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European educ​ation

Histo​​rical ​​context

The immediate motivation for European cooperation in education after the Second World War was to guarantee Europe would never suffer again from hunger and war. The Council of Europe​ since 1949 thus addressed human rights, education, democratic citizenship, intercultural dialogue and multilingualism. But as education is an issue falling under the sovereignty of national member states, general education experienced littl​e attention and means at European level. Even today, article 165 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union​ (TFEU) only grants the European Union (EU) a complementary competence allowing the EU to gather and exchange information and share good policy practices in the framework of the so-called Open Method of Coordination (OMC).​


Developm​​e​​nts in school education

European facts and figures in education reveal dramatic problems in many member states ranging from an overall decrease of literacy and numeracy rates, high early school lea​​ving - particularly amongst immigrant minorities - to a return of nationalism and consequent drop of acceptance against any kind of minorities and social conflicts occurring in many European suburbs and along our continental borders. The original themes from after the war thus re-landed prominently on the top of the European agenda by the beginning of the 21st century. But it was only after the European Council met in Hampton Court and for the first time in history adopted conclusions on general education at a high level (2005) that the European Commission (EC) came forward with proposals for further cooperation in the fields of pre-school, primary and secondary education (2008). These include teacher training, school leadership, language education, science and technology education, active citizenship and social cohesion and pre-school education. Making sure that pupils are equipped with 21st century’s skills, among others digital skills, is today high on the European agenda. 


Developments in Vocational ​​Education and Training (VET)

It was actually Vocational Education and Training (VET) that had gained a prominent place already in the Treaty of Rome (1957) since it had to educate and train Europe’s qualified workforce to boost the economy. To put it even stronger, European cooperation in VET was not only always in the centre of active European employment and broader economic policies, but also much more backed in legislative and institutional terms with an Advisory Council for VET (ACVET) (1963), ten directives on the development of a common VET-policy (1963), the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (CEDEFOP) in Thessaloniki (1975), directives on professional qualifications​ (1988) and the European Training Foundation (ETF) in Torino (1990). Today, article 166 of the TFEU grants the EU an active VET-policy and it actively implements initiatives and instruments in European VET via the so-called Copenhagen Process (since 2003). These initiatives and instruments concern issues like quality assurance, recognition of qualifications and more mobility in VET. Since 2010, the benefits of dual VET systems in equipping students with relevant skills for the labour market has been widely recognised by the EC and in general throughout Europe, leading to a series of debates and European initiatives around apprenticeships. 


Developments in high​​er education and start of European programmes

The ruling of the European Court of Justice in the case Gravier (1985), the decreasing position of Europe as a consequence of the globalisation and the awakening desire for freedom and democracy in Eastern Europe started to dismantle the national reputational discourse also in European higher education during the 1980s. Transnational learning and teaching mobility was and is seen as the major means providing the competences for European workers needed on the international labour market. The EU launched the Erasmus Programme for Higher Education (1987), followed by the Leonardo da Vinci Programme for VET and the Comenius Programme for Primary and Secondary Education (1995) and Grundtvig for Adult Education (2000). General education for the first time entered the European treaties in the Treaty of Maastricht (1993) also leading towards the establishment of the Directorate-General for Education and Culture (EAC) within the EC in 1994. The panic concerning the position of European higher education in the world and the mistrust vis-à-vis the EC amongst national ministers of higher education led to the launch of the inter-ministerial Bologna-process (1999) directed towards realising a European Higher Education Area (EHEA) by 2010. By that year, 47 European countries from Russia to Iceland had signed up to this process reforming European higher education along e.g. a three-degree system (bachelor, master and PhD) or the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS). Despite the seeming success of inter-ministerial processes like Bologna, such grand European competitiveness policy designs are largely dependent on European programmes, i.e. funding instruments, like Erasmus, Leonardo da Vinci, Comenius and Grundtvig, which were all grouped under the Lifelong Learning Programme (LLP) from 2007 to 2013. As of 1 January 2014, the LLP was replaced by the European Programme for Education, Training, Youth and Sport (Erasmus+). The programme will last until 2020 and also focuses on extra-European cooperation in higher education, which has been put forward by the EC as a priority to make Europe an attractive place for students and researchers.  


