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How to win at the knowlege game

The Lisbon strategy's five new basic skills are not just an arcane reference to Euro 2004, says Anne Pirrie

The Lisbon strategy is a commitment to economic, social and environmental renewal in the European Union that dates back to the European Council in 2000. The council identified five areas of "new basic skills": ICT, technological culture, foreign languages, entrepreneurship and social skills.

However, only two of these can broadly be described as skills: the ability to speak a foreign language (although this too is premised upon knowledge and understanding, plus a fair measure of social skill); and the contested notion of "social skills" - defined in the Memorandum on Lifelong Learning as self-confidence, self-direction and risk-taking.

The inclusion of these is an indication that the categories "social skills" and "entrepreneurship" are not mutually exclusive. Where did these "new basic skills" come from? We are simply told that "a European framework should define the new basic skills to be provided through lifelong learning", and then they are laid before us, like bright and shiny pebbles washed up on a beach. This fact alone undermines the value of the consensual approach to the development of benchmarks and indicators - the hallmark of the Lisbon process.

As the term suggests, information and communication technologies (ICT) are precisely that - a set of technologies in the field of information and communication. It is anyone's guess what "technological culture" means.

Broadly speaking, the term refers to the ideas, customs and skills that reflect the predominant influence of technology.

Similarly, "entrepreneurship" is about more than business start-up, despite the impression created by the documentation emanating from the European Council which casts it in a purely economic mould. "Entrepreneurship" ("enterprise culture" or "enterprise education") is as much about encouraging risk-taking.

However, the Lisbon strategy raises more fundamental issues. The first is the extent to which "enhancing innovation and economic reform" is compatible with promoting social welfare. For, while there are explicit references to "social and environmental renewal" in the Lisbon strategy, it is the economic dimension that prevails. The evidence for this resides in the oft-quoted mantra that the European Union should become "the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world, capable of sustained economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion".

Two things to note here. The European Commission's white paper on governance fails to take account of the fact that the very success of economic integration has substantially reduced the capacity of national governments to deal adequately with a range of social and environmental "spill-over" problems. Second, the Lisbon strategy appears to imply that certain types of knowledge are more important than others.

The ability to use a computer (for whatever ill-defined and mundane purposes) apparently ranks above being able to prepare a meal or, for that matter, being able to read and write. Yet the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) found a significant number of adults with low literacy skills in all 20 countries covered.

"Strengthening employment" is clearly about more than increasing the overall employment rate. The subtext is that "new basic skills" are a passport to higher-paid employment. There has been a tendency to concentrate efforts on those with high incomes and high skills. It is no coincidence that support for the EU and for further European integration is highest among the professional and managerial classes, and that this group also has the strongest sense of "European identity".

There is a real possibility that the relentless drive towards an increasingly competitive and market-driven economy will result in increased fragmentation rather than integration. This is particularly acute in the context of enlargement. Just at the point when the European economy (and Europeans themselves) is being exhorted to become leaner, meaner and fitter, its very contours are becoming less well-defined.

Sadly, this is the case literally as well as metaphorically. The bottom line is that, in our breathless pursuit of economic progress, we appear to have lost sight of the lifelong skills necessary to take care of ourselves and those around us. As John Field pointed out in his book Lifelong Learning and the New Educational Order, lifelong learning may serve to promote economic development, but it has also created powerful inequalities and helped to create the very "skills gap" it is invoked to address.

Anne Pirrie is a researcher at the SCRE Centre, Glasgow University. She is currently involved in an exploration of the Lisbon strategy with colleagues in the Centro di Iniziativa Democratica degli Insegnanti (CIDI) in Rome, and the Escola Superior de Educacio (ESEL) in Lisbon.

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