Comments on "The New Skills Agenda for Europe"

Rosa María Torres
 Participation at "ICAE Virtual Seminar on Skills and Competencies", 
organized by the International Council for Adult Education (ICAE) together with DVV International in April 2017.

Based on DVV International’s journal “Adult Education and Development“ Issue 83 (Dec. 2016)
The  journal is published once a year in English, French and Spanish.

En español: Comentarios a "La Nueva Agenda de Capacidades para Europa"


Rosa María Torres. Ecuadorian, researcher, international adviser, specialist in literacy and Lifelong Learning, Ex-minister of Education and Cultures.

My comments refer to, and are triggered by, "The new Skills Agenda for Europe" by Dana Bachmann and Paul Holdsworth, of the European Commission.

I speak here from the perspective of "developing countries" and of Latin America in particular. From this perspective it is always useful to see what Europeans are thinking and doing, not necessarily to do the same but rather to understand better our specific realities and needs. In the end, given the strong cultural dependence, our governments end up trying to follow and imitate Europe and/or North America (the classic "developing"/"developed" notion). Concepts, indicators, ideals, international co-operation, focus generally on the global North.

The paper presents The New Skills Agenda for Europe, which sees skills as a pathway to employability and prosperity. The Agenda revolves around some problems and data identified as critical:

- A quarter of the European adult population (70 million) struggles with reading and writing, and has poor numeracy and digital skills, putting them at risk of unemployment, poverty and social exclusion.

- More than 65 million people have not achieved a qualification corresponding to upper secondary level. This rate varies significantly across countries, reaching 50% or more in some.

- The adults mostly in need of engaging in learning participate very little in lifelong learning. On average, only 10.7% of adult Europeans participated in any education and training in 2014, with significant variation between countries and against an EU target of 15% set to be reached by 2020. An analysis of the participation of low-qualified adults in education and training shows even lower participation rates, varying from below 1% in some countries to over 20% in others. On average in the EU only 4.3% of low-qualified adults – that is, the group most in need of learning – participate in education and training.

To improve the employment opportunities and overall life chances of low-skilled adults, the Commission has made a proposal to help low-skilled adults – both in-work and out of work – to improve their literacy, numeracy and digital skills and, where possible, to develop a wider set of skills leading to an upper secondary education qualification or equivalent.

The proposal is that Member States should introduce a Skills Guarantee, which would involve offering to low qualified adults: (a) a skills assessment, enabling them to identify their existing skills and their upskilling needs; (b) a package of education or training tailored to the specific learning needs of each individual, and (c) opportunities to have their skills validated and recognised.

The Agenda is structured around three priority areas: more and better skills; put the skills developed to good use; and better understand what skills will be demanded to help people choose what skills to develop.

These main challenges are identified:

- Improving the quality and relevance of skills formation.
- Strengthening the foundation: basic skills (literacy, numeracy, digital skills) for everybody ("the proposal for a Skills Guarantee aims to provide low qualified adults access to flexible tailored upskilling pathways to improve these skills or progress towards an upper secondary qualification").
- Making vocational education and training (VET) a first choice. Increasing its attractiveness, through quality provision and flexible organisation, allowing progression to higher vocational or academic learning, and closer links with the world of work.
- Building resilience: key competences and higher, more complex skills. These include literacy, numeracy, science and foreign languages, as well as transversal skills and key competences such as digital competences, entrepreneurship, critical thinking, problem solving or learning to learn, and financial literacy. 
- Getting connected: focus on digital skills.
- Making skills and qualifications more visible and comparable.
- Improving transparency and comparability of qualifications.
- Early profiling of migrants’ skills and qualifications.
- Improving skills intelligence and information for better career choices.
- Better information for better choices.
- Boosting skills intelligence and cooperation in economic sectors.
- Better understanding the performance of graduates from Universities and VET.

My comments and suggestions


The diagnosis and the proposal are centred around formal education and training. This remains, in fact, the main international approach to adult education and to education in general. The "being knowledgeable" dimension of UNDP's Human Development Index (HDI) continues to refer to education and to formal education only, all ages: expected years of schooling, adult literacy rate, government expenditure on education, gross enrolment ratio all levels, mean years of schooling, population with at least some secondary education, primary school dropout rate, primary school teachers trained to teach, and pupil-teacher ratio in primary school. (As we see, two indicators are related to adult education: adult literacy rate, and population with at least some secondary education). It is with these indicators that countries' educational profile is defined. 

Without ignoring the importance of these data and of the formal education system, I would like to stress the need to: revisit some concepts; insist on the critical importance of non-formal education and of informal learning not only in adult life but throughout life; consider other ways of thinking/organising the question of learning for what; radically rethink the eternal struggle with literacy and numeracy; and reconsider adulthood and the adult age. Also, the understanding of 'low-skilled adults' must be made explicit and analysed in general and in each particular context.

