Modernising higher education and the workforce

Higher education is a powerful driver of long-term growth. Evidence shows that economies with higher numbers of graduates in their population also have higher economic growth.

In other words, as well as being a profitable choice for the individual, investment in higher education is profitable for the economy as a whole and its capacity to improve living conditions.

Europe needs to expand the number of people who have qualifications at higher levels. While the number of low-skilled posts in the European economy is predicted to decline by around 20% in the decade up to 2020 and medium-skill jobs will increase by 5%, demand for higher education graduates is set to increase by 20%.

This amounts to around 35% of all jobs requiring higher education qualifications, compared to 29% in 2010. Only 26% of the current EU workforce has such a high-level qualification.
Upskilling is not just something that allows people to get a better job: it is also what enables them to shape the jobs of the future, and thus to actively contribute to an innovative economy.

So we need not just quantity – we need quality too and for graduates to leave higher education with relevant qualifications and transversal and transferrable skills.

Universities and higher education institutions need the support of governments to be flexible, to specialise and to unlock potential. These are the key messages of the European Commission's agenda for the modernisation of higher education – a central plank of the EU's Europe 2020 strategy, focusing on:
  • • Increasing higher education numbers.
  • • Improving the quality and relevance of education programmes to increase graduate employability and to meet the demand for people with high-end skills. This stresses the importance (both for the individual and society) of adapting programmes so that each graduate, whatever their discipline, has a good mix of sector-specific and cross-cutting skills to enable them to thrive in a labour market with ever more individualised career paths.
  • • Improving quality and raising skills through mobility and removing the obstacles that hinder mobility.
  • • Adapting governance and funding models to enable better performance by higher education institutions.
  • • Encouraging higher education institutions to develop a stronger role in supporting sustainable growth, in their regions and beyond.
The European Commission is taking forward a number of key initiatives announced in the agenda.

These include: a multidimensional ranking initiative; new ways of promoting student mobility; a new initiative on the quality of teaching and learning in higher education; and ensuring mutual support between the policy agenda and our Erasmus for All proposal.

Erasmus for All

The EU has long-established, and highly successful, programmes to enable students and other learners to go abroad to study and develop new skills, of which the Erasmus programme for higher education is probably the best known.

We are now planning the next phase, bringing together the different mobility programmes under one hat – the Erasmus for All programme proposal.

The commission proposal is to allocate €19 billion (US$24.6) between 2014 and 2020, an increase of around 70% in an otherwise flat proposal for the entire EU budget, in order to increase the volume and effectiveness of learning mobility.

We have decided to do things differently, shedding smaller and inefficient activities and concentrating on more strategic initiatives to help effect structural change in the higher education sector (and others).

Erasmus for All will also help by bringing countries together to learn from each other's experience and through specific initiatives such as studies, practical tools, and through cross-border exchange; making for a much closer match between the practical support we provide to students and higher education institutions and the policy reforms that member states are pursuing.

The main aim at European level remains the same – to support the modernisation of education and training systems, as well as to improve people's skills and ultimately their employability.

Erasmus for All brings together currently separate EU programmes in education, training and youth – the Lifelong Learning Programme and the Youth in Action Programme as well as international cooperation programmes in higher education such as Erasmus Mundus and Tempus – to reduce fragmentation and overlaps.

It is also offering the opportunity of stronger cooperation between higher education institutions, through support for strategic partnerships to help institutions to modernise their educational offerings and their ways of working, and specific Knowledge Alliances between higher education institutions and businesses, promoting innovations in designing new curricula and qualifications and fostering creativity and entrepreneurship.

We also want to increase student and staff mobility to and from countries outside the EU and provide support for higher education and youth work in other parts of the worlds. Erasmus for All has a streamlined architecture based on three key actions:
  • • Global learning opportunities for individuals – five million mobility opportunities, including 2.2 million higher education students who will benefit
  • • Istitutional cooperation between educational institutions, businesses, local and regional authorities and NGOs in higher education, Strategic Partnerships and Knowledge Alliances.
  • • Support for policy reform in member states and beyond.

The programme will be easier to understand for both beneficiaries and the national authorities that manage the programmes.

In this way we can ensure that they have high EU added value and contribute to sustained economic growth and employment in the EU, by providing citizens with the skills and competences they need to improve their personal development and meet labour market needs.

* Margie Waters is deputy head of the Unit for Higher Education and the Erasmus programme at the European Commission. This is an edited version of her speech, “EU Agenda for Modernising Higher Education within the Europe 2020 Context”, at the Compostela Group of Universities' General Assembly 2012.