EU Member States are dedicating an ever-smaller share of their budget to education and training: unfortunately, this trend is well consolidated and alarming. Eurostat, the European agency dedicated to statistical analysis of EU Member States (and beyond), punctually publishes statistics about education and other sectors: its reports are of particular interest because they evoke a precise picture of countries’ investments in different budget areas.
At the LLLPlatform, we have compared the same study Eurostat publishes every year with the aggregated data of post-crisis Europe and found out what we feared: European countries seem to view education and training as an easy-to-cut budget item, despite the fact that most of them have not been implementing fiscal consolidation measures for a while, in the aftermath of the debt crisis. This was confirmed partially by the ET Monitor 2019 published in September at the European Education Summit (see here LLLP’s reaction). At the same time, such a trend goes against the view on the importance of investment in education expressed by several Member States at the joint meeting of EU education and finance ministers last November.
The role of education in times of crisis cannot be overstated: it is thanks to virtual and distance learning that our education systems keep on functioning during the COVID-19 outbreak – and this kind of learning needs more than promises. The very implementation of the European Green Deal and of the new Digital plan will depend on a clear political will to invest in education.
2009 – 2013
This early report from Eurostat helps us set the context. In 2009 the average EU budget for education was 5.5%. It then decreased to 5.4% in 2010 and 5.3% in 2011. In 2012 it went further down to 5.2% of the total national GDP, while in 2013 it stagnated.
In times of crisis and expenditure-based austerity, education and training were amid the sectors to suffer the most, notwithstanding a general recovery in the economy. This is part of a global trend where public institutions rely on the private sector to fill the gaps in sectors it is no longer willing to keep (see this UNESCO paper on the consequences of privatisation for the education sector). It is worthwhile to note that in 2013 there has been a change in the classification of the sector.
In 2014, Juncker’s Commission settled in. The new President announced that education would be a vital part of their European programme, and stated that MSs could be convinced to invest in education programmes thanks to their high return-on-investment rate. However, Eurostat studies show that, at that time, the EU average was slightly above 5.0%. During these years the downward trend consolidated, and this is all the more worrisome because the total level of GDP in Europe rose well above pre-crisis levels. Europe is richer than ever, and yet the percentage of funds allocated to education and training keeps on decreasing.
In 2015, over €721 billion of general government expenditure was spent by the Member States on education. This expenditure is equivalent to 4.9% of the EU’s GDP. ‘Education’ is the fourth largest item of public expenditure, after ‘social protection’ (19.2%), ‘health’ (7.2%) and ‘general public services’ such as external affairs and public debt transactions (6.2%).
In 2016, despite the pull of countries such as Finland, Denmark, UK and Belgium, countries from the European periphery started the downfall. Italy, Ireland, Bulgaria and Romania are well below the threshold of 4% of their GDP, marking a clear division with northern and central Europe.
We learn that this trend not only affects education and training, but it is a much broader trend that sees disinvestment in all social areas. In fact, this study published by Eurostat reminds us that investment in the social sector was rising pre-crisis and steeply decreasing after 2009. However, once the crisis ended, social investment never really recovered and one could argue that policy measures based on expenditure cuts have continued even without fiscal consolidation needs.
In 2018, even virtuous examples like Denmark, Finland and Sweden reduced their share of investment in education and training. Sweden is the EU country that spends the most on E&T (6.9%) but Denmark saw its share of GDP in education and training fall from 7.9% in 2012 to a staggering 6.4% in the span of seven years. Countries like Romania and Ireland are perilously close to the threshold of 3%, which is unlikely to sustain the needs of a healthy public education system.
To sum up, the average expenditures on education decreased constantly from a share of 5.5% of GDP in 2009 to only 4.7% in 2018, despite the claims of the European Commission and national governments. We are talking about a 17% disinvestment since 2009.
While we should not forget that the absolute amount of money destined to education and training has increased, it is the percentage over GDP that gives the real measure of the importance of our sector to European countries. And our sector has never been this irrelevant.
Data source: Eurostat; Elaboration: Lifelong Learning Platform
The breakdown of the data by countries gives us an even grimmer image. Only three countries have increased their percentage of investment in education: Belgium (+0.1%), Sweden (+0.1%) and Croatia (a very positive example with +1.7%). On the other side of the scale, most countries have registered a decrease; amid the most staggering lie Cyprus (-1.2%), Slovenia (-1.2%), UK (-1.4%), Ireland (-1.5%), Portugal (-2.0%) and Lithuania (-2.6%).
This trend is extremely worrying and the shrinking of funding undermines education in all of its sectors and forms. It undermines the personal development of individuals, it undermines the availability of skilled workers on the labour market, it undermines the wider benefits of learning, and it undermines our very society as we know it. Decreasing the percentage destined to education and training means that public expenditure cannot keep up with the dynamic pace and the countless transformations that education is currently experiencing, at the risk of leaving behind those who cannot afford higher costs. By the same token, this trend reflects the increasing privatisation and commodification of education in our continent, that will eventually and inevitably widen the economic and social cleavage in Europe. Current trends of investments are moving from “education & training” to “skills” provision to further support this market approach where skills are understood as a product to sell rather than intangible and invaluable knowledge.
The Lifelong Learning Platform vehemently opposes the diminished share of investment in public education and the increasing tendency to treat education as a marketable good: we will not stop asking the European institutions and the Member States to increase their expenditures in education at European, national and local level. European education and finance ministers have already spoken the truth about the value of such investment, and we now ask them to translate their acknowledgement into robust and concrete commitment.