Proposals to bundle all European education and training support programmes into a single programme are entering a decisive stage, as European ministers have accepted the majority of the European Commission’s outline and the European parliament is set to discuss further details during the remainder of the year.
What looks certain now is that from 2014 the European Union will have one huge education and training support programme for the period 2014-20, covering all levels of education while breaking down the sector and geographical boundaries that have separated earlier programmes.
In the past decade, European support to education and training has increasingly been criticised for being a hotchpotch of programmes, actions and budgets. Every time a need arose, a new initiative was launched. In this way Erasmus, Socrates, Tempus and Leonardo came to live side by side with a host of smaller support actions.
But this extreme compartmentalisation linearly opposed the holistic, lifelong learning mantra that the European Commission heavily promoted throughout the same period.
It should therefore come as no surprise that Jordi Curell, who heads higher education in the European Commission’s education and training directorate DG-EAC, laughs when he is asked whether there is a hidden policy message in the bundling of the programmes:
“Well I hope it is not too hidden because that is the policy message indeed!” he says.
“We believe education and training support has more impact if it is treated in a holistic manner. That means not just grouping together all support to the different education and training sectors but also linking this to our work on informal and non-formal learning.”
Dramatic increase in support budget
The proposals for a new programme are not just an effort to streamline education support by the European Commission.
The proposed €19 billion budget also represents a real and quite dramatic increase in reach. A massive five million people are projected to benefit from mobility made possible through the new programme.
Among these are 2.2 million higher education students, an increase of almost 50% compared to the current situation (2007-13). For vocational students, the number of young people sent abroad on the back of a grant is projected to be doubled and exceed 700,000.
Out of the €19 billion, €1.8 billion is earmarked for cooperation with non-EU countries.
Only two entirely new actions have been proposed.
These are a loan scheme for postgraduate students and 200 ‘knowledge alliances’ which, according to Curell, are to further strengthen the links between the worlds of learning and work – an area that in speech and writing the commission has promoted heavily in recent years but has not been able to support with such a dedicated initiative until now. We will write in more detail about these new actions in a future University World News article.
A flexible tool promoting cooperation
On paper, the new setup will give the commission a powerful and most of all flexible tool for promoting vertical cooperation in education and training. If no fixed allocations are earmarked for different traditional education sectors, such as higher education or vocational training, their interaction can and will be promoted with financial carrots.
“It is true that we want this flexibility. In higher education we want it particularly to make universities reach out to non-traditional learners, such as adult learners who are already in the labour market and are attracted back into education,” Curell says.
But also in other areas it will open new opportunities for closer cooperation across education sectors that better fit the lifelong learning philosophy through, for example, new varieties of the current Leonardo Multilateral Projects that can be supported without being limited to a fixed set of subject areas.
Also, geographically the arguments for grouping actions into one bigger and more coherent programme have become stronger and stronger in the past decades.
“In higher education, international strategies today make little distinction between cooperation with other EU countries or universities in, say, Morocco, the US or even China. Linking into this trend made sense for us too,” says Curell.
Coordination of the new programme
The new programme will undoubtedly have consequences for the national coordination of programme support. While in the past there were Tempus offices, national agencies and other coordinating units for European education programmes, these have increasingly but not entirely and not everywhere been grouped together.
“In our original documents, we proposed one national coordination body in each country,” says Curell. “This was not approved by the European ministers when they discussed our proposals under the Danish presidency in May.”
The commission will likely defend the coordination of all activities through one agency though, as anything else would counter the envisaged positive effect of bringing together all education support and would belie the entire underlying philosophy of approaching learning in a more holistic manner.
“In practice, however, it now looks as if member states are only ready to accept promoting the grouping of national coordination bodies, rather than making it compulsory,” Curell says.
Across Europe, there seems to be broad support for the idea of moving towards one large programme for support to innovation in learning. What is less well understood and even joked about is the choice of the proposed name: 'Erasmus for All’.
One commission worker who unfortunately refused to drop the shroud of anonymity quipped that it was “a shame they already burnt Leonardo on a vocational programme”, hinting that the renaissance jack-of-all-trades would have made a better model for the lifelong learning paradigm than a scholarly Dutchman.
But Curell defends the use of the name for a wholly different and more mundane reason.
“Branding is very difficult and we realise that some people are perhaps not overly happy with the proposed name. Indeed, Erasmus is associated with higher education, but more than that it is associated with mobility.
“It is one of the most popular and well-known EU brands today. It is perceived as a success story and that’s what in the end made Commissioner [Androulla] Vassiliou suggest this name,” he says.
The proposals now have to travel through the EU bureaucracy before the new programme can materialise.
In May, the Council of (EU) Ministers (of education) adopted what is called a ‘partial general agreement’. This means that they agreed on large parts of the text – the most notable exceptions being the €19 billion budget and budget distribution, the abovementioned national coordination bodies and the references to a student loan guarantee facility.
Discussions in the European parliament have started only recently and are time-consuming. The first discussions take place in the culture and education committee on the basis of consultations with stakeholders.
Subsequently the rapporteur will present a draft report in which committee members can propose changes and on the basis of which other parliamentary committees are consulted. Then comes an actual vote in the culture and education committee before, finally, the report needs to be adopted in a plenary session.
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