EU-member nations making slow progress on education targets, EC says

28/01/2008

Bloc members have achieved only one of five education benchmarks that the EU wants met by the end of the decade. Progress towards the other four has been moderate, the European Commission concluded in a recent report.

By Svetla Dimitrova for Southeast European Times in Sofia -- 28/01/08

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Only 1.3% of the working age population in Romania participates in education and training. [AFP]

Further efforts are needed over the next three years if EU-member nations are to achieve all five education benchmarks that they agreed on in 2002, according to a progress report the European Commission (EC) issued in October. Noting that only one of the targets has been accomplished, Brussels warned that meeting the rest of the goals remains a serious challenge for education and training systems in Europe.

During a March 2000 meeting in Lisbon, EU leaders agreed on a strategy to make the bloc "the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-driven economy by 2010". As part of efforts towards achieving that goal, common objectives for improving the education and training systems in Europe were outlined in 2002.

The five benchmarks include reducing the dropout rate to 10%, cutting by least 20% the percentage of low-achieving pupils in reading literacy and ensuring that at least 85% of young people will complete upper secondary education. The other two targets involve an at least 15% increase in the number of tertiary graduates in Mathematics, Science and Technology (MST), and steps to reduce the gender imbalance and create conditions for 12.5% of the adult population to participate in lifelong learning.

Based largely on 2005 statistics, the EC annual report on progress towards meeting the Lisbon objectives in education concluded that the Union has succeeded in meeting only the benchmark for MST graduates, whose number has increased by over 170,000, or more than 25%, since 2000.

"If present trends continue, over 1 million students will graduate in mathematics, science and technology in the EU in 2010, compared to the present (2005) level of 860,000 graduates per year," the EC said.

The best-performing countries in terms of MST graduates per 1,000 people in the 20-29 age group are Ireland (24.5), France (22.5), and Lithuania (18.9) -- while Slovakia, Poland, Portugal, and Italy showed the strongest growth, ranging from about 70% to nearly 100%.

But little progress had been made towards reducing the gender imbalance among MST graduates, the report said, citing a mere 0.4% increase in the proportion of female graduates -- from 30.8% in 2000 to 31.2% in 2005.

The four best performers as regards gender balance were Estonia, Bulgaria, Greece and Romania, where females account for more than 40% of all MST graduates. The ratio is highest in EU candidate Macedonia, at 46.9% in 2005.

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Gender equality in education is lacking, the report says. [EU]

With progress in the four other areas still sluggish, however, the EC warned that unless significantly greater efforts are made, "a high share of the next generation will be at risk of social exclusion, at great cost to themselves, the economy and society."

Continuous improvements have contributed to a 2.3% decrease in the number of early school dropouts since 2000. But at an EU average of 15.3% in 2006, their share was still high and showed that faster progress is needed to ensure that no more than 10% of students will be leaving school prematurely by the end of the decade.

"The European objective is to encourage young people to remain in education or training after the end of compulsory education and to obtain at least upper secondary education," said the report. "Educational attainment of at least this level is understood as the minimum necessary for active participation in the knowledge-based economy."

Slovenia (5.2%), the Czech Republic (5.5%), Poland (5.6%), Slovakia (6.4%), Finland (8.3%) and Austria (9.6%), along with Norway (5.9%), which is not a member of the EU, have met or surpassed the target for 2010. Croatia, which hopes to join the EU by that year, is also among Europe's best performers, with a drop-out level of 5.3% in 2006.

Malta and Portugal were cited as the bloc's worst performers on this indicator, with rates of 41.7% and 39.2%, respectively.

No progress has been made towards achieving the benchmark to slash the percentage of low-achieving 15-year-olds in reading literacy. In fact, the share of low achievers grew from 19.4% in 2000 to 19.8% in 2003, suggesting most EU members have a long way to go to ensure that by the end of the decade, fewer than 15.5% of their 15-year-olds will belong to that group. The bloc's best performers, according to 2003 statistics, are Finland (5.7%) and Ireland (11%).

"Acquiring basic competences is a first step to participation in the knowledge-based society," the EC noted in October. "However, at the age of 15 about 1 million out of 5 million pupils in the EU are low performers in reading literacy."

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The number of MST graduates has increased by 25% since 2000. [Getty images]

The EC report also showed that there has been insufficient progress towards achievement of the benchmark, requiring that at least 85% of 22-year-olds in the EU should have completed at least upper secondary education by 2010. "The share of young people who have completed upper-secondary education in the EU is below 80% and has only slightly improved since 2000," the Commission said.

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With rates of above or close to the 90% mark, the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia are the bloc's top performers, while Portugal, Malta and Spain are its worst in this area.

In 2002, EU nations agreed that the percentage of population aged 25-64 participating in lifelong learning should reach 12.5% in 2010, viewing this as fundamental for the competitiveness and economic prosperity of the Union, as well as for the social inclusion, employability and the personal fulfilment of people.

Denmark, Britain and Finland are well ahead of other member states in this regard. The percentage of the working age population participating in education and training last year amounted to 29.2%, 26.6% and 23.1%, respectively, well above the 9.6% EU average. Bulgaria and Romania were the bloc's worst performers with a rate of 1.3% each, behind Greece with 1.9%.

"Top-quality education and training is vital if Europe is to develop as a knowledge society and compete effectively in the globalising world economy," EU Commissioner for Education, Training, Culture and Youth Jan Figel said as the EC released its annual assessment. "Regrettably, this report shows that the member states need to redouble their efforts to make the EU's education and training meet the challenges of the 21st century. The message to policy makers in the member states is clear: we need more efficient investment in our human capital."

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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