Addressing the Challenges of Education in the EU

Source: LinkedIn

By: Peter B. ,Chairman of the Board at Nestlé S.A.

Apprentice in a Nestlé factory in the UK

In the late 1990s, a time when Europe was doing quite well, the European Round Table of Industrialists – of which I have been a member for close to 15 years – said:

“We need a further expansion and improvement of education and training oriented to two objectives:

  1. To supply an individual with quali­fica­tions that are in demand. One of the keywords here is flexibility, which means to provide broader instead of narrow specialist qualifications and to help to adjust these qualifications where necessary.
  2. To supply the economies with the mix of qualifications needed for an effi­cient and competi­tive in­du­stry. In simpler terms: only an economy with a sufficient num­ber of qualified people at all levels can provide jobs for every­body.”

And further: “We need a stronger emphasis on vocational training in dual apprenticeship schemes.”

I believe that the ideas ERT articulated back in the late 1990s are still valid today. They demonstrate that we need both an academic “elite” (mostly in the sense of world-class educated, above-average scientists) and “craftsmen” (people trained through high quality vocational programmes), and they have to be closely linked in business-oriented structures.

When proposed in the late 1990s, the ERT’s ideas were readily accepted by European politicians and the Commission; indeed, they have since been discussed in numerous working groups, interdepartmental task forces, public hearings and stakeholder meetings.

What has happened?

Let me start with the academic elite. In 2010, the European Institute of Technology became operational. This was a 50 person coordination structure for existing national academic bodies, focusing on sustainable energy, future information and communication society, and climate change. And every year the organisation celebrates its annual “EIT Awareness Day”.

This awareness day seems rather urgent. Looking at several lists of the world’s 25 best universities, you will find the California and Massachusetts Institutes of Technology on top, universities in Canada, Australia, Singapore and Hong Kong, but only one of these top 25 universities is from continental Europe: the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, with its two campuses in Zurich and Lausanne. Now I know that using these rankings is slightly unfair, since they are usually set up by Americans, and therefore biased towards institutions teaching in English.

How about craftsmen? Actually, the idea formulated in the late 1990s by ERT was included in the Lisbon targets of the European Union. When I suggest there should be more craftsmen, this does not just refer to blue-collar workers. I am also talking, for instance, about the importance of the innovative technologists and software developers who have brought us tablets and voice-activated mobile phones.

What do the statistics on vocational training in Europe tell us? The share of university students keeps increasing, at the expense of apprenticeships (incidentally, the highest increase in the proportion of academics today has happened in Cyprus, reaching the highest share of all countries). This not really proving the emergence of world-class scientists, it indicates, however, a shift away from craftsmanship.

This shift has had an impact. Recent research by the European Union shows a direct link between the youth unemployment rate and the share of people trained in vocational programmes in a dual system (defined as those who spent at least a quarter of their secondary education time learning in a workplace). In three of the four EU countries where more than 30% of the students received this type of education and training, youth unemployment is below 15%.

For the majority of countries with a lower share of young people obtaining vocational training, particularly those countries where the share is less than 6%, youth unemployment is in the range of 25-55%.

So, as a result of the crisis, Europe has re-discovered this issue. A European Alliance for Apprenticeship (EAA) has now been formed. Some employment is being generated, but not necessarily the kind one is looking for: there is an EAA agenda for 5-10 conferences, workshops, seminars and council meetings.

In summary

Both academic education, with a strong leaning towards more elite institutions, and more apprenticeships are needed to improve competitiveness and employment in Europe. With the right balance between the two, all groups by type of education have a better chance to find a job – as indicated by the ERT report mentioned in the beginning.

But to direct efforts at these two groups – elites and craftsmen – separately is not the right approach. We have to find ways and structures to bring the two closer together.

Let me be clear: some amorphous public-private partnerships and one more level of European-wide coordination will not do the job. We must create focused and efficient links from top academic researchers to practitioners; to wait until universities train such a workforce and then hire the best is not good enough. This was one of the reasons for embedding the Nestlé Institute of Health Sciences in the Lausanne Campus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. And I am sure other members of the two Committees meeting here today have similar examples.


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