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Annual Theme 2022 – Investment in education and training: a public good for all

Why an Annual Theme?

The Lifelong Learning Platform addresses forward-looking issues in the field of education and training on an annual basis. This year’s theme will be explored during different events and meetings at the crossroads between the French and Czech Presidencies of the Council of the EU, thus helping the transition and bridging with the outcomes of the Future of Europe Conference led by the French Presidency.

Investment in education and training: a public good for all

Why investment?

Investment in education and training remains, today, a broad theme and certainly a topical item on the EU’s agenda. LLLP wishes to approach the topic of investment from the standpoint of social inclusion – specifically in relation to closing the learning gaps amplified throughout the pandemic: how do we recover better? With the polar star of investment to bounce back, funding in education, training and lifelong learning opportunities should focus specifically on fair access, vulnerable groups and inclusion in representation. The latter is a crucial theme given the high interest in the EU and member states’ agendas on who is to fund lifelong learning: the answer to this question determines the crucial question of inclusion. This conversation started with the Finnish Presidency and the Council Resolution on financing education in 2019 and it continued with the Croatian Presidency who requested an opinion from the EESC on sustainable financing for lifelong learning in 2020.

The revision and launching of the new Skills Agenda introduced the idea of the Individual Learning Accounts. Following the health crisis, the EU launched the Recovery and Resilience facility where one of the main measures touches upon funding for upskilling and reskilling. Funding education and training is a recurrent issue that will continue to be high on the agenda for the years to come and which will be at the heart of the French Presidency too in 2022. The French Presidency plans to look at the right to lifelong learning and what instruments are to finance it. The pandemic questioned the funding of education and training and its impact on rising inequalities which will continue to be shown in the years to come. The new European Parliament initiative on the European Education Alliances is calling for an Education Investment Plan under the CoFoE. Social partners such as ETUCE are also using the CoFoE to call for lifelong learning opportunities for all and its respective funding. These are a few of the many initiatives under which this issue can be addressed.

Strengthening the role of public funding for education means, conversely, that education stays a public good for all. Therefore, “who” or rather “what instruments” finance lifelong learning are not questions to be taken for granted, as they entail cascade effects on the structures, pedagogies, objectives, curricula, inclusion and representation in education and training. Such an assumption should therefore not be taken for granted; the Lifelong Learning Platform will seek to explore its many facets during the year to come, with the usual support of its members and of the European institutions.

Sub-topics

  • Public good until what point? Public financing at risk
  • Commodification of learning and the human capital: serving markets and not learners
  • Education that empowers the already empowered: supporting inclusion

How?

This theme will inform most of LLLP activities for the year: from the brand new LLLab to the LLLWeek, from the annual position paper to its desk research, from an advocacy campaign in investment in lifelong learning to the Lifelong Learning Interest Group. Stay tuned for more!

Europe’s share of GDP for education and training has never been this low. A comparative analysis

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.

2014-2018

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. 

Takeaways

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. 

Press release – Lifelong Learning Interest Group on “Investing in education and lifelong learning”

The third meeting of the Lifelong Learning Interest Group of the European Parliament in 2018 took place on 4 December as part of the 2018 Lifelong Learning Week. Organised by the Lifelong Learning Platform (LLLP) and the European Association for the Education of Adults (EAEA), the meeting gave the opportunity to Members of the European Parliament, representatives of civil society and stakeholders from all sectors of education and training to discuss the topic of Investing in education and lifelong learning – how can the next MFF support Europe’s learners?, together with Mr Jyrki Katainen, European Commission Vice President for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness.

The focus of the meeting was on how the next EU Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) can be an opportunity to strengthen accessibility and quality in education, training and lifelong learning, through the flagship Erasmus+ programme, but also through synergies with other programmes with a  learning dimension such as Horizon Europe and the European Social Fund+ (ESF+). Speakers stressed the importance given to education in the Gothenburg Social Summit last November and the prospect of a European Education Area by 2025 as recognition of education’s crucial role in shaping the future of Europe.

MEP Jill Evans, shadow rapporteur for the CULT Committee’s report on Erasmus+, highlighted the importance of Erasmus+ in supporting the transition of young people from education to adulthood. She emphasised its impact on employability and the promotion of active citizenship, in particular participation in European elections. Confirming the ambition of tripling the budget, she underlined the need for the new programme to be more inclusive, supporting organisations working with marginalised groups. Regular review of financial support to meet the real needs of students, and support of language learning, including language minorities, were also key points.

MEP Emilian Pavel shared his confidence in a positive approach towards Erasmus+ in the EP, as evidenced by the almost unanimous vote on the EMPL Committee’s Opinion for which he is rapporteur. He said VET and lifelong learning should have a crucial role in the future programme and emphasised that not only Erasmus+, but also other programmes such as ESF+, should be strengthened. He recalled that lifelong learning is a priority of the European Pillar of Social Rights, which underpins the EP’s interim report on the next MFF.

Vice-President Katainen highlighted that the next MFF would have the highest ever share of investment in human capital, vital for enhancing people’s resilience in the face of rapid technological changes: “We need to build the resilience of individuals in society. But it is hard to imagine how to do that without improving the quality of education at all levels,” he underlined. In addition to the important role of Erasmus+, which he hopes in the next programme period will benefit more VET learners and teachers, he referred to the strong social investments that the proposed InvestEU programme will promote, as well as synergies between ESF+ and Erasmus+ for supporting disadvantaged groups. Such synergies are a priority: “I agree that breaking down silos between programmes and policy areas is of primary importance – this is crucial to ensure that they are harnessed in the best way to meet their objectives”, he stated.

Cooperation across sectors and programmes was also emphasised by Gina Ebner, President of LLLP and Secretary General of EAEA: “Learning throughout life requires more and more complex connections, as we take on different roles: citizens, consumers, parents, or volunteers,” said Ms Ebner, calling not only for a lifelong learning approach in Erasmus+, but also on linking different sectors to education, such as agriculture or health. Looking at the opportunities given by the MFF, she underlined that they could help with alleviating inequalities, reaching out to disadvantaged learners, promoting democracy and values, but also addressing inequalities within countries, and within the lifelong learning sector itself, where some sectors get more funding than others.

Overall, speakers and participants agreed on the value of investing in people through high-quality education, training and lifelong learning in order to reduce social inequalities, promote upskilling and tackle negative anti-democratic forces. A key message was that contacts between people and organisations and across various education sectors, made possible by Erasmus+ and other funding programmes, should be further supported in the next EU budget. LLLP and its members shall continue to advocate for this as the political negotiations continue.