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Straight bananas: the role of the EU in L&D? In an introduction to a new series of articles taking a regular look at how the EU influences learning and development here in the UK, Andrew McCoshan imoutlines the portant policies that are in place and how member states aim to achieve them.

To start with, a question: what is the Copenhagen Process? Is it:

(a) A book by Frederick Forsyth? (b) A Danish building technique? (c) A key policy process in the field of vocational education and training?

The answer is (c) and congratulations to all those who chose it, though I'm probably on safe ground in assuming that many of you would have worked out that I wasn't about to start a book review or wax lyrical about mortice and tenon joints. Not only is the Copenhagen Process central to how the European Union takes forward its vocational education and training (VET) policies, but it is also something to which the UK government has committed us for the last six years. So what does it all mean?

Straight bananas

To begin with, it's worth pointing out the obvious: the EU doesn't get a good press in the UK. Normally, EU policy is apparently something that's imposed on us by Brussels, or worse, Brussels bureaucrats--when it's covered at all, that is: the Economist recently noted that there has been a scaling-back of British reporters in Brussels to the point where not even all the broadsheets maintain a permanent presence.

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When 'Europe' is covered, there tends to be the negative feeling of--if not outrage at--imposition, that those Europeans would be daft enough to try to straighten our bananas, rather than an assumption that banana straightening was agreed by Tony Blair or Gordon Brown as good for Britain (actually, the Directive for Straight Bananas was never ratified).

Outside the headlines, how would a more balanced assessment read in education and training? In the space provided to me, I hope I can try to fill this gap. We need to look at two main things: (i) what EU policies are, and (ii) where and how it spends its money to try to achieve them.

EU policy

Since 2000, the key driver of almost all EU policy has been what is known as the 'Lisbon Agenda'. This set Europe the goal of becoming the world's most dynamic and competitive knowledge-based economy by 2010--a wholly necessary goal in the context of globalisation and the growth of the major new economic powers of India and China but, all the same, a frighteningly ambitious one.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the mid-term review of progress found Europe to be lagging behind its targets and called for a renewing and re-focusing of efforts by the countries of the EU. But the central thrust remains the same: the creation of jobs and growth and, at the same time, the achievement of the social welfare goals embedded in what's known as the European social model.

Lisbon underpins every policy area of the EU and every arm of its structure, known as Directorates-General or DGs. The one of most interest to us here being DG Education and Culture or DGEAC.

Each of these DGs has had to identify how existing policies and programmes might be adjusted to contribute most effectively to Lisbon, and where new interventions might be required. An overall steer to education and training policy has been provided by the 'integrated guidelines for jobs and growth', which calls upon member states to:

(a) expand and improve investment in human capital through inclusive education and training policies, reducing the number of early school-leavers, and efficient lifelong learning strategies; and

(b) adapt education and training systems to new competence requirements through raising and ensuring the attractiveness, openness and quality standards of education and training, easing and diversifying access for all, and responding to new occupational needs, key competences and future skill requirements.

More particularly, in 2001 DGEAC published Making a European Area of Lifelong Learning a Reality, which made lifelong learning the central concept within education and training's response to Lisbon.

The year 2001 also saw the adoption of three strategic objectives:

* increasing the quality and effectiveness of education and training systems;

* facilitating access for all; and

* opening up systems to the wider world.

These objectives provided the umbrella for 13 more specific objectives for member states (shown in Table 1 left) that were made operational in the Education and Training 2010 work programme, which has provided the broad framework for policy ever since. It also set some benchmark indicators against which progress could be measured, including the reduction of early school leaving, and an increase in completions of upper secondary education (post-16 in the UK).

What has been the progress? By all accounts, not enough and not sufficiently quick enough: on both occasions when a review has taken place, there has been a call for more action.

But this poses an important question: how do the member states that make up the EU seek to achieve these objectives? Broadly, they do it through two routes. The first route involves spending money through a set of programmes, of which more in a moment. The second route involves what is opaquely known as the 'Open Method of Co-ordination'.

An 'open method of co-ordination'

In the education and training fields, the EU has had very limited powers conferred on it by member states. While in some fields measures such as the issuing of directives are possible, such as with the Working Time Directive, in education and training it is only by consensus that policy proceeds.

Only in vocational training has the EU been granted the ability to implement policy (through Article 127 of the Treaty of Rome) but even then, it is supportive, not directive, respecting the responsibility of member states for content and organisation.

In this context, the principal method through which member states agree and execute policy is through consensus, by agreeing to co-ordinate national policies in line with sets of supra-objectives agreed in the meeting rooms of Brussels--or, to return to the question I set at the start, Copenhagen.

This is logical. The 27 EU member states vary hugely, not just in their socio-economic structures, but also in their education and training infrastructures.

Indeed, we can get some idea of this from key statistics such as the percentage of students enrolled in upper secondary education who are on VET courses (see Figure 1 above). As can be seen, the range of experience is huge.

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But one of the consequences of this consensual approach is that the objectives that are agreed upon are extremely broad--which, depending on your point of view, either allows for great flexibility or makes for lack of focus and unclear priorities.

Of all the different fields of education and training, the Commission has most scope for action in VET and higher education (HE), and 'processes' have been agreed in both of these: member states agree common objectives and then seek to move towards their achievement through national reforms, with progress being monitored through periodic get-togethers.

These sectors have also received the lion's share of resources in recent programmes. In contrast, policy in the school and adult education fields is less well developed.

Returning to our 'processes', the Bologna Process covers HE and is the oldest, dating from 1999, when 29 countries (both within and without the EU) committed themselves to reforming their HE systems in order to adopt:

* a common framework of comparable degrees, a system based essentially on two main cycles: undergraduate--lasting at least three years and relevant to the labour market--and graduate;

* a system of credits;

* common quality assurance criteria and methods; and

* a plan to eliminate the remaining obstacles to mobility for students and teachers.

