Regrettably, politicians prefer to adopt the policies that will show results immediately.
Androulla Vassiliou was European commissioner for education, culture, multilingualism and youth from 2010 to 2014. Here, the Atlantis Group member talks about keeping the EU focused on education in the midst of the global financial crisis – and why governments should be prepared to pay the price for long-term reform.
What was your biggest success in office?
My biggest success was to convince my fellow commissioners, as well as the EU’s Parliament and Council, to invest in education, skills, research and innovation at the height of the financial crisis. In the end they approved a €14.7 billion budget for Erasmus+, the new EU umbrella programme for education, skills and youth. That represented a 47% increase when compared to the previous seven-year period and was considered to be a great achievement.
I also succeeded in getting the EU to include two targets on education among its five main goals for 2020: to reduce the percentage of early school leavers to below 10% and increase the percentage of tertiary education graduates to at least 40%. Evidence shows we are on the right track to achieving these dual goals.
Do you have any regrets?
Despite my encouragement and advice, most of the EU member states which faced serious economic and financial difficulties because of the economic crisis responded by reducing their national budgets for education. I characterised this as a short-sighted policy that would have very negative repercussions in the long run.
Another regret is the fact that I was not able to address inequalities in education, not only between countries but also between regions of the same country. It was something beyond my powers to achieve.
What is the status of teachers in the EU?
In the EU, we believe that the status of teachers is one of the most important factors for a successful education system. We’ve focused our attention on the criteria for teachers’ employment and promotion, as well as the need to retrain teachers so that they can prepare their students for the 21st century. Teachers must be rewarded well and must be given all the necessary tools they need to be able to educate their students properly.
One of the biggest problems in many countries in Europe is the skills gap between what the students learn at school and what the world of work needs.
What is the biggest education issue that countries in Europe face?
One of the biggest problems in many countries in Europe is the skills gap between what the students learn at school and what the world of work needs. This skills gap exists at all levels of education and is one of the reasons for youth unemployment. To help address this, we organized a Business-Education Forum in Brussels where we brought together business people and educationalists and we also created “Knowledge Alliances” to encourage universities and businesses, artists, and other entrepreneurs to co-operate.
What was your greatest obstacle?
For proper education reform to succeed you need time. You cannot achieve results in the short run. Regrettably, politicians prefer to adopt the policies that will show results immediately – or at least by the end of their being in office. It is therefore difficult to persuade your government to invest in the policies that would not have positive results by the next election time, but which – on the contrary – may bear some political cost in the short term.
In this series, former ministers of education reflect on their time in office and talk about the lessons they learned in government – and what they left undone. Contributors are members of the Atlantis Group, an elite body of former ministers of education and heads of government that works to provide counsel to current ministers.