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Education for all: towards greener, digital, and inclusive societies

An interview with Pilvi Torsti, newly appointed Director of the European Training Foundation.

The European Union's focus on promoting skills development and education has become a top priority, with the European Year of Skills taking centre stage in the upcoming months. To gain an insight into how skills development can support a better future, we interview Pilvi Torsti, the newly appointed Director of the European Training Foundation (ETF). In this article, we explore her perspective on the critical role of education globally, the ETF's work on education and training in neighbouring countries, and her vision for a brighter future through the development of essential skills and competencies.

Could you tell us about your journey from growing up in Finland to becoming the director of the ETF?

I began my journey from Finland at the age of 17 when I received a scholarship to attend the United World College of the Adriatic in Italy. With around 80 nationalities and 200 students from across the world attending the school, that experience had a profound impact on me. Located in Italy’s most eastern region, close to the former Yugoslavia, I was there during the years of conflict in the Balkans in the early 90s. I became emotionally and intellectually drawn to the region, the questions related to war and peace were acutely tangible. Even though I returned to Finland to study history and journalism, I always had the intention to go back to the Balkans, which I succeeded in doing, first as a journalist and then as a MA and PhD student.

I like to describe my professional life with three distinct titles: I first served for about 10 years as an academic working at the University of Helsinki, where I specialised in history politics and didactics, geographically concentrating on the Western Balkans; and the second over 10 years I have worked as a decision-maker in public policy, both as a State Secretary in different ministries and as a member of the Finnish Parliament, with a focus on science, education, learning, employment, and skills. The third title runs throughout my life as an education activist and expert, co-founding the United World College in Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where I am still the chair of their governing foundation, and starting an early education company HEI Schools with the University of Helsinki. I also have an active role in the global discussion on education which has been enhanced by the leadership network of Eisenhower Fellows that I joined in 2013.

When I read the advert for the ETF position in early 2022, I thought the job brought together everything I had done professionally as well as my passion for education, science, training, and developing skills. I believe strongly that this is the most efficient way to change the world and I think that the ETF has that DNA too, and in fact that impression has become just stronger over the last 12 months of my journey to becoming the next director.

You have extensive experience working in the Western Balkans, but the ETF also operates in other regions. How do you plan to balance the different needs of the various regions that the ETF works with?

It’s important to recognise the importance of using different methods in different countries to have different impacts. It's a complex task, but the ETF appears well-organised to handle it. I find the ETF's two-level approach quite unique in EU external relations: the ETF has in-depth understanding of different countries and general expert understanding on a thematic level about human capital development and issues related to it. I hope to bring my background on both levels too: as a researcher and policymaker on education and training reform processes in different contexts, such as Finland and Bosnia, and more general global education expertise, to this mix to help to identify strengths, weaknesses, and areas for development.

EU was founded to build peace, prosperity and cooperation in Europe. I find this mission at the heart of the work of ETF. I think that the EU has been addressing global challenges strategically in recent years and the ETF can and should play a vital role in this context. It’s important that the EU recognises the critical role that human capital development can play in tackling a range of current challenges including the green transition, digitalisation, geopolitical changes as well as post-war situations. Educating and training people is essential to prepare them to cope and respond effectively and to build peace in long term.

The ongoing war in Ukraine of course, has created an imbalance in the geopolitical context, with millions of internally displaced people and refugees in need of support. I’m very happy to see that the ETF has made a significant contribution to this by assisting citizens in relocating and addressing the important question of how to identify their skills and find employment opportunities. European countries also need to plan for this situation to continue for some time and I see the ETF’s work as essential in helping to address these issues and help individuals to rebuild their lives.

I also believe that in the coming decades, we should see major global developments in the field of education. Having worked on numerous education projects, I've learned that not all projects have long-term value and impact. It's essential to analyse what actually does have long-term value, significance, and impact - and we need to communicate that effectively to the external world.

Your writing and research has focused recently on a global vision for education. Can you elaborate on your vision and what it means for the ETF's work?

The combination of my academic background, my interest in education as well as my work as State Secretary have given me multiple opportunities and invitations to talk about Finnish education and to consult different organisations working on education systems all over the world. My fundamental presentation has typically been about how Finland, as a relatively poor agricultural country, has become one of the most well-off modern societies in the world today by investing in education - and I mean the education of everybody.

During the pandemic, I reconnected with colleagues from India and New Zealand and we started to share what was happening in our countries. Our starting point was the fact that mass education with opportunities for all is a relatively new concept in human history, which has only been around for the last 150 years or so. The concept grew together with nationalism and the emergence of nation states with the idea was that education and training systems should produce workforces for those states to grow and become harmonious, peaceful and coherent units in the world. The vision that we began to develop, is that the pandemic, for the first time, made educators in the grassroot levels around the world to realise more broadly that they had another context in addition to the national systems.