» Schooling versus education  Education exceeds schooling. Many adults are eager to advance their education, not necessarily to get more schooling (i.e. completing primary and secondary education). For many young people and adults, completing secondary education implies a tremendous effort, meeting a bureaucratic requisite rather than having a pleasant and fruitful learning experience, and the economic and social reward may not be the one expected.

» Education/training versus learning  Skills are not developed only through deliberate education and training efforts. Most skills are developed through a combination of formal and non-formal education and informal learning (reading, writing, parenting, arts, sports, work, travel, social participation, volunteering, social service, etc.).

» Literacy and numeracy  They continue to be considered basic skills and they continue to be major problems throughout the world, in both 'developed' and 'developing' countries. In 'developing' countries, it is very common that people counted as 'new literates' often do not read and write autonomously and thus do not get to use reading and writing in their daily life. Also, often there is no evaluation involved, and no follow-up. We must radically rethink and improve the ways we conceptualize and do adult literacy, and stop cheating ourselves with fake statistics.

» Digital skills  In most 'developing countries' access to the Internet is still limited (50% or less of the population). Cell phones are widely used, also by adults and by the poor. But it is the younger generations that makes the most use of computers and of the internet. Internet policies focus on children and youth. Little is being done, and much more should be done, to offer adults and older adults meaningful access to the digital world.

» Learning for what?  There are many ways to think of, and deal with, this question. Well-being and prosperity mean different things to different people and cultures throughout the world. Sumak Kawsay (Buen Vivir, Good Living), the indigenous paradigm proposed as an alternative to the development paradigm, understands Buen Vivir as reaching a harmonious relationship between self, others, and the environment. Thus, 'learning for what' becomes learning to take care of oneself, learning to take care of others (family, community, peers), and learning to take care of the environment. These tree domains lead to a holistic, alternative understanding of the whys, hows, and what fors of education and learning.

» Adults and the adult age  Life expectancy has grown all over the world. As a result, the adult age has expanded. However, and despite the lifelong learning rhetoric, adults continue to be denied the right to education and the right to learn. Today, in too many countries, education policies and programmes do not go beyond the age of 30 or 35. It is time to organize adulthood in different age groups for education, training and learning purposes. While we oversegment childhood, adolescence and youth, we continue to refer to adulthood and to adult education as something that covers from 15 year-olds to 95 year-olds. A very effective strategy to ignore older adults and to amputate the lifelong learning concept.

Related recent texts of mine in this blog (English/Spanish)

- "Rethinking education" and adult education, Regional consultation with civil society on the document "Rethinking education: Towards a global common view?", ICAE-UNESCO, Brasilia, 25 April 2016.
- "Replantear la educación" y la educación de adultos, Consulta regional de la sociedad civil "El derecho a la educación de personas jóvenes y adultas desde una perspectiva de aprendizaje a lo largo de la vida", ICAE-UNESCO, Brasilia, 25 abril 2016.

- What is youth and adult education today? (2017)
- ¿Qué es educación de jóvenes y adultos, hoy? (2017)

- Formal, non-formal and informal learning (2016)
- Aprendizaje formal, no-formal e informal (2016)

- Giving up to a literate world?, in: Adult Education and Development, Issue 80, December 2013.
- ¿Renuncia a un mundo alfabetizado?, en: Educación de Adultos y Desarollo, número 80, Diciembre 2013

- From Literacy to Lifelong Learning: Trends, Issues and Challenges of Youth and Adult Education in Latin America and the Caribbean, Regional Report prepared for the Sixth International Conference on Adult Education - CONFINTEA VI, organized by UNESCO. Belém, Brazil, 1-4 December 2009.
Report commissioned by UIL-UNESCO.
- De la alfabetización al aprendizaje a lo largo de la vida: Tendencias, temas y desafíos de la educación de personas jóvenes y adultas en América Latina y el Caribe, Informe Regional preparado para la VI Conferencia Internacional sobre Educación de Adultos - CONFINTEA VI, organizada por la UNESCO. Belém, Brasil, 1-4 diciembre 2009. Informe encargado por el UIL-UNESCO. Una contribución del Centro de Cooperación Regional para la Educación de Adultos en América Latina y el Caribe (CREFAL) a CONFINTEA VI.

- Social Education and Popular Education: A View from the South, Closing conference AIEJI XVII World Congress “The Social Educator in a Globalised World”, Copenhagen, Denmark, 4–7 May, 2009.

- Lteracy and Lifelong Learning: The Linkages, Conference at the 2006 Biennale of ADEA, Libreville, Gabon, March 27-31, 2006. 

- On youth and adult learning (compilation)
- Sobre aprendizaje de jóvenes y adultos (compilación)

- On Lifelong Learning (compilation)
- Sobre Aprendizaje a lo Largo de la Vida (compilación)

 

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