‘Rethinking Education’ calls for more business focus

It’s no longer enough to leave university with a degree – even a masters – at least not in the European Union (EU). Successful graduates of the future must have the skills that equip them for the job market of the modern age, says a European Commission strategy paper released last Tuesday.

That may mean entrepreneurial talents, a sense of initiative and a good grasp of other languages on top of all else.

The European Commission claims its new strategy paper, Rethinking Education, represents “a fundamental shift in education”, with more focus on learning outcomes.

“All the statistics suggest that the share of the working population with a degree or above is going to increase, so we not only need to ensure we’re producing more graduates but also that the graduates we produce have the competences and skills which are in demand,” said Dennis Abbott, the commission’s education spokesperson.

“One issue is that people’s career paths are much more varied than they were in the past,” he told University World News. It is rare today for university graduates to work for a single organisation, in the public or private sector, for all their working lives.

“People will need to move around more and that’s one reason why we say we need to produce graduates who are much more versatile,” he said.

Rethinking Education is obviously more focused on vocational themes than on purely academic ones, although Abbott made the point that Erasmus, the EU’s much-lauded scheme for subsidising student exchange, is at heart a skill-enhancing experience.

“It’s not just about completing a couple of modules for a degree; it’s actually about gaining a range of skills that may not be the main focus of the degree but which are actually going to put you in the best possible place to further your career in future,” he said.

Besides its role in degree studies, for instance, “Erasmus is also about versatility, communication skills and cultural experience, all of which are very useful in equipping people with competences which will enable them to move in their careers.”

The plan is to double the number of students qualifying for Erasmus to five million between 2014 and 2020, with more than two-thirds of the programme supporting individual learning mobility and the rest cooperation for innovation, policy reform and sharing good practices.

While the reasoning behind Rethinking Education is hardly new, it now seems clear that little has been done in recent years to equip the EU’s graduates with the business-entrepreneurial mentality that would appear to be more needed than ever.

The commission said that Europe needed to respond to the worldwide increase in the quality of education and supply of skills. “Forecasts show that more than a third of jobs in the EU will require tertiary level qualifications in 2020,” it said.

To ensure that education was more relevant to the needs of students and the labour market, “assessment methods need to be adapted and modernised”. This meant that the use of ICT and open educational resources “should be scaled up in all learning contexts”.

It said that “transversal skills such as the ability to think critically, take initiative, problem-solve and work collaboratively will prepare individuals for today's varied and unpredictable career paths”.

Currently, according to the commission, European education and training systems continued to fall short in providing the right skills for employability, and were not working adequately with business or employers to bring the learning experience closer to the reality of the working environment.

This was a growing concern: “Modern, knowledge-based economies require people with higher and more relevant skills.” It was forecast that the proportion of jobs in the EU requiring tertiary-level qualifications would increase from 29% in 2010 to 34% in 2020, said Brussels.

The commission accepted that it was “teaching that primarily influences student outcomes, enhances graduate employability and raises the profile of European higher education institutions worldwide”.

Currently, the commission highlighted, only a few EU countries had strategies to promote quality in higher education teaching, including the training of teaching staff in pedagogical skills.

The commission had therefore set up a high-level group on the modernisation of higher education, which would next year “make recommendations to policy-makers and higher education institutions on how to promote quality in teaching and learning”.