COMECE: EU needs to focus on integral and quality education
By Lisa Zengarini
In its role of stakeholder and partner of the EU institutions and in the context of its advocacy on Education and Training, the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE) has submitted a contribution to the European Commission’s consultation on the European Year of Skills.
The 2023 European Year of Skills
The Year was announced in September 2022 by President Ursula von der Leyen with the aim to equip the EU workforce with “the right skills for the current competitiveness” of its social market economy.
The EU Commission’s proposal suggests a series of initiatives, projects and events to spark exchange on the role and improvement of upskilling, reskilling and training in the EU.
Putting the human person at the centre
In its contribution, while recognizing that “the current challenges faced by the European Union, together with the rise of concurrent global powers, require readiness to be economically competitive”, COMECE warns the EU institutions against understanding training and upskilling only in terms of "employability and competitiveness".
The paper, prepared with the Federation of Catholic Family Associations in Europe (FAFCE) and Don Bosco International (DBI), instead, suggests interpreting the EU Year of Skills more “holistically”, with the ultimate aim of fostering the integral development of every person as called for by Pope Francis’ Global Compact on Education.
The project, launched in 2020 under the sponsorship of the Congregation for Catholic Education, seeks to involve multiple actors and international stakeholders in the Church’s effort “to rebuild the fragile educational alliance by introducing new generations to the values of respect, dialogue and solidarity through the investment of the best available resources in quality education”.
Promoting fraternity, justice and peace
According to the three European Catholic bodies “framing the European Year of Skills solely through a narrative of growth, competitiveness and innovation risks to exclude the integral development of the person” which is “the most important aspect of education and training”. The document, therefore ,underscores the “complementarity of technical training and skills system with education” so it can become “a driving force” of fraternity at the global level.
“To achieve this aim, COMECE stresses that “it is essential to guarantee an accessible and inclusive reskilling and upskilling process, in which civil society organizations can play a key role to reach the most vulnerable part of the society, currently at risk of increased social inequalities and discriminations due to a potential elitist access to this transition”.
The challenges facing the EU today
The paper then delves into the various challenges that affect the EU today and are closely linked with skills provision and learning: the demographic crisis, the educational challenge the educational challenge in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis, the migration crisis, and the skills needed to respond to this context.
Need for family-friendly policies to counteract demographic decline
The European population is declining and aging dramatically and by 2070, nearly one third of Europeans will be over 65. This means that there will be a contraction of the available workforce and an increase in the old-age dependency ratio (that is ratio of the number of elderly people at an age when they are generally economically inactive compared to the number of people of working age).
Furthermore, in the Euro area, the decline in the working-age population will only partially be compensated by the net migration flows, which on the other hand “ also causes situations of brain drain of high-skilled workers, both from third countries and within the EU, detrimental to their economic development”.
COMECE, FAFCE and DBI thus highlight the need “to invest in demographic and family-friendly policies, in particular in family-work reconciliation policies”.
The long-term effects of the COVID-19 crisis
Besides demographic issues, the paper draws attention to other challenges Europe is facing in education and training, starting from the long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although they are yet to be fully seen, “higher poverty risk rates and delays in learners’ achievements are already visible”. Hence the urgent need “to make the education sector more resilient and adaptable to changes and learners”, even after the completion of formal education paths.
“Being formal education the basis for the reskilling and upskilling of young professionals and adults in active employment”, according to COMECE, the European Year of Skills should “strongly focus on the connection between education systems, training, and skills teaching providers, for the sake of a more coordinated, comprehensive and better-functioning European Education Area”. In light of the current social and economic developments there is also a need for a “shift in the traditional paradigm school-work-retirement”.
The need for a “holistic” approach
The European Bishops therefore invite the Commission to base the upcoming Year of Skills initiatives on a “holistic approach”, supporting guidance, recognition, and attention to individual needs and abilities, “especially for those in situations of vulnerability”, leaving no one behind.
Teaching how to live respectfully and thrive in culturally diverse societies
In a multicultural society, the contribution further underscores he importance, both in the labour market and in society at large , of “cultural awareness, interreligious, interpersonal, critical thinking competences and skills”.
This should be carried out also through non-formal training and skills providers, including faith-based and Church organizations.
In a spirit of subsidiarity - continues COMECE - the EU should foster processes of cooperation between formal and non-formal institutes of education and training, “in order to achieve the best possible and integral formation of learners of all ages”. Paths of professionalisation and information about professional opportunities in the last years of high schools “should also be strengthened to raise awareness of job market possibilities that resonate the most with learners’ aspirations and vocation”.
Training in digital skills
The paper further emphasizes the vital importance of training in digital skills through adequate and accessible educational and training schemes for both children and adults, regardless of socio-economic status , which are adapted to all abilities (physical and mental).
These training programmes should also include promoting awareness on the dangers of excessive internet use for children's physical and mental health, as well prevention of online child sexual abuse.
Better access to life-long learning and vocational training
According to the COMECE, parents, and especially mothers, taking parental leave should be given better access to life-long learning, vocational training, and job reconversion to support their possible return to the labour market and the “soft skills” acquired during the exercise of care better recognized.
Furthermore, young people from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds who struggle to acquire the skills needed to access the job market should be offered paid internships, to make the labour market more inclusive and fair.
Ensuring that third country nationals’ skills are recognized in the EU labour market must not come "at the expense of better policies for the reskilling and upskilling of NEETs (Not in education, employment, or training) and people in vulnerable situations, especially in countries where the pandemic and the war in Ukraine had a major impact", says the paper.
Investing in an equal and inclusive migration cycle
Finally, COMECE recommends investing in an equal and inclusive migration cycle in cooperation with Vocational Education and Training providers to build long-lasting partnerships with third countries, in particular through exchange programmes with Africa.
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