What’s wrong with European education? Despite the best efforts of EU governments, youth unemployment remains unacceptably high at roughly 18%. Whilst this does represent an improvement over previous years (it was over 23% in 2013), and there is obviously a great deal of variety between European countries (in Germany, only 7% of young people are unable to find a job, whereas in Greece the figure is over 50%), there are still a heck of a lot of young Europeans out of work.
Yet, alarmingly, some surveys suggest that almost 30% of employers have difficulty filling vacancies. So, is this a problem of the broader economy (i.e. there just aren’t enough jobs to go round), or are young people being badly prepared for the job market? The International Labour Office (ILO) reported in 2014 that, “on average, the level of skills mismatch is considerable in Europe”, and argues that it is contributing to higher costs for business, workers, and society.
Should schools and universities be teaching students different skills? Are some EU Member States doing a better job than others? Could a stronger focus on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) be the answer? Or do we need more apprenticeships and vocational training, helping to prepare people for specific trades and crafts?
Curious to know more about education systems in the EU? We’ve put together some facts and figures in the infographic below (click for a bigger version).
We had a comment sent in by Kevin, who believes that too much focus has been put on higher education in Europe at the expense of trade skills, engineering, and vocational training. He believes that the German education system, which places an emphasis on vocational training, would be a good model for the rest of Europe.
To get a reaction, we spoke to Andreas Schleicher, Director for the Directorate of Education and Skills at the OECD. Does he think German education could be a model for the rest of Europe?
I think Germany has a great tradition of advanced and high-quality vocational training. But, ultimately, I think the choice should be with the young people themselves. We should remember that we are talking about the education of other people’s children. So, we should give young people the best possible information, and allow them to choose for themselves.
For another perspective, we spoke to Prof. Dr. Ludger Wößmann, Director of the Ifo Center for the Economics of Education. What did he think?
Well, there are pros and cons for both approaches; both for a more general, university, academic education, and a more vocational education. Different countries have different mixes between those two approaches.
More vocational-based educations, as Kevin suggests, do facilitate entry into the labour market faster. The transition from school into the labour market tends to be easier. However, there is a downside, at least in the long term, if you are willing to take the full life-cycle of a worker into account. If the economy changes – and we know there are always strong technical and structural changes within economies – then the specific skills demanded 30 or 40 years from now are probably quite different from those demanded today.
So, if you have a very occupation-specific vocational education, then your skills may be less relevant as market demands change, and you may have problems finding new employment if your firm is hit by such changes. By contrast, with a more general, broad-based education, you have to learn specific skills on the job, which means it is harder to transition immediately into employment, but in the longer run you may find it easier to adapt to new demands on the labour market. So, in the long-run, unemployment is lower among older people with a general education…
We also had a comment sent in from Markus, who argues that European education systems need to massively invest in teaching students the right skills for the 21st Century. Which is easy to say… but what are the right skills for the 21st Century? What would Andreas Schleicher say?
It’s a good question. The dilemma for educators is that the kind of knowledge and skills that are easy to measure via standardised testing also happen to be exactly the sort of things that are easy to digitise, automate, and outsource.
The modern world no long rewards us just what we know because, these days, Google knows everything. Instead, it rewards us for what we do with what we know. Can we extrapolate practical lessons and apply that knowledge?
Some of the most important skills for the labour market today are character qualities, the resiliance of people, how do they deal with failure, curiosity, courage, leadership, empathy. I’m not sure whether we should call them skills or knowledge, but character qualities are hugely important for how people navigate an increasingly complex, volatile, and uncertain world.
Finally, how would Ludger Wößmann respond to Markus? What did he think were the rights skills for the 21st Century?
There’s a controversial debate in academic research about what the right skills are for the 21st Century. My own view is that it’s not advisable to talk about very specific types of skills; because we don’t know what the labour market will demand 30 or 40 years from now.
What we’ve seen in the past is that it’s really important for the longer-run development of a country’s economy – as well as for individuals themselves – to have a good basis of broad, general skills: reading, writing, maths, and science skills. Students who have learned this basis will find it easier to adapt to whatever the demands will be in the future. This broad skillset should include the ability to learn for yourself, to understand, and to differentiate between separate questions. It should also include basic IT skills, but it seems certain that very specific IT skills that are relevant now will be out of demand in 10 or 20 years
How can European education systems be improved? Should European education place more of an emphasis on vocational training and apprenticeships? What sorts of skills should students learn to prepare them for the job market? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!