Wed, Feb 26, 2014 - Page 9 News List

European leaders need to cultivate the evolution of education

By Mary McAleese

Europe is grappling with great challenges — too great for any one country to address. Facing economic crisis, widespread unemployment and rising competition from developing economies, Europe must adjust to technological advances and new modes of working — all while an aging population puts increasing strain on exhausted public budgets. In this fragile context, the EU must focus on education to nurture people’s talents and potential, and thus to spur economic and social recovery.

Education holds the key not only to better jobs and increased GDP growth, but also to the cultural, political and social development that is needed to ensure that citizens are well-rounded and grounded enough to lead at the local, national and international levels.

By focusing on the right policies, EU leaders can ensure that Europeans’ education enables them to be articulate global citizens and potent economic actors.

The good news is that European leaders seem to recognize the value of the pursuit of knowledge. When allocating funds for the European budget for this year through 2020, EU governments wisely decided to increase funding for education and research — the only areas in which they did so. This commitment to safeguarding education and research funding should be reflected at all levels of policymaking.

Moreover, to drive Europe’s transformation into a hub of responsible innovation and ethically sound production, policymakers must ensure that higher-education institutions equip students with cutting-edge knowledge and high-level flexible skills grounded in shared values. This means developing differentiated education systems, ranging from vocational schools to doctoral programs, and giving students access to international experience, which can expose them to opportunities beyond national frontiers.

GLOBAL OUTLOOK

For example, the Erasmus program, which enables university students to study or work abroad as part of their degree, broadens participants’ outlook while enhancing their willingness and ability to go where the jobs are. Such programs also enrich local students and offer valuable insights to professors about other traditions of higher education.

Furthermore, EU leaders must recognize that high-quality instruction is as central to universities as, say, pioneering research. As it stands, while everyone agrees that researchers need extensive training, the prevailing assumption is that great teachers are born and great teaching just happens — a view that is hampering education at all levels.

Improving the quality of instruction in higher education is at the focus of the first report to the European Commission by the High-Level Group on the Modernization of Higher Education (of which I am president). Among the report’s 16 recommendations is to develop quality teaching through compulsory continuous professional training, and to recognize and reward achievement. This approach would give educators the skills and motivation that they require to provide the kind of education that Europe needs.

Another crucial issue — and the topic of the group’s next report — concerns new modes of delivering education, such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Some claim that a revolution in the way knowledge and information is created and transmitted is imminent.

TRANSFORMATION

While these new modes of delivery are undoubtedly transforming education, especially higher education, what is happening may be more evolution than revolution. In other words, rather than bringing about the end of brick-and-mortar education, MOOCs and other innovations will spur the progression to so-called “click-and-mortar” education. This suggests that the group’s recommendations in this area will include complementary improvements to existing formal and non-formal systems, as well as mechanisms for reviving lifelong learning in higher education.

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