Teachers in China, Italy or Finland were all dealing with similar issues in their work in terms of distance learning and so on, and through that they were becoming more connected in a global sense. Children and young people too were facing - and will continue to face - issues that are entirely global and shared in nature, whether it’s digitalisation, climate change, cybersecurity, inequalities, which are all issues that we share regardless of where we actually are.

So our vision is about looking at elements of education globally, that could be added to, or become part of, national education systems. And then we look at national strengths too that can be shared. Take India for example, where the national level is very distant from local contexts due to the magnitude of the country. And this is true in many parts of the world. Learning from each other and sharing examples is now easier than ever as we have the technological means to do it and some practical experience – thanks to the pandemic.

All this work and our conclusions very much coincided with last September’s UN Transforming Education Summit. We argue in our publication that unless we have a practical and pragmatic approach to education, we will not manage to transform the education agenda as has been now suggested at the highest level. I think it’s essential that we make sure that voices from different parts of the world are heard and I’m delighted to hear about developments like this at the ETF from Central Asia, Africa and the EU neighbourhood.

How should the ETF prioritise its efforts to engage young people? What might happen if we fail to engage them?

It’s very important right now to consider the current geopolitical situation in Europe and the world. We have to recognise the unique perspective and experience of the younger generation. The shock of conflicts, such as the war in the Balkans and the ongoing invasion in Ukraine, has changed the way young people view war and their role in creating a more peaceful world. They face a different reality than previous generations, one that demands a different set of skills and coping mechanisms. We must address the issue of youth and peace on European level bringing together the Union members and the neighbourhood.

Organisations that work on education and training issues, including the ETF, must recognise this shift in experiences and priorities. We must take a holistic approach to address the needs of different age groups. The ETF will need to engage with different stakeholders and partners to maximise the impact of its work. Through research and testing/piloting we can determine which interventions work in different contexts for different populations and this applies to both young people and adults. In Finland for example, we have seen the benefits of monitoring our adult learning programmes. We actually pilot in different contexts what works in terms of getting people involved and the impact that different interventions have. It would be very interesting to apply a similar approach among different stakeholders in different countries to assess the impact of the ETF’s work.

Can you tell us what you think about the green and digital transition? Do you think they are the same thing or different? What impact do you think artificial intelligence will have on this transition?

Both green and digital issues have been on my table a lot over the last four years. One tool that I think can be useful also in the ETF context is the 2030 Digital Compass that the Commission launched last year, of course together with the entire Agenda2030. In Finland, we completed our national Digital Compass and it was even debated as a proposal of the government in Parliament earlier this year, meaning that it now has gained real political support. It covers four areas - infrastructure, private enterprises, public services, and skills. I think the Digital Compass can also be a very useful tool in the ETF context to identify the position of different countries in terms of skills and whether there is something that we can work on in our partner countries. By using the same framework everywhere, everyone can have the same understanding and measures, skills needs included.

The green transition goes hand in hand with this in many respects. I'm not yet well-enough informed about this in all the countries the ETF works with - where they stand at present and where they are with the green transition in line with their development, be that economic, labour markets, or education and training. Taking a leap forward to move from relatively polluting industries to very green industries typically requires a lot of upskilling and investment. So this is for sure a very topical, interesting and important area of the ETF’s work. One of the first ETF documents I read when preparing for my first interview in the director application process was actually on the skills required for the economy. I found it very impressive, first analysis I had read with clear and concrete recommendation for the skills development.

When it comes to AI, there is an interesting story from when Finland held the EU presidency in 2019. Typically the presidency provides gifts such as ties or scarves, but I was approached by a colleague from the University of Helsinki, who had been working on an open online AI course. We had the idea to make the Elements of the AI online course available in all European languages and contextualise the course to local contexts and offer it as a gift to all EU citizens. Some months after the gift had been given, we had a meeting with the minister Nadia Calvino from Spain telling us that she was following the course and how great it was! I think AI should be taken into account as an important element of the global vision for education that I mentioned before – in education and skills development, we cannot afford to neglect fundamental changes like these. We have to do short and long term planning in parallel as education systems tend to change very slowly, so if we want to have a relevant system in 2030 and beyond, we’d better get started now!

Ursula von der Leyen recently announced that 2023 will be the European Year of Skills. Why do you think she made this announcement at this particular time?

I believe this announcement reflects the increasing acknowledgement of the importance of skills in addressing the challenges we face today, such as the green and digital transition, post-war reconstruction, and the Covid-19 pandemic. Skills are crucial in helping us to adapt to these changes and create a sustainable future. I think it’s a logical choice, as skills are relevant to everyone, regardless of age or background. Furthermore, I think the emphasis on skills is a way to make these changes more accessible and tangible to people. A "Year of Technology" might not resonate with everyone, but skills are something that people can understand and connect with. Additionally, skills are crucial for promoting economic and social development and overall, I think it's a well-deserved recognition for the importance of skills and importance of human development – also including the broad notion reflected in the German word “bildung” - and a great opportunity for the ETF to showcase the impacts of its work and expertise of three decades.

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