There are now 45 countries in the process, including those from Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, and Bologna has become a key process in HE. In VET the Copenhagen Process began in 2002 and commits member states to pursuing four priorities:

* strengthening what's called the 'European dimension' of VET through such things as exchanges of practitioners, sharing of good practice and the operation of mobility schemes for students;

* transparency, information and guidance;

* recognition of competences and qualifications across national boundaries; and

* quality assurance.

Subsequent reviews identified the need for modification of VET systems to support the Lisbon Agenda, in particular by: improving the 'image' and 'attractiveness' of VET; achieving high levels of quality and innovation in VET systems; linking VET with the labour market requirements of the knowledge economy and the needs of low-skilled and disadvantaged groups, and the development of common European tools.

Money and programmes

What of the second way in which the EU has influence--by spending money? Over the last 20 years, the EU has developed a portfolio of programmes in education and training and has now brought the different strands into a single package called the Lifelong Learning Programme (LLP), which will spend 6,970m [euro] across Europe from 2007 to 2013.

Most of the LLP's spending will be through the four sectoral programmes shown in Table 2, one for each of the main sectors of education and training. The programmes covering HE and VET will consume the bulk of the budget.

The main ways in which the LLP will deliver its objectives will be through:

* the mobility (both physical and virtual) of students, teachers and trainers across Europe;

* networks, partnerships and platforms of professionals to exchange practice and experience; and

* methods, courses, programmes, tools and frameworks--the more tangible outputs from the programme.

One of the main functions of the LLP is to develop professional social capital within education and training and, as such, there are many opportunities for individual training practitioners to benefit, for example, by taking part in co-operation projects with counterparts in other countries (interested readers should consult, as a first step, http://ec.europa.eu/education/programmes/newprog/index_en.html).

Effects

What has been the result of all these efforts? Since 2000, EU education and training policy has undoubtedly become much more coherent, with a realisation of the need for the development of flexible education and training systems of the type needed to support the Lisbon goals.

But implementation still faces obstacles, not least that the required changes will be difficult with the current investment. Progress on most of the benchmarks that have been set lags behind the required rate.

Perhaps the most significant individual developments to flow from policy have been the adoption of the common two-cycle degree structure by universities--the European Qualifications Framework--and Europass.

As far as the Lifelong Learning Programme is concerned, it is, of course, too early to know what its impact will be. But arguably, the most important thing will be to ensure that while delivering the benefits to practitioners and students that have been an important achievement of previous programmes, it also makes an impact at a strategic level--where it may help individual countries realise the goals they have rightly signed up to at Lisbon and Copenhagen. This dimension was seriously lacking in previous programmes.

How can this be achieved? Lessons from previous programmes suggest that the important factors will involve:

* taking a coherent and holistic approach that ties the programme closely into national policy;

* achieving synergies between the different parts of the programme to make a reality of 'lifelong learning';

* ensuring funds are strategically deployed on developing new approaches in key areas that have the potential for widespread impact on policy and practice; and

* having strong and effective dissemination of the outputs.

Of course, all this isn't likely to be easy. The LLP budget, while sounding impressive, amounts to just 36m [euro] per year, per member state--a drop in the ocean compared to the amounts which the public and private sectors spend.

But this is all the more reason to spend the money strategically and use it to help lever change. Doing so may just help realise the important shifts needed in European education and training systems.

Two key EU measures

The European Qualifications Framework (EQF) was adopted by the European Parliament and Council in late 2007/early 2008 and establishes a common framework onto which every member state has undertaken to map its qualifications by 2012. The eight-level structure will make it possible for qualifications to be compared across Europe, increasing the transportability of qualifications and hence, people's mobility. It is also stimulating the development of national qualifications frameworks. The EQF is based on learning outcomes and shifts the emphasis away from learning inputs.

Europass also helps to make the skills and competences that people possess more transparent by providing a set of documents which they can use to record their learning experiences and the certificates they've obtained, namely: the European CV that provides a standard CV format; a 'language passport' that allows people to record their language skills; a European mobility document onto which people can record periods spent abroad for work or learning, and various 'supplements' that enable people to record information not on their certificates. It was established in 2004.

Andrew McCoshan PhD is a director of ECOTEC Research and Consulting Ltd. He can be contacted at admccoshan@btinternet.com
Table 1 European objectives for education and training

Increasing the quality and effectiveness of education and training
systems

* Improving education and training for teachers and trainers

* Developing skills for the knowledge society (increasing literacy and
numeracy, updating the definition of basic skills, maintaining the
ability to learn)

* Ensuring access to ICTs for everyone

* Increasing the recruitment to scientific and technical studies

* Making the best use of resources (including quality assurance)
Facilitating the access of all to education and training systems

* Open learning environments

* Making learning more attractive

* Supporting active citizenship, equal opportunities and social
cohesion

Opening up education and training systems to the wider world

* Strengthening the links with working life and research, and society
at large

* Developing the spirit of enterprise

* Improving foreign language learning

* Increasing mobility and exchanges

* Strengthening European co-operation.

Table 2 The main sectoral components of the EU's Lifelong Learning
Programme

Overall aim of the programme: to contribute through lifelong learning
to the development of Europe as an advanced knowledge society via
interaction, co-operation and mobility between education and training
systems within the European Community.

Name of sectoral Sector covered Minimum share
programme of budget (%)

Comenius Pre-school and school 13
 education

Erasmus Higher education 40

Grundtvig Adult education 4

Leonardo da Vinci VET 25
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Title Annotation:European Union
Author:McCoshan, Andrew
Publication:Training Journal
Geographic Code:4E
Date:Jun 1, 2008
Words:2350
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