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Speech - Europe must act urgently to address skills deficit

European Commission - SPEECH/13/790   08/10/2013

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European Commission

Androulla VASSILIOU

Member of the European Commission responsible for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth

Europe must act urgently to address skills deficit

Launch of Survey of Adults Skills (PIAAC)/Brussels – Press conference

8 October 2013

I'm delighted to be here with OECD Secretary General Angel Gurría to present the first-ever international Survey of Adult Skills, which compares literacy and numeracy levels, as well as use of ICT, among 16-65 year olds.

The Survey could not be more timely. It should act as an incentive for policy-makers, teachers, universities, training institutions, companies and others who share the same aim of promoting high-level competences and skills.

We face a dramatic situation: a shrinking workforce due to demographic changes and a shortage of skilled labour in crucial sectors like IT and healthcare. As my colleague Lazlo Andor rightly points out, Europe must act urgently to address these problems if we are to achieve the levels of employment, productivity, innovation, competitiveness and social inclusion that we all want to see.

A high level of literacy, numeracy and ICT skills are the backbone of the European knowledge economy. We need to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to acquire and develop them, in school and throughout their careers. This is one of the main objectives of the 'Opening up Education' initiative, which I launched a fortnight ago with Commissioner Kroes, as well as the Commission's broader Europe 2020 strategy for jobs and growth.

There are no short-cuts. We have to invest more efficiently in better education and better training to deliver a better blend of skills. We also need to cooperate better, at EU, national and regional level, between public and private sectors, with business, academia, NGOs. We're all in this together.

And the Commission practises what it preaches: the Survey we are presenting today is the result of excellent cooperation between the European Commission and the OECD.

So what does the Survey tell us? I am sure Angel will go into more detail, but, in short, it demonstrates how critical high-level skills are in a knowledge-driven society - and the role that education and training plays in improving learning outcomes. It also underlines the need for immediate action at national and EU level to bring our skills-set up to scratch.

The Survey highlights causes for concern, but let me start with the positives:

For instance, it shows that Finland, Sweden and The Netherlands are among the world's best performing countries when it comes to adult skills. Another big plus is that, in almost all countries, the youngest age group has considerably higher skills than the overall population, which bodes well for the future.

The Survey confirms that one in five European citizens of working age have only low reading skills and almost one in four have low numeracy skills; in Spain and Italy this is the case for almost 30% of the population.

It shows that in too many European countries, a child's future is still pre-determined by their parents' situation. If the parents have a low level of education, their children are also likely to have low skills; and immigrants generally perform considerably worse than native-born citizens.

The Survey reveals a high variation in skills proficiency between and within countries.

It shows, for example, that young adults with an upper secondary school qualification in Finland or The Netherlands have higher skills, in general, than those with a higher education degree in England, Spain, Italy, Ireland and Cyprus.

And while we see a significant progress in skills among students with a bachelor's degree in Sweden, Italy, Austria and Poland, compared with school leavers with an upper secondary level qualification, this is not the case in all countries.

There is no simple explanation for the Survey's results, and we should not leap to simplistic conclusions. However, these findings may well give rise to questions about the comparability, quality and efficiency of formal education.

The Commission will discuss the findings with Member States to better understand the underlying reasons for variations in skills proficiency and what action is needed at both national and European level.

At EU level, the new Erasmus+ programme will support actions to develop and upgrade basic skills and encourage improvements in the quality of education and training systems.

The European Social Fund will continue to invest in skills and training and to focus on vulnerable groups.

A key priority will be funding for the Youth Guarantee, including through the Youth Employment Initiative in the most vulnerable regions.

If we want a well skilled workforce, it's obvious that we need to invest in skills, in improved education systems, better access to training, in particular for the low skilled and older workers, as well as lifelong learning. This is why it is essential to ensure a robust ESF allocation as part of the cohesion policy envelope of each Member State.

I am sure that the Survey findings will also be reflected in the Commission's Annual Growth Survey and in next year's Country Specific Recommendations.

Together with the OECD, we will carry out further analysis of the data in the Survey in order to help Member States better understand how to develop the skills of their citizens. We need to ensure that future editions of the Survey provide us with an opportunity to monitor progress.

In a similar vein, the Commission and OECD will jointly launch a new Education and Skills Online Assessment tool later this autumn. This will allow people to test their skills and benchmark their own abilities in an international context.

And, finally, I would like to come back to the need for greater cooperation.

This survey is an example of the kind of partnership we need if we want to combine expertise, knowledge and resources for the benefit of all Member States and to improve the contribution of education to bringing our societies back to a path of growth and jobs.

Therefore, I am pleased to announce that my services in the Commission have now signed a Cooperation Agreement with the OECD which will allow us to work even more closely together on strategies for developing skills and for collecting solid data to support policy reform in education.

I am now very pleased to hand over to the Secretary General of the OECD, Mr Angel Gurría, to present the Survey of Adult Skills.


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