Neth-ER: Mr. Figel’, is the Europe of Knowledge complete? What are the linkages between its different components?
Figel’: I see the concept of lifelong learning as the main driving force and the principle of organisation of our EU policies on education and training. In the knowledge era, we have to accept that learning is a lifelong process. It should start with a good foundation in early childhood and continue throughout life.
This is a long–standing position of the EU. We have a European Policy Framework called the Education and training 2010 Work Programme which brings together the various policies for schools, vocational education and training, universities, and continuing education within a lifelong learning perspective. Since I took office – and in the wake of the EU overarching Strategy for growth and jobs called the Lisbon Strategy – countries have committed to developing comprehensive and coherent lifelong learning strategies. These strategies have been set up successfully, but implementation is still a challenge in many parts of Europe.
Lifelong learning strategies imply that each level of education opens up pathways to the next. For some young people this is a reality today. However, there are still many bottlenecks between second- and third-level education; e.g, for young people who take the vocational education and training route.
The European Qualifications Framework (EQF) will make it easier to tackle these challenges and to compare learning pathways and qualification systems between countries. For adults – particularly the low skilled – who have fallen by the wayside on their lifelong learning path we have just published an Action Plan titled ‘It is always a good time to learn’, which should help them to return to learning.
Neth-ER: Is a common understanding of the different national systems of vocational education and training throughout Europe necessary and should the students, teachers, trainers and directors of schools be engaged in the Copenhagen- process? If so, how could this be done?
Figel’: To cooperate and work effectively together, we have to understand each others’ vocational education and training systems. Through the Copenhagen process, countries have agreed common objectives and priorities to integrate these systems, but each system remains unique and, of course, under the responsibility of national and regional authorities. European cooperation draws its richness from diversity.
The Copenhagen process was developed as a bottom-up process, with the active participation of the social partners. Many actors and stakeholders have something to say on the process and should be involved in its implementation, particularly at the national level. The cooperation of experts and policy makers has led to the development of important tools, such as Europass, the EQF, the Quality Assurance Framework for Vocational Education and Training and the European Credit Transfer System for Vocational Education and Training (ECVET ). I invite everyone concerned to use these tools for the benefit of teachers and trainers, of students and trainees. To do this, we need to involve stakeholders, providers and practitioners; national authorities need to take the necessary steps to secure their involvement.
Neth-ER: How can the gap between vocational education and training on the one side and higher education on the other be closed? What role can dossiers like validation of informal and non-formal learning, teachers and trainers and the EQF play in this respect?
Figel’: VET is a major part of lifelong learning. It increasingly takes place at all educational levels including higher education. The Copenhagen process furthers the development of parity of esteem, open pathways and links between VET and general education, in particular tertiary and higher education.
An important current debate is about the precise demarcation between general education and VET. What does it take to make the transition work? Not all skills are technical or subject-related; some work-oriented skills blur the distinction; witness the current revival of apprenticeship at tertiary level in many countries. Similarly, some countries are developing VET strands at tertiary level which lead to smooth transition to higher education.
The EQF has an important role to play here as it has two principal functions: at the European level, it will promote learner and worker mobility between countries and, at the national level, it will act as a catalyst for lifelong learning within countries; in particular, thanks to the development of national qualifications frameworks (NQFs) based on learning outcomes.
NQFs make qualifications and their relationship to each other more transparent. Transparency is important for education providers. They can better understand and compare individuals’ qualifications, which facilitates access, avoids repeat learning, and promotes transfer and progression. For example, VET learners may join higher education courses at year 2 or 3 rather than at year 1 if their learning outcomes are identifiable via an NQF so it can save people time. In essence, NQFs build bridges between higher education and VET.
The other side of the coin is the encouragement that national qualification frameworks can give to establishing systems for the validation of non-formal and informal learning. If validation is properly integrated into a qualifications system or framework, it will open up qualifications to a broader range of users, for example by certifying learners’ work experience or voluntary activities and thus enabling them to gain acknowledgement for their prior learning.
It is the use of a ‘learning outcome’ approach that is key to the relevance of both NQFs and the validation of non-formal and informal learning; particularly to better integrate higher education, VET, and general education. In an ideal lifelong learning system, individuals should be able to pursue learning careers on the basis of their actual learning outcomes and skills, not on the basis of the duration or location of their studies.
Neth-ER: Have the different education institutions in Europe organised themselves effectively and efficiently and do they constitute a serious and relevant partner for the EC?
Figel’: Institutions and students in Europe tend to organise themselves along compartmental or sectoral lines. The services of the EC under my responsibility are currently working with stakeholders to improve our coordination and consultation structures to facilitate the dissemination of information and support awareness-raising. Our goal is to make sure that all actors, providers and practitioners are involved.
Neth-ER: What can the knowledge institutions expect in terms of policy formulation in the next two years and how can they contribute to it? What are the major challenges to be addressed after 2010 in your personal view?
Figel’: The Commission has recently adopted its Joint Progress Report 2008 on the implementation of the Education and Training 2010 work programme entitled ‘Delivering lifelong learning for knowledge, creativity and innovation’. This is based on a detailed analysis of Member States’ progress reports, particularly on the development of their national lifelong learning strategies. In the Commission’s report, we highlight particularly the need for reform and resources focused on three areas in the coming years: raising the skills level, continuous development and implementation of lifelong learning strategies and strengthening education as part of the knowledge triangle (education, research and innovation). The key role of the knowledge triangle in boosting jobs and growth should be widely recognised. Which is why it is so important to accelerate reforms to promote excellence in higher education and university-business partnerships and to ensure that schools and high quality vocational education and training play their full role in promoting creativity and innovation. Finally, during 2008, we will work to prepare an updated strategic framework for the open coordination of Education and Training policies.