Lifelong learning requires more substantial public funding

Source: Croatian presidency of the EU (Croatian presidency) i, published on Wednesday, May 13 2020.

To adjust to the new world of work, people will need many skill sets acquired in different learning environments.

The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) said that EU i Member States should increase public investment in lifelong learning, with a special focus on the education of adults, and should earmark targeted funding for the continuous upskilling and reskilling of the most vulnerable groups in society to indiscriminately equip people with new skills tailored to jobs of the future.

To avoid an acute shortage of skilled labour, Europe will also have to look beyond formal education and allocate more funds for learning in non-formal and informal settings (for example, in youth organisations or via the media, respectively), in which learners can develop softer skills, such as critical thinking and teamwork, or character traits, such as leadership and curiosity.

It is increasingly recognised that as well as basic literacy and digital skills, people will need these soft skills to adapt to the impact of global digital and technological advances, which are currently transforming the world of work and the skills profiles of many occupations so quickly that it is often difficult to predict what skills will be needed in the future.

However, according to current estimates, within five years, half of the current workforce will need to update their skills in order to survive on the labour market.

The EESC called on the European Commission and the Member States to implement the principles of the European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR) that deal with education and training to ensure that the right to high-quality and inclusive lifelong learning is respected for all EU citizens in workplaces and beyond, and to provide sustainable public funding for this purpose in consultation with the social partners and civil society.

The EESC welcomed the EU's proposal of individual learning accounts, believing this to be one way of enabling people of working age to accumulate training entitlements that could be used to access quality-assured training, but stressed that the proposal was at a very early stage and needed to be further developed.

The EESC set forth its proposals in the opinion Sustainable funding for lifelong learning and development of skills in the context of a shortage of skilled labour. This opinion was drafted at the request of the Croatian EU Presidency and adopted at the EESC's first plenary session since the outbreak of COVID-19 (coronavirus), which was held remotely on 7 May.

The opinion's rapporteur, Tatjana Babrauskienė, said that the COVID-19 pandemic had clearly shown that learning could quickly adapt to changes in circumstances. Learners developed many new approaches, such as independent or project learning or enhancing their IT skills to learn remotely.

"When life returns to "normal", society should draw lessons from this e-learning experience and continue to develop these approaches and skills and invest enough in them, to enable every learner, whatever their social situation, to get involved and benefit from them," Ms Babrauskienė said.

Co-rapporteur Pavel Trantina emphasised the importance of integrating different learning environments into education, training and lifelong learning policies with the goal of promoting learners' individual and unique potential and ensuring they could take an active role in learning pathways that are primarily designed around their needs.

"We must recognise the value of learning environments beyond formal education and invest in fostering collaborations between formal, informal and non-formal learning. The EU and its Member States must treat the validation of non-formal and informal learning as an urgent priority," he maintained, adding that the EESC appealed to the EU and national authorities to address and financially support these proposals.

However, evidence suggests that only around 0.1 to 0.2% of GDP accounts for public expenditure on adult education, whereas total expenditure varies between 1.1 and less than 0.6% of GDP. According to Cedefop's latest estimates, 46% of the adult population in the EU-28 area will need to be upskilled or reskilled but at present only 11.1% of adults benefit from adult learning, which means the EU failed to reach its target of 15%.

The EESC encouraged Member States to make use of the available EU funds, which should also be supported by national resources. However, overreliance on EU funds may raise concerns about funding sustainability as EU funding is allocated to projects and is temporary by nature.

In any event, the EESC believed that the upcoming multiannual financial framework (MFF) should address the limited budgetary resources for lifelong learning at Member State and EU level, and stressed the vital role of the European Semester process in shining the spotlight on funding if national and regional lifelong learning policies are to be properly implemented.

The EESC welcomed the fact that the European Commission's 2019 country reports as part of the European Semester process called for increased investment in education and training in 16 countries and in skills in 24 countries "to counterbalance a decade of budget cuts and underfunding of education systems, with their well-documented detrimental effects on quality education, education personnel and infrastructure."

The EESC called on future EU presidencies and the European Commission to continue the initiative introduced by the Finnish EU Presidency of convening meetings between the EU's finance and education ministers to discuss the importance of public funding for education and training. In the same vein, it expressed its appreciation for the fact that the current Croatian EU Presidency's priorities include investing in research and innovation, making high-quality and lifelong learning more accessible and developing new skills tailored to jobs of the future.