“Everyone has the right to education and to have access to vocational and continuing education”, according to Article 14 of the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights. A “right” is all very well, but not much good until accompanied by a genuine capacity to fulfil it; and “everyone” means men and women of all ages, nationalities and social backgrounds. The only way to achieve this is through lifelong learning.
The Lisbon Strategy of March 2000 aims to make Europe the global star pupil in terms of offering “more and better jobs”, being the leading “dynamic knowledge-based economy” and exhibiting “greater social cohesion”. In order to achieve these goals, the EU looked to the competitive strength of its workforce – but was not particularly enamoured with what it saw. In the millennium year, “fewer than 10% of Europeans of working age undertook any training”, highlighted outgoing European Commissioner for Education and Culture Viviane Reding. “This is manifestly not enough”, she went on, “and if we do nothing about it, then Europeans will find it difficult to be part of an international economy”. For it is clear in today’s hi-tech, fast-paced, globalised world, that constantly updated knowledge and skills are essential for the worker to survive – especially if he or she desires professional or geographical mobility – and also for the EU economy to be a serious competitor to the US.
So what does the European lifelong learning policy actually aim to achieve? In the words of Anna Diamantopoulou, previously the Commissioner responsible for Employment and Social Affairs, “the policy emphasis is shifted towards increasing investment in human capital and in raising participation in education and training throughout working life”. Public and private partners and stakeholders involved throughout Europe’s regions and nation states in the field of education are being brought together, in order to pool resources and share expertise. This approach is being coupled with a rigorous assessment of the learning requirements for a knowledge-based society. One key outcome of this stocktaking is an acknowledgement of the central role of information and communication technologies as well as linguistic competence, especially for those who have not benefited from training for some time.
Accessibility for all
Lifelong learning covers education for social, personal and civic purposes, as well as for employment-related ends, starting with the most basic skills such as computer literacy. Various specific policies and action programmes exist at an EU level to encourage lifelong learning as a means of achieving the Lisbon Strategy targets. Grundtvig, for example, is a programme that has been created to finance language learning and mobility for adults across Europe. In order to encourage greater participation in lifelong learning opportunities, provision of training should be made more accessible, in particular to marginalised groups like those living in rural areas, people with disabilities, and ethnic minorities. Implicit in the Lisbon Agenda is the wish for a lasting legacy, not just a fleeting goal to be achieved in 2010.
One new tool which should facilitate this is the ‘Europass’ which is due to be launched in Luxembourg in January 2005. Acting as a kind of universally recognised pan-European skills passport, it will facilitate training across Europe by cataloguing a person’s language abilities, professional and academic competence, and vocational skills. The Europass will be available to everyone regardless of age, thereby encouraging people to nurture a lifelong interest in their skills and training. But while Lisbon advocates Europe-wide cohesion, such initiatives can still only realistically be implemented at national level for reasons of linguistic and cultural specificity. The practicalities of doing this will be discussed in Maastricht in December at a top-level European conference where education ministers from all 25 member states will discuss strengthening cooperation in vocational education and training. Present at the conference will be Ján Figel’, Barroso’s proposed new Commissioner for Education, Youth, Training and Multilingualism. With his professional background in research and foreign affairs, he would seem ideally positioned to promote the need to boost Europe’s competitiveness through its workforce. During his recent hearing at the European Parliament, Figel’ claimed “the most important potential is a human one. (…) Unless the EU accelerates its reform efforts in education and training, the Lisbon objectives will not be met”. His resolve sounds promising.
An Agora for the EU
Yet these noble intentions will be futile if the man on the street – arguably the person most in need of lifelong training – is simply unaware of the opportunities open to him. Urgent efforts must therefore be made to create a truly European ‘public space’ in the form of a growing 'Europeanisation' of the media, where citizens can express and learn about issues of collective concern, as well as debate the future of Europe. The ancient Athenians met daily in the Agora to discuss high democratic ideals as well as to share news with the public. If in today’s ‘connected’ world we fail in this fundamental obligation to communicate, it would be deeply disappointing. With a concerted effort, however, we can use the momentum of the current EU debate around the Constitution and the looming Lisbon goals, to make more citizens aware of lifelong learning as an example of how Europe really can make a positive difference to the lives of ordinary Europeans – of whatever age or background.