Higher Education and Competitiveness

30 May 2005

The European Policy Centre hosted the European Commissioner for Education, Training, Culture and Multilingualism, Ján Figel, who spoke at a Breakfast Policy Briefing on the topic of “Higher Education and Competitiveness.” The meeting was chaired by EPC Chief Executive, Hans Martens. This is not an official record of proceedings and specific remarks are not necessarily attributable.


Speaking at an EPC Breakfast Policy Briefing, EU Commissioner for Education, Training, Culture and Multilingualism, Ján Figel, stressed the importance of greater long-term investment in education to achieve the Lisbon Agenda goals and enhance the attractiveness of EU universities for research and development. With respect to competitiveness, education was the “multidimensional answer to many questions.” Main challenges for the European sphere included increasing the rate of young people enrolled in higher education, boosting research and development and upping investments in tertiary education.

Event Report

Introducing the speaker, Chairman Hans Martens, referred to an international example to highlight the importance of education in ensuring Europe’s long-term competitiveness. Pointing to Taiwan he said that the secret of the country’s growth and development was in large part do to the high percentage of GDP investment in education and the societal regard for the importance of education. The knowledge-based society of the future needed applied education, with a focus on R&D and a close linkage to the needs and interests of the market.

Commissioner Figel agreed, underlining that education was more important in a global, more competitive market. Most of Europe’s problems could be linked to education in the widest sense: the lack of active life-long learning policies had an impact on demographics and pension systems, for example. Additionally, Europeans were traditionally sceptical with respect to globalisation and enlargement and did not sufficiently embrace these challenges as positive changes to enhance their understanding and opportunities on a personal level. “Education is the multidimensional answer to many questions,” the Commissioner said.  Educated people were often more capable to give socially and culturally well-reflected answers to crucial questions. Pointing to the success of Finland, which has consistently led benchmark measures, such as the PISA tests, he stressed the important correlation of a long-term investment in education and its impact on reducing unemployment: where Finland’s unemployment had once been 19% in had been reduced to 9% in recent years.

On the road to Bergen: landmarks of EU education policy

A number of landmark decisions had shaped European education policy; including the introduction of the Bologna Process toward constructing a European Area of Higher Education had expanded from 29 countries to 48 between 1999 and 2002. The Bologna Process had provoked changes elsewhere – particularly in neighbouring countries, including those in the Mediterranean region and Northern Africa. “When we are united, we have an impact here and in the wider world,” Commissioner Figel said. The drafting of the Lisbon Agenda in 2000 had emphasised the importance of creating a true knowledge-based economy. But knowledge needed investment, the Commissioner cautioned. The 2002 Barcelona agreement to become a world quality reference was a further step in enhancing the profile of European education. “We are not giving up and we are now moving issues like education into the heart of the competitiveness debate,” the Commissioner said.

Some Member States were more evolved in reaching the goals established on the European level. Overall, the more advanced an education system, the higher the employment and social inclusion figures he said. With the recent Bergen conference on the Barcelona Process, Europe was moving into influencing a much broader space.

Main challenges for Europe

Main challenges for the European sphere included increasing the rate of young people enrolled in higher education, boosting research and development and upping investments in tertiary education. In all of these points the EU was falling behind – sometimes far behind – the US, the “superstate in education.” While Europe only had 21% of its population working in tertiary education (R&D), Canada and the US had 43 and 38% respectively. With respect to the numbers of young people enrolled in higher education, the US outnumbered Europe almost two-to-one. Spending on research in higher education was more than double in the US compared to the EU. “We must spend more and we must spend better.” The Commission had proposed the highest ever increase in funding for education, research, transport and energy – all key factors to enhance European competitiveness. The question now was if Member States would accept this proposal.

Europe also had to become more open for foreign students, though figures were already improving and more OECD countries were sending their students to Europe. Unfortunately, many of the statistics on foreign students in European countries were slightly misleading, as students from EU Member States were still counted as ‘foreign’ for statistical purposes. Europe had to enhance its quality of education and its attractiveness as a place to study. The existing credit transfer mechanism had already improved matters, but things could go even further. “Internationalisation necessitates better quality,” he said. He hoped that the Erasmus Mundus Programme, initiated in 2004 would be such a success story, with its more than 100 universities participating. It was hoped that by 2006 this number would have increased to 800 and 4000 in a few years’ time. If a student’s results and the actual coursework could be more easily transferred from one country to the next, Europe would become more attractive for foreign students and researchers. The Commission had introduced a ‘diploma supplement’ as an additional document outlining the content of a qualification gained abroad. The next stage would include the consultation process on the European Qualifications Framework as the legal base for the mutual recognition of diplomas. He also hoped similar developments could be achieved for the vocational training sector.

On governance of European education policy, he said that partnerships with governments and regions were largely positive. “Autonomy is a good principle and should be combined with accountability,” he said. Universities should be responsible for tapping into the needs of the labour market and address new types of students and new types of learning. By 2006 all 25 Member States had to have life-long learning principles in place.

Increased public-private partnerships to enhance European competitiveness

Regarding funding, the Commissioner said that improvements were badly needed. More public-private partnerships could positively influence the education sector and ensure a better mix of resources available for learning. Governments and regions could think about offering fiscal incentives in return. In Scandinavian countries, undoubtedly the European leaders in education, 2% of GDP was spent from public resources. “The vitality of the entire education sector depends on these resources,” Commissioner Figel said. “If we are credible enough to not only complain but to take action, then we can be leaders in education. But we have to look at it in the long-term: the fruits of our efforts will come.” Enlargement of the Union should be complemented by greater investments in education and culture so that Europe could recognise and realise its full potential and play its external role adequately, he concluded.

Chairman Hans Martens thanked the Commissioner and agreed that with respect to the Lisbon Agenda priorities, which included life-long learning and education, “we must put action behind it.” Education, Mr. Martens said, was a necessity – not a luxury.