Androulla Vassiliou Visits Londons WorldSkills Event to Address Issues Such as Illiteracy

education news Androulla Vassiliou

As the United Kingdom’s premier source of education news, Young Academic can bring you news of the European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth, Androulla Vassiliou’s visit to London. Vassiliou has been visiting Youth on the Move at WorldSkills and we also have an interview for you. The questions and answers are courtesy of International Conferences, Workshops and Exhibitions (ICWE).

You recently launched the ‘Europe loves reading’ campaign to raise awareness about the impact of illiteracy. How big a problem is it? Is there a risk it could undermine skill levels in Europe? What do you hope to achieve with your campaign?

I launched the European Commission’s literacy campaign because far too many young people across Europe still lack basic reading and writing skills. Statistics show that 20 per cent of our 15-year-olds cannot read properly. This limits their chances of success at school, diminishes their ability to learn more and eventually puts them at risk of social exclusion, which makes it harder for them to find a job and reduces their quality of life.

As part of the “Europe loves reading” campaign I am hosting a series of reading events, aimed at children, adolescents and adults. I want to promote the joy of reading and to raise public awareness of broader literacy issues, such as the impact of technology and the internet on learning. The events also have a multilingual dimension because we want to encourage people not only to be literate in their mother-tongue, but also to learn and read other languages too. Studies show this is also beneficial for their understanding of their mother-tongue language.

Our campaign is aimed at the public in general, but also at policy makers and researchers. I have also launched an expert group on literacy to identify steps which governments can take in order to increase levels of literacy in their countries and to address challenges resulting from the changing nature of what literacy entails. The expert group, chaired by Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands, will report back to me with policy recommendations next year.

The EU contains some of the best practice in the world when it comes to tackling illiteracy. The challenge is to make it widely accessible. That’s why we need a group like this, combining policy makers and academics from across the EU. They can overcome national barriers and focus on what works and how it can be used elsewhere.

As well as leading to individual exclusion, failing to raise literacy levels clearly has implications for skill levels. This is an issue that we cannot afford to sweep under the carpet.

Can you tell us about your ‘Youth on the Move’ initiative? What can young people gain from it?

The European Commission launched Youth on the Move to help young people gain the knowledge, skills and experience they need to get their first job.

Youth on the Move focuses on three main policy areas: improving the quality and relevance of education and training (so that people are more employable); promoting study, training and working abroad as a means of upgrading your skills; and providing more support for young people entering the job market.

What has Youth on the Move achieved since its launch? What are its objectives for the future?

We have launched or are preparing measures to support EU countries in addressing the challenges they face in a wide range of areas.

As mentioned above, I have established a high-level expert group on literacy and started an EU-wide literacy campaign.

The EU’s Education Ministers have also agreed on two European Commission proposals linked to Youth on the Move: the first is aimed at making it easier for young people to study, train or gain work experience abroad. Every year, around 400 000 individuals receive EU grants to take up this opportunity – and we want to double this figure by 2020.

The second is an action plan, which I presented earlier this year, on tackling early school leaving. Member States have collectively pledged to reduce the share of early school leavers with low qualification levels from 14.4% now to less than 10% by 2020. This would mean at least 1.7 million fewer early school leavers across the EU.

Last month (20 September) I presented a reform agenda for modernising higher education, another Youth on the Move commitment. EU-level initiatives will include a new multi-dimensional university ranking system aimed at ensuring students are better informed about the courses which are right for them and an ‘Erasmus for Masters’ loan guarantee scheme for students taking a full degree course abroad.

Youth on the Move is also an important tool for raising awareness about our target to increase the number of students with a higher education or equivalent degree from 33.6% now to 40% in 2020 (this would be equivalent to an extra 2.6 million graduates). Too few young people in Europe complete higher education in comparison to our major competitors and this jeopardises Europe’s future skills base.

Our forecasts tell us that, by 2020, 35% of all jobs in the EU will require high-level qualifications, but only 26% of the total workforce is currently educated to tertiary level.

How important is it for British children to study languages? Is it really necessary, given that most people can speak English?

Research shows that children who learn a second language benefit from increased problem-solving skills and do better in school. They also improve their communication skills and ‘critical mindset’, which makes them more adaptable (and, ultimately, more employable). Studying foreign languages opens up more career possibilities and the ability to communicate with a greater range of people and cultures. It’s worth remembering that four fifths of the world’s population does not speak English!

The European Commission wants to significantly increase its budget for education, training and youth. Why should Member States say yes to this, given that everyone is tightening their belts?

Our budget proposal would increase EU spending on education, training and youth by more than 70% compared to current levels (from €8.8 billion for 2007-2013 to €15.2 billion in the new budget round for 2014-2020). This reflects the priorities agreed by all 27 leaders of the Member States as part of our ‘Europe 2020’ strategy for sustainable jobs and growth. Education is at the heart of this strategy. Investment in education is a must if we are to increase jobs, skills and competitiveness in the European economy.

Where will this money be spent? Principally on providing ‘mobility’ grants to young people to boost their skills and personal development through opportunities to study or train abroad. Independent studies show that this makes them more employable and adaptable. In total, around three-quarters of the available funds will be targeted on such grants. Our aim is to enable 800 000 people a year to receive funding.

The remainder of our support will be focused on encouraging networking between universities, schools, businesses and other groups operating across borders, as well as the exchange of best practice on education policies aimed at modernisation and reform.

Last year, 27 500 Britons received EU grants through schemes such as Erasmus (higher education studies) and Leonardo da Vinci (vocational education and training), compared to more than 52 000 in France and 63 000 in Germany.

So it’s obvious that young people in the UK are not currently making the most of the opportunities on offer to spend part of their studies or training abroad. Some are perhaps put off because they think that their language skills might not be up to it. But that’s the whole point of doing this. You don’t have to be brilliant – and your languages will improve much quicker than you think. So what are you waiting for? Sign up now!

The Commission recently launched a new strategy for modernising higher education. Is there a problem with higher education? What needs to change?

At the heart of the EU’s growth strategy is the need to support higher education to achieve its full potential, to provide students with the skills for a knowledge economy, and help create growth and jobs. Our aim is to boost graduate numbers, improve teaching quality and maximise what higher education can do to help the EU economy emerge stronger from the crisis.

Our reform agenda sets out how higher education institutions can become sources of innovation, especially if they are given the freedom to find their own successful strategies, and to better connect education, research and innovation.

The strategy identifies priority areas where EU countries need to do more to achieve the EU’s objectives and sets out how the European Union can support modernisation policies in Member States.

EU-level initiatives will include a multi-dimensional university ranking which will better inform students about the courses which are right for them and an ‘Erasmus for Masters’ loan guarantee scheme for students taking a full degree course abroad.

There are doubts about the usefulness of the university rankings – why is the Commission proposing a new one?

University ranking systems attract considerable attention on a global scale from institutions, students and the media. Whether we like it or not, we cannot ignore them. However, it is clear that the existing rankings, such as those produced by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University, the Times Higher Education Supplement or QS, tend to focus disproportionately on the research performance of higher education institutions, while neglecting aspects such as teaching and learning.

This is why Member States asked the European Commission to explore options for a more representative form of university mapping and ranking system.

We believe that institutions should be able to demonstrate their strengths in areas beyond research. A recently completed feasibility study shows that it is possible to develop an approach which will enable prospective students, institutions and others to produce personalised university rankings based on their own selection of variables. Issues such as employability of graduates, regional engagement and international reach are areas where many universities and colleges excel. This ranking tool will enable them to highlight these assets and to build on them.

The Commission intends to publish the first full ranking in mid-2013.

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