European Education: Mind the Gap!

As we recover from the economic crisis, 25 Million Europeans are still without a job and young people are particularly affected – in some countries, more than half of them have registered as unemployed. To overcome this, we need policies and actions that support sectors that are important for our economy. Millions of new jobs are expected to be created in the run up to 2020. Jobs will be also available to replace those who retire or leave the labour market for other reasons. Although more jobs and more job opportunities are forecast, the working age population will fall. One of the reasons might be Europe’s potential skills deficit.

The European Commission and the OECD released the Report Skills Outlook 2013, a survey that explores adult skills in literacy, numeracy and problem solving for 16-65 year olds in 24 countries worldwide. The survey found that at the global level, Japan is one of the winners, with a high share of the top performers followed by Finland. On the other side the survey shows serious skills weaknesses in many EU Countries.

The study suggests that a fifth of the working age population has worryingly low literacy and numeracy skills and a quarter of adults lack the digital skills needed to effectively use technologies. But there are also striking differences between countries. While one adult in five people has low literacy or numeracy skills in Ireland, France, Poland and the UK, this rises to almost one in three in Spain or Italy.

“In all countries, individuals with lower proficiency in literacy are more likely than those with better literacy skills to report poor health, to believe that they have little impact on political processes and not to participate in associative or volunteer activities. In most countries, they are also less likely to trust others”, wrote Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary General. Knowledge has not only a major impact on your own life chances; it also affects society, the political process and other sectors, both on a national and international level. Interestingly, it’s worth noting that large non- EU countries like Canada or the United States did not score very differently from many EU member states.

The results of the OCED report are supported by international research from McKinsey management consultants. This report warns of a mismatch between young people’s skills and the needs of employers. While 74% of education providers surveyed thought that young people were being equipped with the skills for work, only 35% of the employers agreed that this was the case.  This result might be shocking.

The former European Commissioner for Education and Youth, Ms. Androulla Vassiliou, sees one of the reasons for this development as the prevalence of old-fashioned educational systems: “In Europe the mismatch between what our education systems are delivering and the needs of employers is resulting in a serious skills shortage and damaging the aspirations of Europe’s young people and ultimately, our future prosperity,” she says.

What conclusions can be drawn from these facts? The Commission emphasises the necessity of investment at both an EU and national level and refers to the Erasmus+ programme for education, training and youth, which supports projects aimed at developing and upgrading adult skills.  Not really concrete and convincing.

The McKinsey study demands that it should be easier for young people to study for the skills they need or to go back for re-training. This could include breaking up courses into smaller modules in order to provide greater flexibility. Technology from computer games could be used to help in training, it suggests. In addition digital skills should be taught as a compulsory part of the curriculum, as has been the case in Estonia since 2012.

The question is, is it enough to improve some courses or running different programs?  The skills gap might be a systemic error, which requires substantial reforms in the educational systems.

As mentioned before, Japan is one of the top-ranked countries in terms of education.

The country has a highly developed education system, which is applied to impart a wide and deep range of knowledge. Japanese students are faced with a tremendous pressure to succeed from a young age. Tests are even required for inclusion in recognized kindergartens. The exam stress begins in the bassinet and continues with entrance exams for elementary, middle and high schools up to the examination for the best universities. The competition in schools is extremely fierce. Even in their free time, pupils and students visit private tutors in order to prepare for their exams. It is clear that not all children are able to handle this pressure. A number of students are left behind in terms of performance. However, in the Japanese education system a failure at school is not possible. Therefore, children are shifted further to the next grade without specific support measures.

The extreme pressure also led to undesirable developments. Mass frauds during examinations are not uncommon. On the other side, there is a large number of students with mental health issues. In terms of suicide, the country has twice the rate as the United States and three times as many as the UK. The most vulnerable group for suicide attempts and mortality rates is in the age of 15-24 years.

The question is therefore whether the Japanese system of education can serve as a role model. Maybe we should have a look to Scandinavia instead. The Finnish school system is highly respected due to their excellent performance in the first PISA study. In Finland the school system runs differently to many other educational models. The idea of ​​cooperation determines what happens, not the pressure to perform and compete. Learning in small classes, is also a key factor where the focus is on seeing the pupil as an individual. The public school system wants to compensate social inequality as well. Therefore, there are just a few private schools. It should be emphasised that professional educators manage the education system. Also the teachers are well trained and have a very good image in the population. It is of course questionable whether these points actually explain the performance advantage of Finland. There are certainly other aspects that are not directly obvious. But to cut a long story short, one thing should be clearly noted: The majority of the countries must look to improve their old educational systems and make them fit for the modern age. “Policy makers, Educators and business must all break out of their silos and work together more closely to avert what is a growing crisis”, says Commissioner Vassiliou. The theory sounds good, although the insight comes a little late. The measures must be implemented finally.