As you will know, the European Commission recently published proposals for the European Education Area (EEA), the Digital Education Plan and the European Research Area. These three wide-ranging documents will provide the policy background to developments in education and research over the next years.  The proposal is that the objectives of the European Research Area should be achieved by 2025 – an ambitious goal!

I had the privilege to be part of two panels during Lifelong Learning Platform’s Lifelong Learning Week in the beginning of December 2020, and to speak about the EEA and the Digital Education Plan – I thought I would share my thoughts with you. I would encourage all of you to read these policy documents – they will have a considerable impact on all our work in the years ahead.

The pillars of the EEA are as follows:

  • Quality
  • Inclusion and gender equality
  • Green and digital
  • Teachers and trainers
  • Higher Education
  • Geopolitical dimension

Each of these pillars has a range of objectives associated with them, from the establishment of centres of vocational education and training excellence to Erasmus teaching academies, through to recognising the skills gained through non-formal learning including volunteering – great to see that volunteering is included! The Commission wants to put in place an enabling framework which will identify targets and indicators; and a governance framework by 2025.  The EEA will be supported by funding from the Structural Funds, ESF and the recovery and resilience facilities in each Member State.

I think we can welcome these proposals in general terms, but there are a few aspects that we might have hoped would have greater prominence. It is important that the EEA is seen as a major contribution to the achievement of a greater social Europe, in line with the European Pillar of Social Rights. Key to building a sustainable future for all EU citizens and residents is that everyone has the right to  a quality and inclusive learning experience and that they can acquire skills of all kinds that allow them to participate fully in society.

To achieve a holistic lifelong learning approach we need more synergy between education areas and less focus only on formal education. This is extremely important for us in the non-formal and volunteering sector.

Five years is an ambitious timeframe and it has to be accompanied by equally ambitious investment. It would be fantastic to see the recovery and resilience plans invest in education and training – they have been asked to invest 20% of the funds –  so that everyone, no matter their age or economic circumstances can benefit. Erasmus+ and the European Solidarity Corps are a key part of the EEA proposal but, as we know, these programmes would need to change radically if they are to be truly inclusive and lose their elitist tag.

Investment is also needed if everyone in the EU is to start their learning journey on an equal footing.  We have seen how the Covid 19 pandemic has highlighted the digital divide, inequality of access to infrastructure and equipment, mental health and well-being issues etc etc.  We need equity of provision.

As I said, it was good to see volunteering specifically mentioned in the EEA proposals and recognised as a way of acquiring personal, professional and life skills. The validation and recognition of these competences should be reinforced by support for national volunteering platforms in all member states.

How will the EEA be implemented? What will it take? First, commitment to and adoption of the proposals at Member State level. A commitment at both European and Member State level to investment not only in formal education and VET but also in non-formal education, youth work, adult education and volunteering – all experiences where people of all ages can gain skills and enrich their lives. The implementation of the EEA should be co-created with a wide range of stakeholders, including civil society. I called for a place for civil society, probably best represented by the Life-long Learning Platform in the enabling and governance frameworks. Finally, an understanding of the ambition and goals of the EEA is essential at all levels but especially on the ground, among teachers, trainers, learners, students, youth workers, adult educators, volunteers. Communication of this ambitious plan will be key to its success!

Oonagh, Volonteurope President