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The European Union in crisis: Is public education the answer?

published 27 April 2016 updated 27 April 2016

By Howard Stevenson, University of Nottingham, UK

The events of the last few days highlight the huge problems now faced in the European Union.  The UK has voted to withdraw from membership and this has triggered demands for similar referenda in France, Italy and Holland. Only time will tell if this is the type of problem that can be fixed in due course, or whether it represents a more existential crisis to the EU itself.

What is clear is that there is an ugly anti-politics emerging in which traditional political institutions, and in particular the European Union, are acting as the lightning rod for dissent and dissatisfaction. These problems are grounded in people’s experiences in the years since the economic crash.  Austerity has driven fierce cuts in public services, and in particular education.  Many are without work, but for those with work wages are at best stagnant, and often falling.  Employment is commonly short-term, casualised and precarious.  These are the conditions in which the free movement of labour, one of the great achievements of the EU, can be seen as a threat and the source of a developing hostility to migrants.

The EU’s response to these problems is set out in its 10 year strategy Europe 2020 described as its ‘jobs and growth plan’. Europe 2020 is at the heart of EU policy and commits to ambitious targets in relation to employment, research and development, climate change and sustainability, education and fighting poverty and social exclusion.

The problem is that all these objectives are framed within a fiscal and monetary framework that is underpinned by the logic of austerity economics.  In particular the EU is sharply focused on rigid application of its fiscal responsibility targets which limit government deficits to 3% of GDP and public debt to 60%.

There is therefore a contradiction at the heart of the EU’s strategy 2020.  Its top level targets aspire to increase investment (including in the development if human capital), reduce early drop-out rates and increase participation rates in third level education.  At the same time, governments of member states face huge pressures to meet tight financial targets (and punishments if they don’t).

It is unsurprising therefore if faced with the desire to achieve raised targets, but with less public money, governments across the European Union are resorting to private sector solutions to make good the gap. From increased tuition fees, through so-called public-private partnerships to full scale profit driven provision and out-sourcing, privatisation is becoming an increasingly common feature of ‘public education’ in European Union member states.

The problem is that these private sector solutions may appear attractive to hard-pressed finance ministers but they often provide a poor service to users and represent poor value for money for taxpayers.  The performance of the for-profit Swedish Free School system is well understood, whilst evidence of cherry-picking, system gaming and poor governance are all to be found in systems that are inviting private interests to deliver more and more public education.  In England, one of the areas most affected has been adult and further education (FE).  Budgets in this sector have been slashed, whilst FE colleges have been turned into quasi-businesses, often having to compete with private sector for-profit providers. Working conditions of those employed in the sector have been driven down and casualization, and even zero hours contracts, are now common.

However, this is exactly the provision intended to meet the needs of those most vulnerable in the labour market – the unemployed, the low skilled and those in need of ‘second chance’ opportunities. Denied access to these opportunities, or unable to navigate systems that are incoherent and often inappropriate, it is small wonder when those excluded become disengaged and disaffected. Over time disaffection becomes disillusionment and in turn division and resentment develop.

This can be reversed. The time has come for the European Union to put high quality public education at the heart of its strategy to build a more cohesive and inclusive Europe. Encouraging investment in high quality public education not only contributes to the skills development that underpins the EU’s ‘jobs and growth plan, but also promotes a democratic citizenship that must inform a more hopeful and optimistic vision of a social Europe. Investment is the key to a more dynamic and prosperous union. Public education provides the base on which all else can be built.

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