"Symbols can be so beautiful, sometimes." – Kurt Vonnegut
At the centre of Europe 2020 – the EU's main strategy for growth in the current decade – lie two European targets for education. The EU aims to increase tertiary graduation rates to at least 40 % and reduce early school leaving (ESL) rates below 10 % – despite the fact that education remains a national, rather than a European, competence. But if the European Union is not responsible for the policies that may lead to the success or failure in reaching these numbers, are the targets meaningful, or merely symbolic?
The EU's education targets can be understood as setting essential goals for a continent that has the ambition of staying competitive in an increasingly innovative and globalised world. Indeed increasing the number of higher graduates and reducing school dropouts are really rather obvious steps for any knowledge-driven economy. Yet does it really matter to overall economic development if these particular quantitative goals are achieved? A recent article in the Higher Education News suggests that the importance of these targets does not lie in their concrete realisation: “are they meant to be achieved or do they exist as almost arbitrary numbers that only give an indication of the necessity to focus on a particular policy field”.
Looked at in this light, the specific targets could indeed be questioned. For example, with regard to higher education graduation, some believe that an increase in tertiary level graduation from 31 to 40 % in 10 years would happen on the basis of actual trends, even without a target. Others may question whether 40 % is the right target when comparing Europe with other world regions. According to an OECD report China has quintupled its number of tertiary graduates and doubled its number of tertiary institutions during the last decade, and the number of higher education graduates will reach 195 million people by 2020. This means that China will then have almost as many graduates as half of the total EU population. Seen from this angle, the EU 40 % target may appear to lack ambition.
On a practical level, the EU2020 strategy enables strings to be pulled at both European and national level in a more concerted way. EU member states have committed to achieving Europe 2020 targets and have translated these into national targets and growth-enhancing policies. At European level, the Commission reviews a country’s progress toward the Europe 2020 targets in education continuously. Many monitoring tools are now in place for this: the annual Education and Training Monitorsets out the progress on the ET 2020 benchmarks and core indicators per country, including the Europe 2020 headline target. Other studies, such as Eurydice’s recent Education and Training in Europe 2020 , provide cross-country analysis and outline recent national reforms. The Commission then issues recommendations for policy development to countries. Although not binding, they are usually taken seriously by European countries and national reforms are initiated in response.
So can these European targets make a concrete difference to the way we understand a country's educational performance? When looking at data for Spain in Eurydice's Education and Training in Europe 2020 report, for example, we see that the country has already met the tertiary education graduation rate benchmark of 40 %. However, this positive picture is counterbalanced by a glance at the astonishing 24.9 % early school leaving rate – making Spain the country furthest from reaching the 10 % EU target. The combination of information on the two headline targets points to huge educational inequalities, with a disturbing gap between the many tertiary graduates and the many school drop-outs. In the Czech Republic, the situation is diametrically opposed. Only 5.5 % of Czech pupils leave school early – giving it one of the best records in Europe. However, only 25.6 % of people have obtained a tertiary degree in the Czech Republic.
Although reality is complex and much more could be said, these data are telling. It is clear that the challenges in the Czech Republic are very different to those in Spain – but in both cases, action is needed. So even if these targets can be considered arbitrary or lacking ambition their interplay can reveal significant information about a country's education system, and help to identify where educational priorities should be placed.Judging the usefulness of targets in this way may only be part of the story, however, and we should also pay attention to their symbolic value. After all symbols matter, and history has shown us their importance in creating cohesion and common purpose. And for the sake of European competitiveness in an ever more interdependent world, cohesion is essential if the colourful mosaic of national education systems is to be valued in the rest of the world. So perhaps in future we should be a little more wary of dismissing targets as “merely symbolic”?
Authors: David Crosier and Andrea Puhl