Europe’s Educational Evolution

Read Time:3 Minute, 48 Second – Europe is grappling with great challenges – too great for any one country
to address. Facing economic crisis, widespread unemployment, and rising competition
from developing economies, Europe must adjust to technological advances and new
modes of working – all while an aging population puts increasing strain on exhausted
public budgets. In this fragile context, the European Union must focus on education
in order to nurture people’s talents and potential, and thus to spur economic and
social recovery.

Education holds the key not only to better jobs and stronger GDP growth, but also to
the cultural, political, and social development that is needed to ensure that
citizens are well-rounded and grounded enough to lead at the local, national, and
international levels. By focusing on the right policies, EU leaders can ensure that
Europeans’ education enables them to be articulate global citizens and potent
economic actors.

The good news is that European leaders seem to recognize the value of the pursuit of
knowledge. When allocating funds in the 2014-2020 European budget, EU governments
wisely decided to increase funding for education and research – the only areas in
which they did so. This commitment to safeguarding education and research funding
should be reflected at all levels of policymaking.

Moreover, in order to drive Europe’s transformation into a hub of responsible
innovation and ethically sound production, policymakers must ensure that
higher-education institutions equip students with cutting-edge knowledge and
high-level flexible skills grounded in shared values. This means developing
differentiated education systems, ranging from vocational schools to doctoral
programs, and giving students access to international experience, which can expose
them to opportunities beyond national frontiers.

For example, the Erasmus program, which enables university students to study or work
abroad as part of their degree, broadens participants’ outlook while enhancing their
willingness and ability to go where the jobs are. Such programs also enrich local
students and offer valuable insights to professors about other traditions of higher

Furthermore, EU leaders must recognize that high-quality instruction is as central
to universities as, say, pioneering research. As it stands, while everyone agrees
that researchers need extensive training, the prevailing assumption is that great
teachers are born and great teaching just happens – a view that is hampering
education at all levels.

Improving the quality of instruction in higher education is at the focus of the
first report to the European Commission by the High-Level Group on the Modernization
of Higher Education (of which I am President). Among the report’s 16 recommendations
is to develop quality teaching through compulsory continuous professional training,
and to recognize and reward achievement. This approach would give educators the
skills and motivation that they require to provide the kind of education that Europe

Another crucial issue – and the topic of the group’s next report – concerns new
modes of delivering education, such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). In fact,
some claim that a revolution in the way knowledge and information is created and
transmitted is imminent.

While these new modes of delivery are undoubtedly transforming education, especially
higher education, what is happening may be more evolution than revolution. In other
words, rather than bringing about the end of brick-and-mortar education, MOOCs and
other innovations will spur the progression to so-called “click-and-mortar”
education. This suggests that the group’s recommendations in this area will include
complementary improvements to existing formal and non-formal systems, as well as
mechanisms for reviving lifelong learning in higher education.

For students, the foundations for success must be laid early, beginning with
pre-primary and primary education. And policymakers must recognize the risk of
perpetuating a digital divide that favors those who are already advantaged. Studies
show, for example, that the vast majority of participants in MOOCs – which have been
praised for their supposed accessibility – already have higher-education
qualifications. Europe’s leaders must work to ensure that new modes of delivering
education translate into better opportunities for a broader range of people.

The pace and scope of technological progress makes predicting impending
developments, and how they will affect education, virtually impossible. Regardless
of which new technologies arise, however, education will boil down to teachers and
students. Providing tools and opportunities that support the evolution of their
respective roles is essential to creating a labor force capable of adapting to
changing circumstances. That is the real challenge facing Europe.

Mary McAleese, a former president of Ireland, is President of the EU High-Level
Group on Modernization of Higher Education.

Project Syndicate/Europe’s World

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