Commissioner Gabriel

Interview with Commissioner Gabriel: Erasmus+ driving the education of the future

The ETF recently had the pleasure of interviewing the European Commissioner, Mariya Gabriel, responsible for the portfolios of Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth. 

What is your vision for the future of education? What can be learnt from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic?

The education sector has undoubtedly been one of the most affected by the pandemic. But at the same time, I must say that I have been happy to see the extraordinary creativity and mobilisation of the whole sector. The challenges posed by the crisis are testing us at all levels, but they are also pushing us to find the right answers. It is therefore of strategic importance to adapt the rules, to improve the resilience of education and training systems, to make them more inclusive and digitally ready for future challenges, but also for the green and digital transition.

We need to pay special attention to digital infrastructure, connectivity and equipment, but also to digital skills and competences of teachers and students, and new education pedagogies.

Digital education should work for all, as it becomes an increasingly essential part of modern education systems. Therefore, we need to invest in equipment, in connectivity, in the training of our teachers - 50 % of European teachers said that they had their first experience of distance learning during the current crisis.

Our initiative Connectivity4School will make the most of EU support with regard to digital connectivity, internet access and purchase of digital equipment, e-learning applications and platforms for rural and remote areas.

With the Digital Education Action Plan we propose a vision for high-quality, inclusive and accessible digital education in Europe. Today, almost half of the population in the EU lacks basic digital skills. At the same time we know that 90% of future jobs will require digital skills.

It is crucial to invest in STEM education. My ambition is also to encourage girls’ and women’s participation in STEM. For instance, with the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) we aim at providing 40000 trainings, of which 45% targeted to girls and women.

We should also empower teachers to help everyone reach their full potential. This is what we will achieve through creating 25 Erasmus+ Teacher Academies. They will contribute to improving teacher education policies and practices in Europe.

We need to provide the best pathways to higher education and continue to foster advanced skills. Initiatives such as the Digital Opportunity Traineeships, the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions or innovative degrees under the umbrella of the European Universities alliances will help us in this endeavour.

Our initiative on building the European Education Area by 2025 embraces a future-looking, people centred vision. It aims to contribute to strengthening the resilience of European education and training systems to face the digital and green transitions, rooted in quality and inclusive education to all and across the whole life course. We aim to construct this common space of education through more than 40 concrete actions, in a co-creation perspective, together with Member States and stakeholders.

In order to better coordinate Member States actions in strengthening cooperation and exchange in digital education, we will create the European Digital Education Hub. It will link national and regional digital education initiatives and actors and will serve as a think-tank, supporting the development of policy and practice and monitoring the development of digital education in Europe.

Furthermore, we will ensure access to a European platform of high quality content to share certified online education resources and link up with existing education platforms.

We will support the establishment of 50 Centres of Vocational Excellence within Erasmus+ programme. They will become reference points for both initial training of young people as well as continuing up- and reskilling of adults.  We need them for the jobs of the future. And, we are further working on the European approach on microcredentials and a roadmap of actions to ensure the take-up, validation and recognition of short-term vocational courses.

Last but not least, we want to modernize our higher education system. Higher Education Institutions play a key role in our society to nurture the talents of the future. We need a challenge-based approach, we need our companies to work with universities from their beginning. That is why, we envisage full rollout of the European Universities initiative under the Erasmus programme in synergy with Horizon Europe. We now have more than 280 higher education institutions in 41 alliances, located all over Europe. Research and Innovation are an integral part of the European Universities concept, which together with education, must be at the service of the society. 

To unlock the full innovation potential of higher education institutions’, in March, we launched a new Initiative through the European Institute of Innovation and Tecnology. Innovation Capacity Building for Higher Education initiative aims at increasing their entrepreneurial and innovation capacity whilst integrating them into Europe’s largest innovation ecosystem.

Finally, we need to work on tackling disinformation and giving instruments to our schools, teachers and pupils with critical thinking and creativity, to realize their potential.

Last December, I launched the Education for Climate Coalition. Its objective is to mobilize the entire educational community, schools, universities, their students and teachers, through a renewed commitment to climate change.

Holistic approach, coordination and concrete action are our key words towards building more sustainable, resilient and digital educational and trining systems.

How is Erasmus+ contributing to the education of the future?

The future of Europe depends on an ambitious commitment to high quality and inclusive education and training systems. This is why, we are determined to unleash the potential of the Erasmus+ programme, in line with the political priorities and high ambition, in particular regarding the green and digital transitions, the reinforcement of learning mobility, enhanced social inclusion reaching more people with fewer opportunities.

With a budget of EUR 26.2 billion and an extra EUR 2.2 billion from the EU external cooperation instruments, the new Erasmus+ programme 2021-2027 almost doubles its 2014-2020 budget.

