23rd Oct 2016


Europe lags on education investment

  • A classroom in Romania. Early education can improve the future performance of students and develop their social and emotional skills.

When it comes to education, Europe is still fragmented, with different school systems, lack of investment and inequalities in terms of access to the labour market, an international study shows.

"There is a wide scale of divergence" among member states, EU education commissioner Tibor Navracsics noted after the publication of the OECD's new Education at a Glance report.

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The OECD, a Paris-based club of mostly wealthy nations, studied the education system in its 35 members, including 22 EU countries. Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Lithuania, Malta and Romania are not OECD members.

"There are poor counties, there are rich countries. There are countries where the education system performs quite well and countries where there is a stalemate, " Navracsics said.

According to the report, 17 percent of 20-24 year-olds in the EU are what some call NEETs, which stands for “neither employed nor in education or training”.

This is more that in 2005, before the financial crisis, when the figure was 16 percent. "The share of NEETs ranges from a high of over 25 percent in Greece, Italy and Spain to less than 10 percent in Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands," the report notes.

In the EU22, young adults who have dropped out of education face unemployment rate three times higher than normal, OECD's secretary general, Angel Gurria, said while presenting the report in Brussels last week.

One of the most important steps to avoid school dropouts and unemployed people is to develop early childhood education.

"It can improve the future performance of students and develop their social and emotional skills," the OECD says, while noting that "early childhood education is almost universal in EU22 countries". 

In average, in 2014, 77 percent of 3-year olds were in early childhood educational development programmes or pre-primary education, compared to 71 percent in the whole of the OECD.

Gender segregation

At the end of the education cycle, the OECD sees a persistent gender gap in employment and salaries.

Among people who did not complete upper secondary education in the EU22, the organisation noted, the employment rate is 18 percentage points higher for men than for women.

Women with higher education do better.

But, on average, even women with undergraduate degrees earn 26 percent less than their male counterparts.

Part of the problem is becase "the fields of study that young women and men choose tend to perpetuate gender segregation in the labour market," the OECD points out.

Women are over-represented in education, health and welfare, but under-represented in sciences and engineering.

Teaching jobs are badly paid, but there are skills shortages in science and engineering, as well as better wages and career opportunities.

Zooming in on the teaching sector, the OECD noted that salaries either fell or, in some countries, stayed more or less the same in real terms between 2005 and 2014.

Far from UN targets

"Investment to reduce class sizes have consumed resources which could be better spent on recruiting and rewarding high quality teachers," Gurria said.

He said that high performing education systems should "systematically prioritise the quality of the teachers rather than the size of the classes."

But investment, or lack of investment, is one of the main problems in European education.

"Unfortunately member states have been lagging behind or stagnating for 10 years in investment in education," Navracsics said.

He said education remains an exclusive power of member states, but that the EU Commission helps in funding the construction or modernisation of schools.

Differences in investment in education are highlighted by EU countries' performance on reaching the UN sustainable development goals.

Twelve of OECD's 35 members, and only six European countries meet the benchmark levels in at least five of the 10 education targets set by the UN.

The benchmarks include goals such as giving access to education to all children by 2030, or elimination of illiteracy and gender inequalities.

Small countries do better

Belgium and Netherlands are doing the best, but Germany, France and the UK each meet fewer than five benchmarks.

"Countries which started early," are now ahead, Gurria observed, adding that "it's a question of how much is invested, where it is invested, and a question of priorities."

He said that countries like Belgium and Netherlands, which are "small, open economies, [and] don’t set rules in terms of standards … have to get their competitive advantage by having a skilled workforce and the necessary responses to the market opportunities and the market demands."

"Larger economies will feel perhaps a little more comfortable, they don't have to be on their toes all the time," he added.

For the future, one of the main challenges for EU countries will be the integration of migrants in the education system and then the job market.

Navracsics pointed out that 29 percent of the people who sought asylum in Europe in 2015 were under 18.

Given their previous living conditions, this represented "a huge influx of people with very poor education background," he said, adding that "education can be most the efficient platform to integrate."

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