Worlds of Education

“Commitment to social dialogue in education in the European Union: rhetoric or game-changer?”

published 18 May 2021 updated 12 January 2022
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Structures that ensure the meaningful representation of the education workforce in social dialogue with employers are fundamental for effective reform and quality education. Yet, little is known about the relationship between social dialogue, privatisation and trends in education reform in the scientific literature.

In the recently concluded project “ Social dialogue and industrial relations in education: The challenges of multi-level governance and privatisation in Europe”[1], we sought to start addressing this knowledge gap by examining how the complex dynamics between education reform, privatisation and social dialogue have unfolded in French-speaking Belgium, Italy, Poland and Sweden since the financial crash in 2008.

Situating these dynamics as part of the multi-level governance of the European Union (EU), with the European Semester[2] and the European Pillar of Social Rights[3] as specific reference points, we investigated whether fair social dialogue and industrial democracy in education are being undermined by the combination of reform pressures, privatisation, technocratic governance, budgetary constraints and limited investment. Was the ‘ ‘new start for social dialogue’ proclaimed by the European Commission in March 2015 a game changer or merely rhetoric?

The difficult relationship between social dialogue and reform pressure in EU governance

In our final report Rhetoric or game changer: Social dialogue and industrial relations in education midst EU governance and privatisation in Europe, we highlight a tension in EU governance when it comes to promoting social dialogue in education.

On the one hand, we identify a discourse emphasising social dialogue, inclusion and stakeholder involvement at all levels, including social partners, interest organisations, business and other stakeholders. The teaching profession and its representatives are here acknowledged as playing an important role in the preparation and implementation of reforms.

Yet, on the other hand, we also demonstrate increasing ‘lock-in’ effects resulting from the widening array of competition-oriented policy instruments – such as EU-level benchmarks and performance indicators - pitting EU member states against each other.

These frameworks are coupled with measures and sanctions that, in some member states, drive structural reform agendas towards technocratisation and managerialisation, in education sectors and beyond, thus hindering a meaningful and timely dialogue between social partners.

More divided than united

" United in diversity" is the EU motto, but when it comes to social dialogue in education, the landscape across Europe remains one of division and stark contrasts.

Our research demonstrates that the four education systems we studied continue to represent different traditions in terms of industrial relations and social dialogue. Furthermore, the influence of EU institutions on policy-making in member states differs markedly.

The tensions between inclusive social dialogue and structural reform pressure, thus play out very differently in the education sectors of EU member states, which finds themselves in very different places when it comes to responding to recommendations from the EU institutions, due to both historical legacies and current political, economic and social circumstances.

In this respect, the research shows how the drive towards technocratic managerialism, outcomes-based incentives, public-private partnerships and privatisation in education, often encouraged by EU governance, sometimes deteriorates conditions for social dialogue.

We found that the discrepancy between rhetorics and reality is most evident in the case of Italy. In this country, the scope for centralised social dialogue and collective bargaining has been circumscribed over recent years by the combination of reinforced state government control, austerity measures and private sector-like labour regulation emphasising the school and the individual worker as the most important unit for bargaining and mobilisation. In Italy, liberalisation and privatisation in education have negatively affected teachers’ professional autonomy, working conditions, salary, job security and workload.

Similarly, new public management-oriented reforms have in recent years played an important role in French-speaking Belgium, where social dialogue in education has been shaped by an increasing state-level intervention.

In Poland, social dialogue institutions exist, yet the processes continue to suffer from the lack of norms. Trade union members report that social dialogue and collective bargaining are promoted to some extent, but all too often consultation have a purely symbolic nature, serving as a façade for rapid policy changes. Such rhetorics were evident during the recent wave of reforms which changed the school structure and, ultimately, reflected the preferences of the ruling party.

Finally, Sweden provides an intriguing case as a country with an outstanding legacy of industrial democracy and social dialogue, but where the education system has been radically transformed since the 1990s through decentralisation and the expansion of private provision and services. The analysis of a wide-ranging initiative, from 2013 onwards, to introduce a new career stage for teachers, reveals that also the Swedish system faces serious challenges in creating conditions that work for teachers individually, for the profession as a collective, and towards quality and inclusive education for all. Building on the assumption that increasing the wage spread among teachers through state subsidies would render the teaching profession more attractive and improve student learning outcomes, the national career reform thus did not take much into account the implications in terms of teachers’ employment conditions, career pathways, and professional knowledge base at the national level, leaving these fundamental issues largely to the discretion of individual school authorities instead.

In short, serious challenges lie ahead in terms of implementing the European Pillar of Social Rights when it comes to principle 8 “Social dialogue and involvement of workers”, which calls for social partners to be consulted on the design and implementation of policies. Our project findings suggest an picture of ‘light and shade’ where EU governance mechanisms, and the EU Semester in particular, in some member states have reinforced the commitment to social dialogue between trade unions and employers, while in others, they have sidelined social partners and driven education reform further towards technocratic managerialism, individualisation and competition.

In the current context of the Covid-19 pandemic and the adoption of the Recovery Plan for Europe, the potential discrepancies between the rhetorics and realities of EU governance, and how they play out differently across Europe, are to be followed closely.


[1] Coordinated by the European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE), the project involved collaboration between our three universities in Louvain-la-Neuve (Belgium), Napoli (Italy) and Warsaw (Poland).

[2] Introduced in 2010, the European Semester is an annual cycle of economic, budgetary, and social policy coordination. The main outcomes of the Semester are country-specific recommendations issued by the Council of the EU to each Member State. Education, training and labour market policies are considered as part of the European Semester.

[3] The European Pillar of Social Rights was launched at the Gothenburg Social Summit in November 2017. The Pillar includes twenty principles to “deliver new and more effective rights for citizens”, divided into three main categories: i) Equal opportunities and access to the labour market; ii) Fair working conditions; and iii) Social protection and inclusion.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.