HE misses targets, hit by weak budgets, says report

Is European higher education generally delivering the right kind of qualifications for citizens gearing up to tackle the challenges and opportunities of today’s world, or is it missing targets along the line? This is not a new question, but it has been given a fresh twist in the Education and Training Monitor 2013 just released by the European Commission.

The report, which draws on statistics from European Union (EU) member countries and recent analyses and policy developments, finds numerous weaknesses and gaps in the higher education sector in Europe – although little that is not already widely known.

A central finding of the researchers is a fall in the employment rate of recent graduates with at least an upper secondary education qualification. As of this year, only 76% are finding jobs compared to 82% in 2008.

“While the employment advantage of a university degree is still evident in all member states, one in five of the EU working population with tertiary qualifications are in jobs that usually require lower qualifications.

“In spite of high levels of unemployment, this suggests a worrying mismatch between the skills delivered by education and training systems and those required by the labour market,” says the report.

A second challenge is the youth unemployment rate of 23.2%, “representing a huge untapped resource and a social crisis that Europe cannot allow to persist”.

European education and training systems will have to become more relevant and adaptable, while fighting for sustained investments as the crisis continues, argues the report.

“This is the main argument for modernising our education and training systems and for member states to debate efficiency measures in order to enhance returns to education investments.”

It will also help if drop-out rates can be reduced. The report says that international mobility in higher education “increases the probability of mobility after graduation and can help in tackling skills mismatches and bottlenecks in the European labour market”.

Budget cuts

The report recognises the dilemma facing governments in attempting to consolidate public finance while investing in growth-enhancing policies. Several of the 28 EU member countries have chosen, or been forced, to reduce their education budgets in recent years.

“Sixteen member states decreased their spending on education between 2008 and 2011, with six showing further significant budget decreases in 2012.”

Considering public education expenditure either in real terms or as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), the report suggests that only 11 of the 28 member countries managed to keep their spending on education at a higher or comparable level in absolute terms from 2008 to 2011; elsewhere cuts were “significant”.

“The fall in education spending in recent years in these 16 member states represents a worrying trend and calls for strengthening the efficiency of education investment and supporting innovation and competitiveness. This is of particular relevance in the context of limited GDP growth forecasts for 2014,” comments the Commission report.

It highlights the extent to which education institutions depend on the public sector. For all education levels, public funding accounted for about 86% of investments in education institutions in 2010.

However, “over the last decade, the share of private funding (tuition fees paid by households-students, sponsorship by enterprises) of education institutions increased from 11.5% of total spending on institutions in 2000 to close to 14% in 2009 for the EU as a whole”.

There are large national variations.

In 2010 private spending on education institutions accounted for less than 5% of total education spending in Finland, Sweden and Romania (and Norway, which is not in the EU) – but between 15% and 20% in Bulgaria, Cyprus, Malta, The Netherlands and Slovakia.

In the United Kingdom, private spending was as high as 31.4%, “close to values reached in non-EU countries like the United States and Japan”.

The research found that Europe is lagging behind in the use of open educational resources and massive open online courses, and that inequalities persist in education and training systems, with “strong disadvantages” in the skills and qualifications of social groups such as young people with migrant backgrounds.

“There is also wide variation between different member states in their success at addressing the problem. These inequalities have severe consequences for individuals, for economic progress and for social cohesion.”