Injection of billions brings hope to millions
Since the global economic crisis began in 2008, the European Commission has urged governments across the continent to prioritise spending on education and training in order to promote growth.
But as recent figures revealed, some of those pleas have fallen on deaf ears, with 16 of the 28 European Union member states cutting their overall education expenditure at some point between 2008 and 2011.
Now the EC has put its money where its mouth is and launched a ?14.7 billion (pound;12.1 billion) scheme to modernise education and boost skills and employability.
The Erasmus+ programme, which was launched in January, aims to help more than 4 million people to study, train, work or volunteer abroad, including some 650,000 vocational training students and apprentices.
Whereas the original Erasmus programme, set up more than 25 years ago, started as a university student exchange scheme, Erasmus+ combines all the EU's current programmes for education, training, youth and sport.
The budget for the scheme is 40 per cent higher than current spending levels, and could increase further later this year to build capacity in non-EU states.
In addition to the student exchange element, Erasmus+ will give funds to 125,000 schools, vocational education and training institutions, universities, adult education institutions, youth organisations and enterprises to set up 25,000 "strategic partnerships". These will promote the exchange of experience and links with the world of work.
A further 3,500 education institutions and enterprises will receive support to create more than 300 "knowledge alliances" and "sector skills alliances", which will boost employability, innovation and entrepreneurship.
The need for such programmes is urgent: almost 6 million young people (aged 15-24) are currently unemployed across the EU, with levels above 50 per cent in Spain and Greece.
At the same time, there are more than 2 million job vacancies in the EU and a third of employers report difficulties in recruiting staff with the required skills, as highlighted in a recent report by global management consultancy McKinsey and Company.
Mona Mourshed, a director at McKinsey and author of the report Education to Employment: getting Europe's youth into work, told TES: "Given the scale of the youth unemployment challenge in Europe, initiatives that offer Europe's youth more opportunities to acquire skills and gain work experience, both at home and abroad, are helpful for their individual prospects and for Europe's competitiveness."
Alastair Thomson, principal policy and advocacy officer at the UK-based National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, said the programme was much more ambitious than its predecessor. "The challenge will be to ensure that it really does make an impact on skill levels at all levels, and not just with those who know how to seize the opportunity with both hands," he said.
"International studies such as PIAAC [Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies]and Pisa [Programme for International Student Assessment] show that countries such as the UK have much to learn from elsewhere. Countries need to make sure they use the opportunities presented by Erasmus+ to do that."
Alan Tuckett, president of the International Council for Adult Education, said the programme would mean different things for different countries. "Most countries see the purpose of Erasmus as to reinforce the labour market," he added. "For countries that are economically marginal, such as the new accession states, it's a lifeline.
"But the scale of the task in some countries is beyond any one of these sorts of initiatives. If you cut back on opportunities for learning then something like Erasmus can only ever be a sticking plaster."