of young people aged 22 have completed some form of upper secondary education, the objective being 85% by 2010. The Union is also short of higher education graduates: only 23% of men and 20% of women aged 25 to 64, on average. This is a worrying situation, given that 80% of all new jobs created between now and 2010 are expected to require higher education qualifications. Finally, too many pupils (one in five) are still leaving the school system early and without qualifications, thus facing the risk of marginalisation in the knowledge-based society. Considerable efforts will be required to meet the target of halving this rate by 2010.

  • In terms of the needs of the knowledge-based society, too few adults are engaged in lifelong education and training. In view of the expected extension of working life and the ever growing pace of economic and social change, citizens will have to update their skills more often. Yet less than 10% of adults are engaged in lifelong learning, some way short of the 12.5% target for 2010.

  • A teacher shortage threatens. Over one million teachers will have to be recruited between now and 2015, partly as a consequence of retirement. Yet the Union is faced with a real shortage of candidates, which raises the crucial question of the profession's capacity to attract and retain outstanding talent.

The persistence of these weaknesses is all the more worrying given that the impact of investment and reform on the systems is likely to be felt only in the medium to long term. A qualitative leap is required at all levels if the Union is still to make a success of the Lisbon strategy. To achieve this, the Commission considers it central to take immediate and simultaneous action in four priority areas:

  • Focus reforms and investment on key points in each country, taking into account individual situations and common objectives. At the Community level, this requires structured and continuous cooperation to develop human resources and to achieve maximum investment efficiency.

  • Define truly coherent and global lifelong education and training strategies, taking into account all the links of the learning chain, involving all the relevant actors (social partners and civil society) at all levels and setting national reforms within the European context.

  • At last create a Europe of education and training, in particular by quickly putting in place a European reference framework for higher education and vocational training qualifications, this being an essential step towards creating a genuine European labour market, facilitating mobility and raising Europe's profile in the world.

  • Give the “Education and Training 2010” work programme its rightful place. This programme must become a more effective tool for formulating and following up national and Community policies. The urgent nature of the challenges ahead necessitates full use of the open method of coordination. In particular, the Commission considers it necessary to put in place a mechanism for regular progress reporting by 2004.

Provided all these measures are taken quickly, the objectives set by the Member States can still be attained. Otherwise, the gap between the Union and its main competitors is likely to widen still further. Worse still, given the central importance of education and training to employment, social cohesion and growth, the success of the Lisbon strategy as a whole would be seriously jeopardised.

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