The last quarter of 2020 saw the issuing of many new policies by the European Commission, among which  is also the Communication on achieving the new European Education Area (EEA) by 2025. The initiative complements with the Next Generation EU and the long-term budget of the European Union for 2021-2027. The new policy will be part of the European Pillar of Social Rights, being the right to quality and inclusive education, training and lifelong learning its first principle.

According to the Communication, 100 million Europeans had to face during 2020 completely new modalities for teaching and learning. The Covid-19 pandemic had a strong impact on education in all European countries, with children, teenagers and students that in many instances had to remain home and follow online courses provided by schools and universities. Workers were also impacted, as professional training had to be postponed, run online or even cancelled. A challenge that might turn into a structural barrier making more difficult to access employment opportunities, both for young and experienced people, if not properly addressed and supported by the European legislator.

The creation of the EEA is in line with contents of the New Strategic Agenda for the EU 2019 – 2024 adopted by the European Council on 20 June 2019, and it will be coordinated with the European Skills Agenda, the renewed vocational education and training (VET) policy and the European Research Area.

The EEA will be built upon the results of the Education Training 2020, a first step initiative aimed to set common EU targets and provide a broad range of mutual learning and policy support tools.

Education is essential to the vitality of European society and economy. The European Education Area aims to bring to the education and training communities the support they need to fulfil their fundamental mission, in challenging and exciting times”, wrote President Ursula von der Leyen in the preamble of the communication.

Six directions to redesign education and training

Quality, equality in terms of inclusion and gender, green and digital transitions, attention to teachers and trainers, higher education and the geopolitical dimension are the six domains around which the new European Education Area will be built. All of them are analysed in the Communication, starting from the need of proficiency in basic skills, including the digital ones. The importance to achieve this quality target is easily understandable if considering that in 2018 the proportion of European pupils who fail to complete basic competencies stood at 22.5% in reading, 22.9% in mathematics and 22.3% in science (data OECD-PISA). Basic skills should be also complemented with transversal skills such as critical thinking, entrepreneurship, creativity and civic engagement, a target that according to the Commission may be pursued through trans-disciplinary, learner-centred and challenge-based approaches. 

In the digital era, even education will be increasingly delocalised and shared; from this point of view, the EEA shall promote the freedom for learners and teachers to be mobile and for institutions to freely associate with one another. Difficulties with transnational mobility are still experienced in many cases, as well as lack of full recognition of learning outcomes and qualifications. And no matter to say, from the language learning perspective a multilateral Europe is envisaged as a condition to improve mobility and discover cultural diversity. 

National structural reforms of education systems will be supported by the EU Commission, especially in the field of curriculum and assessment; this action will also include the cooperation between stakeholders to develop policy recommendations on innovative and multi-disciplinary teaching and learning approaches for basic skills. An update of the learning mobility framework both for students and teachers and a wider implementation of the 2019 Council Recommendation on a comprehensive approach to the teaching and learning of languages are also planned, as well as the development of a European perspective in education.

The critical role of a better inclusion

A better inclusion, independent from the social, economic and cultural status, should represent be the key  factor to improve educational success. From this point of view, education systems should comply with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; vocational education and training (in line with the Commission proposal for a Council Recommendation on VET) should be used to facilitate continuous education. 

An improved gender sensitivity is also envisaged to support better opportunities for women, which according to the Communication are still under-represented as students in the technical fields (26% in engineering, manufacturing and construction, 18% in ICT).

Dedicated platforms for mutual learning and cooperation are the chosen tools to support sex disaggregated data collection and innovation for inclusive and gender equal education. Inclusion, equality and diversity should also play a major role within the Erasmus and European Solidarity Corps Programmes. Several actions are planned to support these goals, e.g. the Pathway to School Success to support proficiency in basic skills, and a policy guidance on reducing low-achievement and increasing secondary education attainment. An expert group will work on new strategies to develop supportive learning environments for groups at risk of underachievement and for supporting well-being at school. The fifty newly created Centres of Vocational Excellence will act as reference points for both initial training of young people and continuing up- and reskilling of adults.

The green and digital European agendas

The green and digital transitions are two main pillars of the von der Leyen Commission, also playing a social impact on how the post-Covid recovery shall be developed and implemented. It may turn very difficult in future to find a new job without at least some basic digital skills, warns the Commission: “Practically all further learning and jobs in all sectors will require some form of digital skills, yet on average two in five Europeans aged 16-74 are lacking these skills”. Furthermore, a deep change in behaviours is only possible starting from education, and it should proceed in the direction of the skills needed for the green economy. Entrepreneurship and learning to learn competences may also prove important to successfully navigate the completely new labour market.

