We do not need to make great speeches in order to understand the importance of lifelong education and training: a simple glance around at the world will suffice. Take the workplace, for example, which has changed more in the past ten years than over the preceding 50. Today, robots, fax machines and computers have become familiar on production lines and in offices.
Scientific and technical progress and information technology have entered all areas of life, both at home and work. They have changed relationships at work, the position and role of each individual in their profession, production processes, and so on. These changes will continue, constantly requiring new knowledge and a renewal of skills. At the same time, the globalisation of the economy and the competition this generates are bound to bring about a general long-term rise in the standards of qualification within Europe's education systems.
All this will require an overhaul of our education systems. Not so long ago, the knowledge acquired during the course of one's first 20 or 25 years was sufficient for the remainder of one's life. Today, this is no longer the case. Every day thousands of people lose their jobs because their know-how is out of date. The value of a diploma, of a qualification decreases more and more quickly.
Thus, we know that, if ten million jobs were immediately available, companies would not succeed in finding all the candidates suitable to take them up, due to lack of sufficient qualifications, even though Europe has 18 million unemployed. This situation, which generates intolerable social exclusion and uncertainty, is a damning indictment of the failure of our education systems to adapt to current circumstances.
Access to education and training can no longer be reserved for one age group. Both public authorities and private companies recognise the need for lifelong education, but progress in this direction has so far been very slight. Nevertheless, the few experiments conducted here and there underline the formidable potential of such an approach.
The European Year of Lifelong Learning 1996 is dedicated to ensuring that this happens. During this year, some 700 events are planned in all the European Union countries: conferences and seminars. A network project will link up local "multimedia resource centres", particularly in the most deprived areas. Their job will be to give residents of all ages access to these tools.
The commission has also made lifelong education a long-term priority, recognised as such in the White Paper on education and training which was proposed, at my instigation, and approved in December. The White Paper proposes to consider new methods of assessing skills. The idea is that each person will undergo a flexible and practical assessment of the knowledge they have acquired during their life without necessarily having to take further qualifications.
Let us take the example of an employee with a basic vocational diploma taken 15 years ago which is of no use now in searching for a job. Over the years in various jobs, however, other knowledge has been acquired: good basic language skills, knowledge of word processing and an adequate command of language both orally and in writing. How can the individual be helped to recognise their assets? The White Paper suggests that a system of skill accreditation should be put in place, bringing together the professional and trade sectors concerned, training centres and companies. This could culminate in the issuing of personal skill cards. Organisations such as the European Banking Federation have already shown interest.
This idea is not meant to be restricting in any way: we are not talking about introducing rules and regulations. It is not the role of the commission to intervene in national education systems. Its action consists in encouraging student and teacher exchange programmes, thanks to well-known initiatives such as Erasmus or Comenius and also in complementing national initiatives, making known the good practices in place in individual countries and promoting dialogue and ideas.
This is the aim of the White Paper and also of the European Year of Lifelong Learning. For, at least in the first instance, it is imagination and will that Europe will need to transform the principle of lifelong education into a reality.
Edith Cresson is European Commissioner for science, training, youth and education. Yesterday she gave the keynote speech at the UK launch of the European Year of Lifelong Learning in Edinburgh.