Still trying to solve yesterday's problems

3rd July 1998 at 01:00
Britain's presidency of the European Union has come to an end. For six months David Blunkett has chaired the Council of Education Ministers. After education action zones, lifelong learning and the New Deal, you might be forgiven for thinking that Europe would suddenly become a more interesting place.

In the event, Mr Blunkett decided that innovation was best kept for the home market, steering the Education Council safely down the middle of the road before passing the chair to his Austrian successor. Brussels-watchers with an education interest had, instead, to rely on the Commission for excitement.

In early June, Edith Cresson amazed the assembled education ministers with her proposals for the new generation of European Union programmes in education and training. At present, the Leonardo and Socrates programmes will come to an end next year. Mme Cresson, the commissioner responsible for education and training, sketched out legislation to cover the period between 2000 and 2004. To implement the next round of programmes, she demanded an overall budget of 3,000 million ECUs (nearly Pounds 2.5 billion). This was the figure which amazed the ministers: it means an increase of about 60 per cent.

At a time when one member state after another is demanding a rebate in the EU budget, Mme Cresson cannot seriously hope that the ministers will agree to this sum. She has already seen the knife out, slashing her proposed budget for research and technology development from 1999. She is therefore playing a long game, getting her demands in early as a way of drumming up support in other parts of the EU's labyrinthine policy-making structure. She is likely to win support from some of the key consultative committees, and more significantly, from the Parliament. In the end, it is the member states - through the Council of Ministers - who will decide. What should they do?

It is far from clear that the EU should have a significant role in education and training. Its current programmes do have some value, but because most of the spending is on student mobility, its impact is limited. Cresson herself has allowed no doubts to creep in about their worth, but the truth is that Leonardo and Socrates appear to be aimed more at influencing public perceptions than making a difference to the education and training systems.

They are particularly popular among those young people who study in another member state, but the numbers affected are still relatively small and, given current trends in personal mobility we might conclude that many students would travel without the EU's support. They make little attempt to involve precisely those learners (part-timers, work-based learners, adults with responsibilities) who are vital to the learning society of the future.

Their administration is tainted by an extraordinary set of bureaucratic procedures; their funding is too low to cover all costs, so that institutions are tempted to cut corners or to enter transnational partnerships for the wrong reasons.

That said, the new proposals do show some signs of vigour. The new Socrates proposals, for instance, would involve a substantial growth of activity in adult education, while the Leonardo proposals focus clearly upon support for lifelong learning and work-based learning. But this is far from providing the "resolutely innovative structure and vision" that Mme Cresson herself has claimed. Much of the mixture is familiar: more money for student mobility, for information technology-based training, and for language development.

Nor is there any change in the overall purpose. Mme Cresson's thinking is still rooted in the idea of supporting greater mobility and employability within Europe's increasingly integrated labour market and preparing young people for life as citizens of the union.

Yet even these goals are questionable. There is no real evidence of an integrated labour market within the EU; most cross-border mobility is along familiar and well-trodden paths, such as those between the Republic of Ireland and the UK. The idea of a common European culture as a bulwark against Americanism and a prop for EU citizenship rests on equally shaky foundations: most young Europeans are way ahead of the EU in their taste for global cultures.

None of this means that the Commission has got it entirely wrong. As the EU develops and evolves, it will be necessary to ensure that education and training systems are brought to bear upon the problems that will inevitably emerge. What is wrong is that the Commission is looking to solve yesterday's problems - those which emerged after 1986, with the move towards the integrated single market.

We now face much greater challenges, and challenges that are genuinely at a European level: enlargement of the EU, to take one glaring example; or how best to tackle those environmental challenges that are international rather than local in nature.

On these issues, which will make a real difference to all citizens, the Commission's proposals are silent. Let us hope that Mr Blunkett, now that he no longer chairs the council of education ministers, can find the time to launch a public debate on its future activities.

* John Field is Professor of Lifelong Learning at the University of Warwick, and author of European Dimensions: education, training and the European Union (Jessica Kingsley Publications, 1998).

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