Leaders of tomorrow have a say

May 9, 1997

EUROPE is in crisis over job creation. Long-term and youth unemployment are areas where education is seen as a key factor in improving the sad statistics: five million people aged 16 to 25 are jobless in the European Union.

Graduate employment prospects are thus a key factor in the higher education debate. Also central is the knowledge society; what sort of graduates does society - and the private sector - want?

One suggested approach to tackling graduate unemployment has been to calculate, in consultation with industry, the number of graduates that are "needed", and then tailor student intake accordingly.

But experience of this type of planning shows that such estimates frequently turn out to be wrong. We cannot forget that unemployment trends change - what looks like a safe study option today could be an area of mass unemployment at graduation time.

Students should have the right to choose their careers, having shouldered the burden of ever-rising higher education costs throughout their studies. The reality is that some graduates are confronted with unemployment in a field in which they have little interest.

Economic and social changes, along with new expectations of graduates' skills, have prompted the discussion on the content and quality of education. While Unesco's consultation on higher education earlier this year focused on graduate employment, talks centred mainly on the market's need for a different type of graduate. The new graduate should not necessarily be expert on one subject, but be trained to cope with a changing market, with uncertainties, with teamwork, and above all be flexible.

The latest report from the European Round Table of Industrialists, Investing in Knowledge - The Integration of Technology in European Education, describes today's learners thus: "Today's learners need to be able to process complex information, solve problems, make decisions against the background of uncertainty and relate their knowledge and skills to novel and ever-changing situations. Learning therefore should be active, constructive, goal-oriented and systematic."

The changing demands of the labour market mean that students - tomorrow's leaders - want a relevant education that will improve their job prospects after graduation. Institutions, however, are not so quick to respond to the demands of the labour market.

This calls into question the aims and role of the university and the sort of education it should provide. The university should educate students on how to achieve their potential; while students should be trained in how to take in, process and use information, they should also have the opportunity to develop skills which are important for themselves and for society. Knowledge also means developing analytical faculties and having the space to experiment with new ideas.

The university also has a role as society's think tank. The European Parliament addressed the issue in a resolution on the European Commission's white paper Education and Training - Teaching and Learning - Towards the Learning Society: "Ithe white paper mainly focuses on knowledge and cognitive skills and takes insufficient account of the social, emotional, moral and spiritual aspects of education and training..."

The challenge for the university is to identify its obligations.

Quality is another key higher education issue both in terms of the education provided and of institutional management. Quality assurance programmes are not new. It has been argued that such programmes are a political response to public and private sector expectations of value for money in education spending. This is probably true, but these programmes have also evolved the idea of quality.

Take for example the shift in the definition of quality in education addressed at this year's National Unions of Students in Europe conference. Lee Harvey, of the University of Central England at Birmingham, talked about transforming higher education, with the student as key stakeholder. He argued that higher education must be transformed. This calls for a new approach, where the student is at the centre of learning, not the teacher, and thus requires new ways of learning.

Maggie Woodrow, of the University of Westminster, asked whether we can talk about quality without discussing equality, such as participation in and access to universities for all groups in society. There must be a willingness to take positive actions to provide more equal possibilities for participation, bearing in mind the role of education as a process which equips individuals to participate in society, develop skills and have a better chance on the labour market. Education without equality is not a quality education.

This is enforced by the idea of lifelong learning and the knowledge society. During the Dutch presidency of the EU, the education minister launched the knowledge society as a target in his education programme.

Educational institutions are not the best at equipping graduates for the future, when technology and information processing will be vitally important.

Most countries lack the political will and financial commitment to provide adequate equipment and training for young people. Adults also face the need for new training and education. Many companies provide some training, but as it stands, the onus is generally on the individual to find courses.

Education has suffered public spending cuts in EU states, leading to a heavier financial burden on students. Traditionally, education has been seen as a public responsibility, although private funding has become more common.

Now institutions are forced further into the private market to seek funding, while the cost of education rises (eg technical equipment, growing student numbers). The need for private funding has led to closer contact with the private sector. This paves the way for a more influential role for those putting up the money, possibly determining the content of education, and threatening academic autonomy.

Changes in higher education in Europe are, naturally, more complex than outlined here. Issues like the mobility of students and staff are central to a healthy system. The popularity of exchange programmes like Erasmus and the attendant problems with recognising qualifications and courses, when coupled with lack of funding, demand greater emphasis on finding solutions. The complexity of the European higher education agenda demands that more effort be made to create a better system. Students should be key partners in any discussions.

Kathrine Vangen is director of the National Unions of Students in Europe.

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