Long-term vision of education critical to building skills for the future

Interview with Gordon Purvis, ETF Human Capital Development Expert and Country Liaison for Serbia and Türkiye

Gordon Purvis, who joined the ETF as Human Capital Development Expert in April 2023, was shaped by the iconic city he grew up in.

“Glasgow has always had an international dimension due to emigration”, he says. “Many of my mother’s and father’s relatives moved abroad, some to Canada, others to the southern hemisphere, so I’ve always been an internationalist. It’s a very outward-looking city…” 

Purvis stayed in the city to study history at the University of Glasgow. Influenced by Paul Ginsborg’s data-driven histories of contemporary Italy, Purvis began specialising in Italian history. He was in Turin for the famous Italia 90 World Cup and in Sicily, in Capo Milazzo near Messina, for two summers, working tables in a pizzeria. He was in Florence in 1992, on an Erasmus placement, and now – three decades later – one of his primary roles at the ETF will be to integrate what we have learnt through Erasmus+ into education and skills development strategies creating forward thinking and outwork looking citizens equipped with skills for the future.

“Erasmus has become this iconic scheme”, Purvis says, “it has grown and grown and become an amazing success. Of all the EU programmes, it’s by far the best known.” 

“But the key thing”, he adds, “is that it’s bottom-up: educationalists link up and send in proposals. In the EU context it’s usually top-down: the Commission signs agreements with countries, then that country’s ministers tell its civil servants what to do.” 

The ground-level popularity of Erasmus intrigues Purvis who foresees his role at the ETF as “learning the lessons and sharing them: how do you feed up what’s happening to ministries of education? How do you quantify the results and experiences? How do you build up capacity and understand the implications of Erasmus for human capital development and vocational education?” 

He has spent most of his career as a consultant, project manager, grant assessor, project monitor and mission leader, specialising in Eastern Europe, but also working in Georgia, Azerbaijan, Türkiye and the Middle East. At the outset of his career, he was often working with projects in former Soviet countries:

“What was interesting was that Russia was an ally, an incorporating partner of these initiatives. It’s astonishing is to see how that has all fallen apart.” 

Purvis was a programme manager for three years at the European Commission’s EuropeAid programme, before moving to the European Agency for Reconstruction. He then worked for many years as a freelance evaluator, assessor and project coordinator, largely in the Western Balkans.  

Working for three years as a project coordinator at the Vienna-based International Centre for Migration Policy and Development, Purvis saw the migrant crisis close-up before it was widely acknowledged as a geopolitical issue:

“The overall objective was to have better understanding, cooperation and coordination between the North and the South. We basically did a programme called EuroMed Migration that brought together senior civil servants from Mediterranean countries, including Arab ones.” 

“It was quite successful in a way”, he says, “but a project like that can only be successful according to political will. Back in 201213, the Syrian and Lebanese people were saying ‘help us, there’s a major crisis’, but the EU had a financial and fiscal crisis of its own. Our work wasn’t taken as seriously by policy-makers as it might have been until the 2015 crisis hit.” 

Purvis is realistic about the challenges of such work:

“I wouldn’t say we solved anything and you don’t have any easy wins in that world because when you’re doing a project like that the forces beyond it are immense. Sometimes our role was in a very specific area of cooperation, but other times it was just a matter of keeping the door open, encouraging North-South cooperation even between people who don’t see eye to eye.” 

Now, years later, he discerns the fruits of that work:

“Many countries have found common ground. Migration is a constantly changing context and, for example, Morocco is increasingly a country not of transit, but of destination.” He also sees the learnings of that period as relevant for his current position at the ETF. “Skills gaps mean that migration is an integral part of the labour market.” 

With such a varied, international career, Purvis has himself acquired an intriguing skill set:

“When you’re working in the European Commission you need the ability to take in and process information, to coordinate it and disseminate it in a very quick, efficient way. You’re constantly reacting and responding quickly, it’s output-orientated: you get a big demand one day, something which is an idea, and the same day you have to go back to the management and give them two or three options…” 

But in terms of the actual delivery of ideas and projects, Purvis says that a collegiate approach is important.

“Coordination is key. You have to make sure everyone is on board all the time. In Montenegro, I would make sure my colleagues in all the other departments were aware of what I was doing.” 

Purvis has often worked as “a type of auditor, sent around different countries checking up on projects that the EU is financing and doing a kind of systems audit”. Sometimes people who work as monitors “want to be policemen”, whereas Purvis believes that one of the key skills is “being a good listener”:

“You have to be a bit empathetic. A lot of the information you get is through speaking to people. You need to be with them, see them doing things on the ground and ask the right questions.” 

There’s a subtle humility to the way Purvis works. “You need knowledge, but you can get knowledge, the facts, quite quickly.” What takes longer is understanding the terrain of partner countries, absorbing their stories and gaining their assent and cooperation:

“Empathy means not discounting their experiences. I’ve worked a lot in the Western Balkans and we never used to consider the former Yugoslavia a backward place. These are extremely skilled people, you’re often dealing with people brighter than you, it’s just they happened to have a dysfunctional political system…” 

The give-and-take of international cooperation means that, as well as listening and empathy, there’s also an assertion of values.

“We have to remind partner countries of EU values  regional cooperation, respect for rights, freedom of movement and so on.” 

Purvis is looking forward to a role at the ETF that is subtly different to what he has done in the past:

“Working in the Commission, it can be very political and any civil service is always fire-fighting, whereas the ETF is more strategic and longer-term. Education isn’t about what happens tomorrow, but about how the country develops, how it equips people with the right qualifications, prepares them as citizens building the future.” 

That longevity of vision is something that appeals to Purvis on both a personal and professional level.

“In education, in all the work we do, the long game is key. That doesn’t mean we should exclude short-term or medium-term gains, but the bigger picture is about creating sustainable, robust, flexible and nimble education systems. We’re living in a world that is changing so fast there’s no point in having a vocational system in which people train for manufacturing when you have no more manufacturing jobs. We need to predict as far as possible the skills needed for the future based on what we know and prepare for the unknowns.” 

He sees parallels here with what happened in the Glasgow of his youth.

“In Scotland in the 1970s and 80s, there was a brutal end to the industrial era. So many lives were affected by lost opportunities. We had thousands of people who were unemployed and we didn’t think in a dynamic way about skills. We didn’t think their abilities could be recognised in different contexts or that they could be upskilled. We never had a generational focus on skills and on wellbeing.”  

There are connections with Turin there, another city that, like Glasgow, has transitioned from being a city of heavy industry to one “repositioning itself as a post-industrial city of services and culture”.  

It’s a period of such upheaval that Purvis looks back to the founding values of the Treaty of Rome:

“We have to take the lessons that Europe learnt in the 50s, to be innovative and move forward in a dynamic way, asserting that we’re better together.”  

Education and Erasmus+ will be an integral part of that onward journey. According to Purvis, until now, education has always been an area of national competence, it has really never been a central part of the EU's story. But now, with skills a central component of the continent’s green and digital transitions, education is – thanks to the ETF and Purvis likely to become increasingly internationalist.

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