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Speech - 50 million children still waiting for a basic education

European Commission - SPEECH/14/95   05/02/2014

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European Commission

[Check Against Delivery]

Androulla VASSILIOU

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

50 million children still waiting for a basic education

'Education in the Post-2015 Development Agenda', Norwegian Mission to the EU and UNESCO event

Brussels, 5 February 2014

It is an honour for me to be here with you for this high-level discussion on education in the Post-2015 Development Agenda.

I would like to thank the Norwegian Mission to the EU and UNESCO for organising this event.

Today, as we reflect on the state of education around the world, we see that the number of children with no schooling has been reduced by almost a half in the past decade.

This is news that we greet with enthusiasm, but also with caution, because we know that more needs to be done – over 50 million children around the world still do not have access to primary education, leaving us many millions away from our goal of universal primary education.

Yet, at the same time we know that reducing the number of children who are out of school is only the first step. The quality of education is equally important, and we are still facing challenges on this front.

For girls, unequal access to primary, secondary and tertiary education continues to prevail in many developing countries, especially in some Arab States, South and West Asia and Africa.

For boys, there is a greater risk in many European countries that they will under-perform and drop out of school early, thus making it necessary to design policies that address this dimension.

In addition to gender differences, other factors such as ethnicity, language, health, sex, disability, wealth, or place of residence continue to prevent children from accessing and completing basic education.

The European Commission has addressed these challenges in a number of policy papers; and we are working with EU Member States and the international community to raise awareness, share best practices and provide support to developing countries through education programmes.

Education can have a positive, sustainable impact on social and economic development and be an important catalyst for achieving all development goals and progress in other social sectors.

In the Commission's policy paper last year on "A Decent Life for All: Ending poverty and giving the world a sustainable future", we stressed the need to deliver on the unfinished business of the current Millennium Development Goal agenda. And we emphasised that we must move beyond the present framework of quantitative goals to address quality and inequalities as well.

Further to this, we organised a "High-level Conference on Education and Development" for partner countries and development partners to identify ways to better support the provision of equitable, quality education for all young people.

Commissioner Piebalgs used this occasion to reiterate the EU’s strong support for education, and the need to focus our efforts on improving equity and quality. He stressed in particular that the EU will seek to ensure that by 2030 every child completes at least basic education and has basic literacy and numeracy skills.

This is a crucial point, because without these basic skills, it is very difficult to function in today's world. Opportunities are denied to those with only limited basic skills. They are excluded from further education or training. They find themselves increasingly locked out of the labour market and society.

Literacy skills in particular are fundamental; the foundation of all other learning. They are the key to keeping up with what’s going on in the world, and to being a full member of one's community.

It is estimated that if all children in poor countries could read, global poverty would drop by 12%. Each extra year of education has the potential to raise lifetime earnings by about 10%. But teaching children to read is not the only challenge.

More than 775 million adults worldwide are illiterate, a reflection of decades of poor learning opportunities. And it is not just a problem in the developing world; in high income countries too, around 160 million adults have very poor literacy skills. We therefore need to tackle this as a universal and societal challenge.

The EU High Level Group of Experts on Literacy that I set up some three years ago has identified ways to improve literacy across all age groups in Europe. And further to the Group's work, a European network of literacy organisations is being established to facilitate the sharing of good practice and policy initiatives across Member States. This spring, the Commission will also be reporting on the most effective policies to tackle low achievement in basic skills.

Among its recommendations, the High Level group calls for better cooperation between and within Member States, with the European Commission and with other international organisations like UNESCO. I am confident that the lessons we have drawn and the good practices we have identified could prove useful for developing countries that are also trying to raise literacy levels.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Already some four years ago the Commission mapped out the challenges of providing more and better education in developing countries. And we stressed in particular the challenge of moving beyond primary education and promoting a balanced development of the whole education sector - including early childhood, primary, comprehensive and vocational secondary, higher education, as well as on-the-job and informal education.

The post-2015 framework must take this holistic approach and focus on learning opportunities across the whole life cycle. We need to put greater emphasis on equitable and quality learning for all in the broad post-2015 development agenda in order to deliver sustainable results in education and beyond.

I am pleased that the current 2014-2020 programming exercise with our partner countries around the world is taking this approach. Education is being chosen as an area of concentration by a number of partner countries. The focus is changing towards a more holistic and comprehensive support to the whole education sector. And more importance is being given to innovation, knowledge, quality and skills development in a lifelong perspective.

Of course, all of this must go hand in hand with a focus on teachers and the quality of teaching. Teachers play a crucial role in helping young people acquire the competences they need.