Education at heart ​​​of European policy 

The biggest impact on European cooperation in education happened in 2000: first, the EU launched the Lisbon strategy for growth and jobs, making education an important piece of competitiveness policies. The overall policy goal were lifelong learning, including adult education and non-formal and informal learning, increased transparency, as well as upgrading the qualification level of the sitting European workforce in order to cope both with the technological revolution and with the democratic changes. Second, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) published the first results of the Programme for the International Student Assessment (PISA) on the qualifications of 15-year old pupils. PISA not only dismantled seemingly good reputations of national education systems, but initiated a storm of indicator alignment, data collection, monitoring of progress and setting benchmarks e.g. through the Education and Training 2020 (ET 2020) cooperation framework. Making lifelong learning and mobility a reality; improving the quality and efficiency of education and training; promoting equity, social cohesion and active citizenship; enhancing creativity and innovation, including entrepreneurship, at all levels of education and training: those are the overall objectives of ET 2020, towards which all member states comitted to work until 2020. 


The Lisbon strategy was in 2010 replaced by the Europe 2020 strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth, this time even more placing education at the heart of the EU’s competitiveness agenda. Two of the five headline targets of Europe 2020 are directly linked to education: by 2020, the school drop-out rate should fall below 10% and at least 40% of 30-34 year-olds should be completing higher education. Though not directly linked to education, the target of reaching an employment rate of 75% for the 20-64 year-olds of course also touches upon education. Europe’s 2020 education objectives are detailed in two of the seven flagship initiatives that support the realisation of the strategy: Youth on the Move and An Agenda for new skills and jobs. Youth on the Move is all about improving young people’s education, mobility and employability. An Agenda for new skills and jobs focuses, as the name indicates, on skills development, i.e. equipping people with the right skills for tomorrow’s labour market. 


Realising policy​ objective through Erasmus+

The main funding instrument for realising the education objectives of Europe 2020 is the European Programme for Education, Training, Youth and Sport (Erasmus+). It covers the period from January 2014 to December 2020 and its overall budget reaches €14.7 billion, i.e. an increase of more than 40% compared to the LLP from 2007 to 2013. Erasmus+ is divided into several sectors: higher education (Erasmus); extra-European higher education (Erasmus Mundus); Vocational Education and Training (Leonardo da Vinci); school education (Comenius); adult education (Grundtvig); youth (Youth in Action). Each of the sector contains a number of activities that are to be found within the programme’s three Key Actions: 

  1. learning mobility of individuals; 
  2. cooperation for innovation and the exchange of good practices;
  3. support for policy reform. 


Besides the sectors, Erasmus+ also contains two separated programmes: Jean Monnet, which aims at stimulating teaching, research and reflection in the field of European integration, as well as a Sport programme with activities related to transnational threats to sport, good governance, dual careers of athletes and social inclusion.  


Erasmus+ large-scale cooperation projects are managed directly in Brussels by the Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA). Smaller-scale cooperation projects and mobility projects are managed at national level by National Agencies (NA) in all countries participating in the programme. In Switzerland, the ch Foundation for federal cooperation acts as the NA.​ Switzerland has expressed its will to get associated to Erasmus+ but, following the adoption of the initiative against mass immigration on 9 February 2014, the negotiations towards an association have been suspended. Pending an association, Switzerland will have the status of third country. Up-to-date and detailed information on that matter can be found on th​e website of the Swiss State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI). SERI has confirmed that it will draw up an interim solution along the lines of Switzerland's earlier indirect participation so that Swiss people will still be able to take part indirectly in Erasmus+. ​