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European Commission


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

Young people and education – a priority for Europe

Microsoft Conference on 'Fuelling the economy through youth' /Brussels

22 January 2013

It is a great pleasure to be here with you this morning for today's event on Fuelling the economy through Youth.

I would like to thank our host, Microsoft, for organising this meeting and for inviting me to speak on such an important topic: the vital role of young people in driving economic growth.

The title of today's event is "Fuelling the economy through Youth". The link between youth and economic growth should be a straightforward one: young people get on in life, and the economy grows with every step they take. Instead, in many countries in the European Union, one out of five under the age of 25 is unemployed; in some countries over half cannot find work.

Today's young people are the most educated in the whole of European history and yet they find it hard to get steady work after graduation in spite of the two million unfilled vacancies across Europe.

Education can provide some answers. The crisis has revealed serious weaknesses in Europe’s educational systems. Indeed, it has sharpened what we expect from our education systems.

Our citizens need an upgrade in their skills to be able to meet the demands of the labour market and European enterprises need more highly skilled people in order to compete globally.

The crisis has also highlighted the value of higher education, as high-skilled individuals have been better able to cope and adapt in a changing employment environment.

That is why the EU wants to reach a target of at least 40% of young people in Europe with a higher education degree by the end of the decade.

And since, still today, one in seven students leaves before the end of secondary school, we have set the target of lowering the drop-out rate to less than 10% by 2020.

But quantity is not enough. Europe's future economic success must be based on ground-breaking Research & Development, innovative products, cutting-edge technology and a well-trained and highly-productive workforce. And that will only be possible if we invest in educating people - which is what President Barroso clearly said in his State of the Union address last September: "We have to be much more ambitious about education, research, innovation and science".

We must fully understand the role of education in the knowledge economy.

By the end of this decade, we will need 16 million more workers in Europe with higher skills compared to 2000. It is paramount that we bring the worlds of education and of work closer together if we want to close the skills gap.

I have recently presented a major initiative to support Member States in reforming their education systems. Our Communication on Re-thinking Education takes a system-wide perspective on education and aims at unlocking the potential of education and training systems to support growth and jobs. It argues that learning should be more flexible and relevant and stresses the vital role of teachers and the impact of new technologies.

Tapping into the potential of ICT for the modernisation of education and training has become a key priority for the Commission. Companies like Microsoft are the first to know that information and communication technologies have changed our way of working, communicating and living.

It is high time that they had such an impact also on the world of education.

In the coming months, in collaboration with my colleague Neelie Kroes, I will work on a new EU initiative on Opening up Education by embedding ICT and Open Educational Resources into the learning and teaching in schools and universities.

Education and business also need to engage more decisively in structured forms of co-operation which can enrich the innovation potential of the organizations involved and substantially improve the learning and teaching environments.

This is what we want to encourage with our future education programme Erasmus for All, which will include a new scheme, the Knowledge Alliances.

These partnerships bring together partners from business and academia committed to delivering new and innovative teaching methods and approaches, and to promoting more entrepreneurial mind-sets.

We are planning to bring the same approach to the world of vocational education, through Sector Skills Alliances where VET systems will deliver graduates with the skills that enterprises need to stay competitive.

We will also continue, of course, to support learning mobility – a trademark action of the EU in the field of education. The ability to understand other cultures and to speak foreign languages has never been so important. To study, volunteer or work in another country is an ideal way to develop them, as proven by the two million Europeans that have taken part in European mobility schemes over the years.

Mobile students are future mobile workers. They benefit from more rewarding careers and ensure the more flexible labour market that the European economy still largely lacks.

Our ambition is therefore to offer mobility opportunities to about 5 million people by 2020.

When it comes to innovation, Europe has all it takes to be among the world’s leaders.

We can count on the foundations of excellent research and academia as well as dynamic companies, large and small, yet still we are falling behind our competitors in terms of innovation capacity.

This is why I call for a real change of mind-set in Europe towards a more entrepreneurial culture, where creativity, self-confidence and the ability to take calculated risk are promoted and rewarded.

Until now, the education dimension was often the missing ingredient in the partnerships between businesses and research. Instead, universities and higher education institutes must be placed at the centre of our innovation policies.

This is what we are doing with the European Institute for Innovation and Technology – the EIT.

The EIT brings together, within structured and governed partnerships – called Knowledge and Innovative Communities or KICs – all the actors of the innovation cycle: businesses, research centres and for the first time, universities and engineering schools.

Our aim is to build on Europe’s existing centres of excellence, to connect them and to bridge the gap between ideas and business creation. The experiment has proven more than worthwhile.

We have set up the first three KICs, working on climate change, ICT and sustainable energy, in around 17 European excellence centres.

In just two years, 27 start-up companies have been created, and more than 50 are in the pipeline as well as 35 patents. And more importantly 20 educational programmes have been set up allowing by the end of this year more than 1000 students to graduate with a technical degree with a strong emphasis put on entrepreneurship and business creation. For the future, the Commission has proposed to scale up significantly the activities of the EIT, and increase its budget from €300m to more than €3bn.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Our goal is to make graduates more employable, foster entrepreneurship and stimulate innovation. By combining entrepreneurship education and interaction with business, students can develop the practical skills, knowledge and attitudes that allow them to innovate.

Initiatives like Microsoft's new Youth Spark programme, focusing on empowering youth to pursue a better future are good examples of such partnerships. It is this transition from school to work that needs to be bridged, and I think that Microsoft's new programme is a decisive step in the right direction.

There is a lot at stake. Today, more than ever, it is education that can deliver social progress. When we invest in education, we commit ourselves to the development of our citizens and the future welfare of our society.

The health of a society depends on the quality of the education it imparts to its citizens.

The topic chosen for today's discussion is indeed of fundamental importance.

Thank you.

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