Therefore, those who help teachers learn - teacher educators - are crucial for the quality of the teaching workforce and must not be neglected in policy-making. They require specific competences – being a good teacher is not enough, all teacher educators should undertake career-long learning; that includes initial training, induction, and continuous professional development.

We need to reinforce collaboration between all the key actors in all phases of teacher education and ensure that the teacher educators are fully represented in social and professional dialogues.

Insofar as we are supporting our Member States to learn from each other, we will also make the results of our work available to the UNESCO International Task Force on Teachers for Education for All.

The challenge of providing more and better education in developing countries, taking a holistic approach, includes the need to strengthen higher education systems.

Higher education has a key role to play in delivering the knowledge requirements for economic development: through job creation, better governance, increased entrepreneurship and intergenerational mobility, and a stronger civil society.

With the progress made in expanding access to basic education, higher education participation and enrolment has expanded considerably. The number of students enrolled in higher education globally by 2030 is forecast to rise from almost 100 million in 2000 to over 400 million in 2030.

The nature and intensity of regional shifts in enrolments and higher education participation levels will have profound implications for the way higher education is planned, delivered, funded and quality assured across the globe.

Due to the extensive expansion of higher education participation and enrolment, tertiary education systems in many developing countries face pressures of massification and enormous challenges in infrastructure. This places developing countries at a significant disadvantage, and puts strains on academic systems facing the dilemma of expanded enrolment and the need to support top-quality universities.

In a context of globalization in the university world, countries that are only weakly connected to the global knowledge economy find themselves increasingly at a disadvantage; they are excluded from those international academic networks that produce knowledge, innovation and research.

Therefore, crucial issues that need to be addressed to strengthen higher education systems include: financing, the training and retraining of teachers, harmonisation of educational structures, quality assurance, recognition of qualifications and research capacity.

Last year I presented a strategy on EU Higher Education in the World and stressed the importance of strategic partnerships and cooperation in higher education with partner countries. Cooperation with developing countries and their higher education institutions (HEIs) should be an element of internationalisation strategies.

Innovative partnership models can be a means to strengthen both North-South and South-South collaboration such as joint programmes and learning and staff mobility. And they can support the modernisation efforts of emerging and developing parts of the world.

Through national and EU programmes promoting cooperation between universities and student and staff mobility, Europe supports the strengthening of higher education systems in developing countries.

Mobility in particular has a strong potential to improve the quality of systems: by accelerating the design of internationalisation strategies and the use of transparency and recognition tools; and by helping institutions develop better services to send and receive foreign students or researchers, and promote the recognition of foreign diplomas.

I also presented an initiative last year on Opening Up education in today's digital era. How education is delivered is changing across the globe, and at all levels. Digital education can offer new opportunities, and in a number of countries it can be an answer to wider access. This is especially relevant in rural areas and for disadvantaged groups and potential students who may not be able to travel or take a break from employment.

The digital era is putting new pressures on higher education institutions in Europe in particular to rethink their societal responsibilities in their local, national and regional context. And these responsibilities include the responsibility to build capacity in both emerging economies and developing countries and engage in worldwide partnerships.

One of the key messages of my strategy on EU higher education in the world is that we need to ensure coherence between internationalisation strategies and EU development cooperation policies.

This means we must consider the principles of equity and partner country ownership; and make better use of students, researchers and staff from non-EU countries as vectors of cooperation with higher education institutions in these countries.

Dear Friends,

The new Erasmus+ programme, for which I am responsible, will address many of these challenges. With an increased budget by 40% I am confident that we will provide new opportunities to 4 million people. In particular, in higher education in developing countries Erasmus+ is offering a balanced mix of actions addressing individuals, institutions and higher education systems.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I think my message has been clear.

Education is of utmost importance for the new global development agenda, and I am confident that this will be recognised during the intergovernmental consultations and at the United Nations high-level Summit in 2015.

I welcome the work that UNESCO has been undertaking and have read with interest the concept note which was submitted to the 37th Session of the General Conference. The EU is happy to contribute with its experience to the new framework which will be underpinned by a 'Universality Principle'. This means that the goals will apply to both developing and industrialised countries alike, showing that we are facing the same challenges.

In the post-2015 development agenda, Europe, together with our partners, has an important role to play; not only in supporting basic education for all, but also in improving the equity and quality of education, with a holistic, balanced approach from early childhood development to higher education.

And this education must promote understanding and respect for human rights; inclusion; cultural diversity; lifelong learning and learning to live together, all of which are essential to the realization of peace, responsible citizenship, and sustainable development.

Thank you.


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