In November 2014, Tibor Navracsics became European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport. Hungarian by birth, Commissioner Navracsics previously served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Minister of Administration and Justice in Hungary. The Commissioner spoke with the EAIE regarding the need for education and training systems to equip young people with the necessary skills in today’s global economy. This is the first of two posts, in which he shares his thoughts about competitiveness and Erasmus+.
What do you see as the greatest challenge for Europe to remain competitive in the coming five years, in the light of strengthening economies in Asia, for example?
TN: Education, innovation and knowledge power the world economy. The European Union (EU) has a long tradition as a world leader in education, but we must not be complacent. Led by China and India, the emerging economies of Asia have placed a premium on investing in education, notably higher education, and on building academic and research links around the globe. We must keep up, making use of both existing and new tools to stay at the cutting edge in education.
We need to embrace an international education strategy built around the Erasmus+ programme that recognises the importance of education as a way of deepening our relationships with partner countries worldwide. The EU must brand itself as a partner of choice in higher education and research, and encourage the best and brightest non-European students and researchers to come to the EU to study and work – for short periods or for an entire degree programme.
At the EU level, we continue to invest in programmes that enable young people to study and work abroad. We must foster academic collaboration with non-European partners through joint academic programmes, joint supervision of PhD students, and academic staff mobility. We also need to find new ways to export our expertise in higher education and leverage our alumni networks, making European expatriates and former international students ambassadors for European higher education. The personal connections made by Europeans who study in other countries, and by foreign students in Europe, can result in long-term economic, social and cultural ties. Europe’s universities are often at the forefront of engagement with developing economies. They are assets that both governments and the private sector can, and should work with, to advance the EU’s place in the world.
Nineteen Member States in the EU have reduced their share of GDP that goes to education in recent years, while China, India, Australia and Brazil are all investing strategically in this area. In the future, are we likely to see a greater focus across Europe in terms of money spent on education, or will it continue to fall?
TN: The Commission encourages Member States to ensure that our education and training systems can equip young people with the skills that are necessary in today’s – and tomorrow’s – knowledge-based, globalised economies. Member States need to invest more in education – and they need to invest wisely. Of course, national governments are masters of their own budgets, and the economic crisis has meant that money for investment is scarcer than ever. But we need to think about the long term. Far-sighted governments should avoid cutting those parts of the budget that are investments in future growth, and education is one of these.
In addition, increasing demographic pressure and the shrinking workforce are good reasons to spend more rather than less on education. This will ensure that more people are equipped with the right skills and have a better chance of avoiding unemployment. Looking at the bigger picture, only smart investment in education will help us to build the foundations for long-term stable economic growth, job creation and competitiveness.
It is difficult to compare European countries with emerging economies that have much younger demographic structures. However, it is true that Brazil, South Africa and many East Asian countries are catching up fast – in terms of what they invest in every pupil, and in terms of the qualifications and skills these young people acquire. I am convinced that Europe can continue to be a world leader in scientific research and technological innovation if it invests smartly and nurtures its talents.
Can you provide an insight into what Erasmus+ has achieved in its first year, and how the outreach to partner countries ties in with the European Commission’s European Year for Development in 2015?
TN: Erasmus+ aims to support partner countries in developing regions to deal with the challenges facing their higher education institutions and systems. It addresses principles such as ownership, social cohesion, equity, geographical balance and diversity, and access to education for disadvantaged groups.
This kind of capacity building is crucial. It is specifically targeted at higher education institutions, reinforcing their role in fostering knowledge, innovation, economic growth, and in fighting inequality and poverty. This action is also open to organisations working with youth in order to promote non-formal learning, volunteering and youth policy development in partner countries.
In 2015, in line with the European Year for Development, the European Commission launched an international mobility action under Erasmus+, offering individual scholarships to students and staff from partner countries. This action will not only have a positive effect on personal development and employability. It will also support universities by facilitating the building of international networks, the development of more highly skilled human capital and giving access to up-to-date knowledge and supporting better quality higher education.
Taking into account some of the feedback of National Agencies and higher education institutions, what are the major challenges you perceive with the new Erasmus+ programme going forward?
TN: In these first years of Erasmus+, the main challenges have to do with how the programme is implemented, especially with regard to the newly launched actions. Since Erasmus+ brings together seven previously separate EU programmes, rules for access to financial support have changed. And although Erasmus+ continues to fund well-known activities that have been successful for more than 20 years, it also launches new actions designed to further increase its impact on education, training and youth systems across Europe and beyond. In the short term, those benefiting from the programme will therefore need to get acquainted with the new opportunities and learn how to make best use of this instrument. In the medium term, the main challenge will be to increase the visibility of the results achieved by Erasmus+ in order to further multiply its impact.
More of the EAIE’s interview with Commissioner Navracsics will be published in the spring issue of the EAIE’s Forum magazine later this month, where the theme is ‘Equity in access’. Additionally, he will be a featured speaker at the 27th Annual EAIE Conference, taking place in Glasgow from 15-18 September 2015.