On 1 July, the European Commission launched the European Skills Agenda for sustainable competitiveness, social fairness and resilience. It defines 12 actions for upskilling (improving existing skills) and reskilling (training in new skills) for the coming five years. With this Agenda, the European Commission aims to address structural gaps and to enable the transition of the existing systems to a green and digital economy. The Agenda comes amid enhanced social and economic challenges, as Europe steps out of the lockdown and enters into the recovery phase.
The European Skills Agenda, as in the first Skills Agenda (2016), puts a strong emphasis on vocational education and training, and has been adopted along with a Proposal for a Council Recommendation on vocational education and training (VET) and a Communication and proposal for a Council Recommendation to support youth employment.
However, some of the Agenda actions are of specific interest for higher education, or of horizontal nature. Action 5 is about “Rolling out the European Universities Initiative and upskilling scientists”, while Action 7 addresses “Increasing STEM graduates and fostering entrepreneurial and transversal skills”. The Agenda also puts a strong emphasis on lifelong learning, notably through Action 8 (Skills for life), Action 9 (Creating individual learning accounts), Action 10 (A European approach to micro-credentials), and Action 11 (the Europass platform).
Hence, the Agenda brings together ongoing and new measures for an ambitious roadmap for a transformational recovery in European societies and economy.
While it puts a focus on the European Universities Initiative, it should be recalled that this is just one particular initiative for university cooperation. Universities, individually and within networks and alliances across Europe, already play major roles in innovation ecosystems, as partners for education and training, knowledge providers (and co-creators), and central brokers in connecting different stakeholders, including employers and civil society.
Likewise, crisis recovery and the green and digital transformations require a holistic response from all professional and disciplinary areas, including STEM (which is mentioned in the Skills Agenda), but also social sciences and humanities. Addressing the skills needed for researchers should closely connect with ongoing discussions on academic career assessment, with researchers incentivised and rewarded for investing time and effort in developing a broad and diverse range of skills.
Some of the new elements of the Agenda, such as micro-credentials, are still to be developed and defined. EUA is member of the European Commission’s micro-credentials consultation group and also partners in an Erasmus+ funded project on the issue, together with other stakeholder organisations and governments. In general, a cross-sectoral approach is needed in engaging stakeholders from different policy areas and education sectors, connecting employment, social, education and training policies. This is definitely welcome for higher education, as EUA also stressed in its recent response to the EU Industrial and Digital Strategies.
An open issue is how all such initiatives translate into lifelong learning, from the perspective of different types of institutions, which have to enable the seamless learning processes. The further development of the European Education Area could bring a major push in enhancing these links and in enabling better synergies and transitions between the different education sectors, with tangible benefits for lifelong learners of all ages. Ambitious policy reforms also need to consider the continuation of existing policy processes, notably to the Bologna Process, which has shaped the European higher education landscape with key contributions in the area of quality assurance, degree reforms, and recognition, and is, in this regard, of crucial importance, for example, for the development of a European approach to micro-credentials.