The programme will support innovation and new partnerships between academia, science and business, to find new and sustainable solutions for the future. It will cover school education, vocational training, higher education, adult learning, youth and sport, and will support these sectors throughout Europe’s transition to a greener and digital economy.

But for me, the most significant number is 10 million,­ which is the number of European citizens who have benefited throughout 34 years of the programme since 1987 up to now and the ­mere fact that we propose to equal this number from 2021 to 2027.

To illustrate how Erasmus+ contributes to the education of the future, let me give some examples:

First, the education of the future is a more inclusive education! Erasmus+ emphasizes equal opportunities and access, inclusion, diversity and fairness for organisations and participants with fewer opportunities. To achieve that objective, grant top-ups can be made available for people with fewer opportunities to account for their needs.

For the first time ever, the new programme will enable school pupils and adult learners to carry out a mobility period abroad, not only in groups but also as individuals. Furthermore, Erasmus+ will be more accessible to smaller, grassroots organisations, like youth groups and sports clubs so that Erasmus+ funding gets to the people who would benefit from it most.

Second, the future is digital. Erasmus+ strongly promotes projects aiming at solutions or methods that help teachers and learners in online or blended, self-paced learning.

We need to support the competences of both teachers and learners to make smart and responsible use of digital tools. It is also crucial to boost Europe’s capabilities in sectors like artificial intelligence, robotics and environmental engineering.

The programme will also support the digital capabilities of the higher education sector through the full rollout of the European Student Card Initiative to achieve digitalised and simplified administrative processes and a stronger European student identity.

Moreover, Erasmus+ supports IT platforms such as the School Education Gateway, EPALE and eTwinning that provide valuable resources for learners, teachers and educators, support schools and education professionals in collaborating and developing projects, finding partners, sharing best practices and being part of the learning community in Europe.

Erasmus+ is  also diversifying mobility formats, for instance by introducing new flexible mobility formats such as blended mobility, combining a physical mobility with a virtual component as a complement to physical mobility.

Third, Erasmus+ also recognises the key role of education institutions for a successful transition to a climate neutral Europe by 2050. As the programme has become a synonym of free movement for European learners, it needs to lead by example by encouraging participants to use lower-carbon means of transport as an alternative to flying. And, the “Green Erasmus+” is more than that. It will offer more opportunities for learners and organisations to develop knowledge and skills in matters of sustainability and to develop environmental-friendly approaches, while promoting the incorporation of green practices into all projects.

The programme will also deliver on the so-called ‘Blue Erasmus’ dimension, notably with the development of skills and competences, project results and knowledge creation, including analyses and best practices relevant to the objective of preserving healthy oceans, seas, coastal and inland waters.

Fourth, Erasmus+ will continue to strengthen its innovation dimension and promote transformation by rolling out initiatives such as the European Universities, the Centres of Vocational Excellence and the Erasmus+ Teacher Academies and by increasing investments in forward-looking study subjects.

We are not focused only on higher education, but there is also a possi­bility of reinforcement of the vocational education and training.  The programme will give additional incentives to long-term learner mobility, ErasmusPro. VET providers complying with specific rules will be able to use Erasmus+ funding to organise mobility for their staff and learners to partner countries around the world.

Fifth, there will also be more funding opportunities in the field of youth. The newly featured youth participation activities will provide more space and possibilities for young people to take an active role in civic and democratic processes. This will contribute to their sense of European identity and build more bridges between young generations and decision-makers on both a European and national level.

Discover EU – the recent, successful initiative that gives 18 year-olds the opportunity to discover Europe through learning experiences - will become part of Erasmus+ youth. It will allow thousands of young Europeans to explore the diversity of the European Union and make new friends across the continent while embracing sustainable travel.

Finally, the new Erasmus+ programme builds on the unique opportunities and experiences of the last 30 years. With inclusion, green and digital dimensions and accent on innovation, I am confident it will simplify mobility and exchanges across our continent.

How can the Neighbourhood and Enlargement countries make the most of their participation in Erasmus+?

Erasmus+ is not only our flagship programme for education, training, youth and sport: it is also a key vehicle for European integration and for the transmission of European values. We are therefore firmly committed to supporting Neighbourhood and Enlargement countries to make the most of the many opportunities that it offers.

Some of the Enlargement countries have already been associated to Erasmus+ or its predecessor programmes for years – this has been the case for Turkey, North Macedonia and Serbia. Full association to Erasmus+ is a turning point in bringing candidate and potential candidate countries closer to the EU, particularly their education and training sectors and their young people, as it comes with a wealth of opportunities in the many sectors covered by the programme. That is why we would like in the coming years to move towards and associate other enlargement countries to the programme. We are talking about the Western Balkans – Albania and Montenegro, which already have candidate country status, and Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, which are potential candidates.

