Every year, the State of the Union address represents a key moment in the European calendar, highlighting crucial priorities for the imminent future and setting out what truly matters in the eyes of the European Commission; every year, we look forward to this special moment in the hope to see an increased commitment towards education and training.
Of course, it is only natural that most of the attention is given to the COVID pandemic, including the efforts towards a universal roll-out of vaccination, as well as the fight against climate change – the two most important battles for the human race. These efforts can’t be undertaken nationally, Commission President von der Leyen explained, and the current situation reinforces the need for stronger European cooperation. To this end, Europe shall continue to uphold its role and lead Member States out of this dim scenario.
We regret that for yet another year, the space and depth given to education and training can be best described as underwhelming: President’s Von der Leyen’s speech fell short of our expectations to root the recovery in education and lifelong learning opportunities for all. This comes despite figures stating Member States committed around 25% of their Recovery funds to social education and employment sectors. In her sixty-minute speech, education was mentioned twice: the first time, as a tool thanks to which companies make profits, and the second time as a framework where youth should experience no gaps. The Lifelong Learning Platform insists that, on the contrary, education should not be a means to something else, but an end in itself.
It is noteworthy to remark that the mentions of investment in education and training were somehow limited to the primary role of digital skills for the recovery of the economy alone. Here the President of the Commission placed the highest expectations (“make it or break it”), but digital skills are merely treated as a response to market and investors’ needs, rather than as an opportunity for social inclusion of those without basic skills and media literacy and to address the digital divide – an issue which was brought sharply into focus throughout the pandemic . Hopefully, the announced proposal for a Council Recommendation on improving the provision of digital skills will keep in due consideration the needs of the learners besides those of the market. Failing to root this proposal on the needs of the most excluded could result in disastrous patterns for the social texture of European societies.
On the other hand, it was comforting to see the President of the European Commission place such a positive emphasis on youth. She announced the creation of a new programme called ALMA – likely to serve as an incentive to learning mobility in the workplace. Apprenticeships are a great opportunity for young people, but we should not forget that they should be about learning, not just a way to provide a cheap workforce to companies – as we are seeing all too often in work contexts. This is why, as she rightfully noted, “the implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights is so important to ensure decent jobs, fairer working conditions, better healthcare and better balance in people’s lives”. Moreover, President Von der Leyen announced the intention to make 2022 the Year of European Youth. We welcome such an endeavour, in the hope that youth – and crucially learners – will be empowered to meaningfully co-create the policy that concerns them.
While the important focus on youth is welcomed, the same focus should have been put on adults, especially the older population – rather than antagonising generations which the Covid-19 crisis has arguably done, we need to empower all segments of the population. Intergenerational solidarity must be rebuilt for the resilience and sustainability of society at large.
When President Von der Leyen presented her team in 2019, we wrote an ironic piece titled “Ursula, where did you hide education?”. Two years into the work of her Commission, and close enough to the mid-term, this title still rings true. Since no mention of education was made during the speech, LLLP will strengthen its advocacy efforts in the relevant arenas to step in and state once again the importance of education and training for resilient and sustainable societies.
In the opening part of her speech, President Von der Leyen quoted Robert Schuman and stated that “Europe needs a soul, an ideal, and the political will to serve this ideal”: we believe that this European soul shall be forged through a renewed and refound relevance of educational opportunities for all. It is the foundation of any good society on a human scale, and we are certain that Europe aspires to be one.