By Mary McAleese
Former president of Ireland, is President of the EU High-Level Group on Modernization of Higher Education.
Europe is grappling with great challenges - too great for any one country to address. Facing economic crisis, widespread unemployment, and rising competition from developing economies, Europe must adjust to technological advances and new modes of working - all while an aging population puts increasing strain on exhausted public budgets. In this fragile context, the European Union must focus on education in order to nurture people's talents and potential, and thus to spur economic and social recovery.
Education holds the key not only to better jobs and stronger GDP growth, but also to the cultural, political, and social development that is needed to ensure that citizens are well-rounded and grounded enough to lead at the local, national, and international levels. By focusing on the right policies, EU leaders can ensure that Europeans' education enables them to be articulate global citizens and potent economic actors.
The good news is that European leaders seem to recognize the value of the pursuit of knowledge. When allocating funds in the 2014-2020 European budget, EU governments wisely decided to increase funding for education and research - the only areas in which they did so. This commitment to safeguarding education and research funding should be reflected at all levels of policymaking.
Moreover, in order to drive Europe's transformation into a hub of responsible innovation and ethically sound production, policymakers must ensure that higher-education institutions equip students with cutting-edge knowledge and high-level flexible skills grounded in shared values. This means developing differentiated education systems, ranging from vocational schools to doctoral programs, and giving students access to international experience, which can expose them to opportunities beyond national frontiers.
For example, the Erasmus program, which enables university students to study or work abroad as part of their degree, broadens participants' outlook while enhancing their willingness and ability to go where the jobs are. Such programs also enrich local students and offer valuable insights to professors about other traditions of higher education.
Furthermore, EU leaders must recognize that high-quality instruction is as central to universities as, say, pioneering research. As it stands, while everyone agrees that researchers need extensive training, the prevailing assumption is that great teachers are born and great teaching just happens - a view that is hampering education at all levels.
Improving the quality of instruction in higher education is at the focus of the first report to the European Commission by the High-Level Group on the Modernization of Higher Education (of which I am President). Among the report's 16 recommendations is to develop quality teaching through compulsory continuous professional training, and to recognize and reward achievement. This approach would give educators the skills and motivation that they require to provide the kind of education that Europe needs.
Another crucial issue - and the topic of the group's next report - concerns new modes of delivering education, such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). In fact, some claim that a revolution in the way knowledge and information is created and transmitted is imminent.
While these new modes of delivery are undoubtedly transforming education, especially higher education, what is happening may be more evolution than revolution. In other words, rather than bringing about the end of brick-and-mortar education, MOOCs and other innovations will spur the progression to so-called "click-and-mortar" education. This suggests that the group's recommendations in this area will include complementary improvements to existing formal and non-formal systems, as well as mechanisms for reviving lifelong learning in higher education.
For students, the foundations for success must be laid early, beginning with pre-primary and primary education. And policymakers must recognize the risk of perpetuating a digital divide that favors those who are already advantaged. Studies show, for example, that the vast majority of participants in MOOCs - which have been praised for their supposed accessibility - already have higher-education qualifications. Europe's leaders must work to ensure that new modes of delivering education translate into better opportunities for a broader range of people.
The pace and scope of technological progress makes predicting impending developments, and how they will affect education, virtually impossible. Regardless of which new technologies arise, however, education will boil down to teachers and students. Providing tools and opportunities that support the evolution of their respective roles is essential to creating a labor force capable of adapting to changing circumstances. That is the real challenge facing Europe.
Copyright: Project Syndicate/Europe's World, 2014.