Let me say that association to Erasmus+ is not simple by any means: the programme is largely decentralized; hence, it requires the creation of solid administrative structures, so-called National Agencies, before full association takes place. That process takes years, with no guarantee of success. A great deal of commitment from the third countries is needed. Nevertheless, that is where we want to go.

If a country is not yet associated, Erasmus+ still offers great opportunities to all Neighbourhood countries, in the Eastern Partnership and the Southern Mediterranean thanks to its international dimension. Indeed, in the field of higher education, exchanges and capacity-building projects have already been possible for many years; the same is true for youth (non-formal education) projects, or eTwinningPlus projects for schools in a number of countries. With the new programme, we are expanding the range of possibilities to Vocational Education and Training (VET), where we will have capacity-building projects, and virtual exchanges, an innovative sector that until now we only piloted in the Southern Neighbourhood, but that as from now will be open to other regions. In countries in the Neighbourhood, we support National Erasmus+ Offices in order to promote the opportunities offered by the programme. 

How important will the digital and green transformation be to build future-proof education and training systems, also for the EU’s neighbours?

The digital and green transformation is reshaping every aspect of our lives – how we work, learn, teach and communicate. This undoubtedly requires decisive actions to further strengthen education and training systems  and make them future-proof, more inclusive, resilient and capable of tackling furture disruptions.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown EU Member States and Neighbourhood countries the importance of digital education. In this respect, countries in the EU Neighborhood share similar challenges than EU Member States, even if they are sometimes aggravated by infrastructural constraints. The digital divide, for instance, can be particularly worrying in countries with a very young population, like those in the Southern Mediterranean.

At the same time, the push for digital education is essential for all countries, if they want their education and training systems to continue being relevant in the 21st Century. The digital transformation of society necessitates a re-think of how we learn and teach in view of making learning and teaching more flexible, tailored to each needs and interactive. Young people need to be equipped with media literacy, critical thinking, computing, and problem-solving skills if they are to shape and lead the digital era. 

Europe’s education and training systems have to keep up with the digital transformation in order for our young people to realise their full potential. This is why I presented  the new Digital Education Action Plan, which provides a clear roadmap on how best to ensure inclusive, accessible and high-quality digital education across Europe. The Action Plan not only builds on the lessons learned during the pandemic but also provides a long-term vision for the ambitious rollout of digital education in Europe. It focuses on the digital readiness of education and training systems, such as infrastructure and connectivity, along with the ambition to provide people with a wide range of digital skills. These two strategic priorities complement each other and need to be achieved in parallel, because we cannot  talk about boosting the digital skills of young people if our education and training sectors are not equipped to inspire, teach and prepare people for the digital era.

One of my key priorities has always been to promote cross-border and cross-sectoral cooperation in digital education, including with neighbouring countries. I am convinced that the digital education initiatives we are working on have the potential to strengthen relations and help promote a true global partnership in this area. Geographically, the Action Plan focuses on the Western Balkans, the Southern Mediterranean, the Eastern Partnerships and Africa as priority regions, building on the success of eixisting initiatives that have gained prominence also at global level, such as the SELFIE self-reflection tool for schools andthe Digital Education Hackathon. For the last 12 months, I have also been working closely with the Western Balkans on the Western Balkans Agenda on Innovation, Research, Education, Culture, Youth and Sport. This Agenda will further increase the region’s capacity to meet global challenges, including the green and digital transitions, through future-proof and inclusive education and training.

As to the green transition, if we look at the situation across Europe right now we see very different approaches to education for environmental sustainability. Some are very advanced, others face challenges. Sustainability is not integrated systematically into curricula and teachers are often lacking skills and confidence to teach about these issues. Schools, universities and all education providers need support to embed sustainability in teaching and learning and in all aspects of their operation (buildings management, food, waste, transport etc.). 

The European Commission wants to support Member States in their efforts to embed environmental sustainability in their education systems. In this regard, together with my team, I am working on a proposal for a Council Recommendation on environmental sustainability, which will be ready by the end of the year. It will help strengthen cooperation and activities at European level, including through the Erasmus+ programme, and provide us with a common understanding and shared language of education for environmental sustainability.

I also continue to work on the development of the Education for Climate Coalition – an initiative I launched at the 3rd European Education Summit in December 2020. The Coalition aims at mobilizing the education and training community to work towards achieving a climate neutral and sustainable Europe. It is about likening policy initiatives to concrete projects and pledges.

Finally, on 22 June, I organised an event in the framework of this initiative. Together with representatives from the Committee of the Regions, the European Parliament and key stakeholders we discussed what the education systems need in order to contribute better to the green transition.


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