The end of 2020 should see the launch of the Education for Climate Coalition, that will act in synergy with the European Climate Pact to provide networking opportunities and resources for teachers and students. Next year shall see the issuing of a Council Recommendation on education for environmental sustainability and the proposal of a European Competence Framework to support new skills and attitudes on climate change and sustainable development. The education infrastructures need a profound restructuring to be able to accommodate the new competencies and pedagogies, a target that may be pursued in collaboration with the European Investment Bank. The new Digital Education Action Plan shall support the expansion of lifelong learning in the field of digital technologies, while the Digital Europe Programme shall provide funding to developed advanced digital skills in key areas. 

The evolution of teaching

Online teaching technologies will also acquire increasing importance, as acknowledged during the closure of schools and universities. This shift toward digital modalities to provide education should correspond to  the renewal of competencies for professionals working in education. Shortages of teachers characterise many European countries, one of the main challenges to be overcome in order to achieve the EEA. A better social and financial recognition would also be needed to ameliorate the value of teachers perceived by the society, together with more opportunities of training on new skills.

Actions to support competence development and career paths shall include the launch of the Erasmus Teacher Academies in 2021 and a European guidance for the development of national career frameworks in 2021-2022. The establishment of a European Innovative Teaching Award will also help to recognise highly valuable teachers.

Mobility is an added value for higher education

Study-abroad experiences, such as the Erasmus+ programme, have proven fundamental to improve the chances to rapidly find employment opportunity just few months after graduation. The number of students that can access this kind of international mobility offer is still very low (< 5%) and new models of cooperation between institutions across the EU are under experimentation (with involvement of 41 universities pilots and 280 institutions).

Joint curriculum development and common courses are among the targets of the EEA in this area, together with the development of a pan-European talent pool. A dedicate policy framework should facilitate transnational cooperation between universities, which are also expected to evolve to become “knowledge squares” and key actors in the educational play field. With this respect, an automatic recognition of qualifications and study periods abroad should also be pursued, as well as the recognition and portability of short courses leading to micro-credentials. Advanced courses in the key area of artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and high-performance computing are also needed to make available highly skilled experts for the digital transition. 

An online public consultation is planned to start the process that should lead to a transformation agenda for higher education by the end of 2021. New higher education curricula for engineering and ICT based on the STEAM49 approach shall also be developed, as well as a European Degree that could support the improved implementation of educational services provided by transnational Universities alliances. The Commission will explore the necessity and feasibility of a legal statute for such alliances, e.g the European Universities. 

Mobility of students shall be supported by the availability of the Erasmus+ Mobile App, a digital tool that is expected to represent a one-stop-shop for students and a great form of simplification for universities, to be implemented within the European Student Card initiative. The automatic recognition of a qualification awarded in one-member state in any other member state for the purpose of accessing further learning activities should become possible by 2025. The European graduate tracking initiative is expected to record the employment history evolution of 80% of graduates by 2024.

Soft power to implement the geopolitical agenda

Educating young people on the key principles of the new vision of the European Union and cooperation in education among member states are key tools to smoothly implement the new EU external policies. Improved connectivity among people shall inspire the spreading of the European fundamental values world-wide, thus contributing to shape the relationships with extra-EU countries. “In the international dimension of the European Education Area, reciprocity, level playing field, as well as ethical and integrity standards will be a central part of the roll-out of ambitious partnerships with partner countries across the globe”, writes the Commission.

VET, the sector of youth and tertiary education of people from third countries coming to the EU to complete their studies are identified among the first priorities. The ability to attract the best international talents and to promote peer learning and joint international research and innovation projects are also foreseen. The availability of a new Team Europe approach should support greater cooperation with member states on EU’s external activities of education and training institutions, strengthening its positioning as a partner at global level. An Erasmus Mundus Joint Master’s Degrees is expected to boost EU’s attractiveness and international partnerships.

Comments from the stakeholders 

Positive remarks on the Commission’s EEA vision have been published by Cesaer, the association representative of European universities. The document also suggests three other lines of intervention in order to further deploy the full potential of the EEA initiative.

Advance research-based education and training and scientific and technological excellence should inspire the selection and funding of projects under the Erasmus programme and the funding of European University alliances. Universities should also play a stronger role in lifelong learning, for example in the form of validation of non-formal and informal learning, flexible learning pathways and micro-credentials, and support the reinforcement of Mathematics, Informatics, Natural Science and Technology (MINT), and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) skills of students and teachers of the secondary education level.

The knowledge society may benefit of an improved leadership for universities, which may also turn useful in supporting the transition towards the digital and green agendas. On a broader perspective, the international potential of the EEA should include all the signatory countries of the European Cultural Convention and allow for partnerships with neighbouring countries, is the suggestion of Cesaer. Universities alliances should not represent the only possible form of collaboration, and networking should include also extra-EU counties such as Israel, Norway, Serbia, Switzerland, Turkey, Russia and the United Kingdom. Funding availability, particularly for the Erasmus programme, remains a critical factor to ensure the proper implementation of the EEA, both at the central, national and regional levels, together with a simple and clear governance structure for the Area.