Where is education in the next Commission’s priorities?

What happened yesterday?

Yesterday, president-elect Ursula von der Leyen announced the composition of the next European Commission, as well as the title of the portfolios, and, implicitly, the priorities of this Commission. The previous Commissioner position for Education, Culture, Youth, and Sport has completely vanished, as the tasks of this portfolio have been scattered among the other Commission portfolios. Why is education no longer a priority? What does this actually entail for education across Europe?

More information on the composition and priorities of the new Commission can be found here while you can also follow SOLIDAR Secretary General Conny Reuter’s reaction to the European Commission developments.

 

What does it mean?

The newly created portfolios of ‘Protecting our European Way of Life’ and of ‘Innovation and Youth’ will carry most of the responsibilities associated with education.

The responsibilities of Margaritis Schinas (EL), Commissioner for Protecting our European Way of Life, are as follows:

  • Coordinating the establishment of the European Education Area
  • Making education more accessible and inclusive
  • Lifelong learning and cross-border learning
  • Coordinating the work on improving the integration of migrants and refugees into society through education
  • Migration and Security of the EU

The responsibilities of Mariya Gabriel (BG), Commissioner for Innovation and Youth, are as follows:

  • Higher education as well as research and innovation, including the Horizon Europe programme, the implementation of the European Universities initiative, the development of a European Research Area
  • The Erasmus+ programme, together with the priority of tripling its budget
  • The establishment of the European Education Area 2025
  • Digital literacy and education, including the Digital Education Action Plan

The previously titled Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility portfolio, now rebranded as the Jobs portfolio, continues to be responsible for updating the skills agenda, identifying skills shortages and ensuring reskilling, maintaining the division among skills and competences in the education field, which is replicated in the division of responsibilities among Directorate-General Education and Culture (DG EAC) and Directorate-General Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion (DG EMPL).

This will require a lot of coordination between three different levels, as, now, two different Commissioners must coordinate with DG EAC. The previous coordination between DG EAC and DG EMPL was already strained, but now with two different Commissioners proposing the direction, strategies, policies and budget for education the risk is that many aspects will be diluted or neglected, while action will be taken at a more sluggish pace.

 

Why should we care?

This also reveals how many education priorities from the previous Commission have disappeared. Adult education and lifelong learning do not feature as responsibilities of these new Commissioners, setting a dangerous precedent of neglecting a large section of what education means, and fostering an exclusionary view of education, not fit for the requirements of successful social inclusion and participation. With vocational education and training (VET) nowhere to be seen, the new Commission reinforces the view that it somehow represents an inferior education pathway – relegating it from a priority within the field of education to a tool for the industries and businesses to exploit in creating more workers. The drive to fulfil the demands of the labour market is, therefore, allowed to increase at the expense of any social standards guiding VET.

The framing of the new portfolios is alarming as well, given the rather combative language used, with the word ‘protection’ coupled with the possessive pronoun ‘our’, creating an unacceptable dichotomy in the field of education. A domain which should be inclusive is reduced to an ‘us-and-them’ dynamic which unfortunately is further linked to migration and refugees, given that, in addition to education responsibilities, this new portfolio includes the priorities of migration and border security. This will embolden nationalism, populism and xenophobia in Europe, actually threatening European democracy and values. Furthermore, the Innovation and Youth portfolio is designed to prioritise only young people within education while using education only for labour market purposes instead of personal development and the empowerment of European citizens to participate fully in society by being aware of their rights and responsibilities, and by having the skills to be active citizens maintaining European democracy. This has been further exacerbated by the decision to allocate the responsibilities related to active citizenship to yet another, different Commissioner, Vera Jourova (CZ) and her Values and Transparency portfolio.

The disproportionate focus on skills development for jobs and labour market needs runs the risk of influencing the future programming period by creating a bias in the allocation of funding for education based on meeting labour market demands. This will make it more difficult for civil society organisations to pursue funding for inclusion, quality education for all and learning mobility, as they may no longer be priorities for the next European Commission. While the shift in priorities affects civil society organisations, more striking is the fact that civil society organisations and civil dialogue have been neglected as priorities in the future portfolios, with very little to no mention of them, creating an alarming situation of limited resources and support at a time when civic space is shrinking.

 

What are the next steps?

SOLIDAR Foundation decries the organisational structure of the education priorities within the new Commission, the woeful neglect of education and specifically of adult education, VET and lifelong learning, as well as the dangerous exclusionary messages associated with the current portfolios which will lead to more people unable to access their rights and achieve their full potential.  We call on adequate financial resources and a sustainable structure for Europe-wide cooperation for the education sector, given its essential nature for strengthening people’s skills and capacities which is a prerequisite to participate fully in social life and employment. Social investment is seriously endangered by the worrisome developments concerning the future European Commission which are hampering further European integration and a smooth transition from education to employment in an ever-changing world of work.

SOLIDAR Foundation will take an active part in the European Parliament public hearings on the proposed Commissioners (by cooperating with the MEPs) with a clear goal to demand that the Parliament review the policy areas and responsibilities covered by this new structure and take action on the administrative hurdles that the education domain will experience at Commission level and on the way education has fallen between the cracks.

Education and lifelong learning must be a priority and deserves a Commissioner who fully understands its importance as well as the potential to prepare citizens for the quickly changing and diverse societies and environments.

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