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Measuring, improving and promoting effects of lifelong learning

On September 20th 2007, the European Commission (DG Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities - DG EMPL) hosted a Thematic Review Seminar under this semester's umbrella theme of "Increasing investment in human capital through better education and skills". The Lisbon Strategy for Growth and Jobs underlines the crucial role of investment in human capital.  Although some progress has been made, there is still much to be done to achieve a real breakthrough in lifelong learning. Investment in human capital needs to be more effective and efficient.

Thus, the seminar, titled 'Measuring, improving and promoting effects of lifelong learning', focused on existing evidence of the effects of lifelong learning on individuals, particularly workers, as well as on how governments could improve the outcomes of lifelong learning. It was attended by governmental delegates, national and European stakeholders and social partners from EU Member States, Iceland and Norway.

The seminar was opened by Xavier Prats Monné, Director for Employment, Lisbon Strategy and International Affairs, DG EMPL. He stressed the necessity of linking education with the labour market and the cooperation between policy makers and practitioners in these fields. He also emphasised the importance of lifelong learning, which implied a real life-cycle approach, and which represented an essential element of the flexicurity principle. There was still too little learning and too few people engaged in lifelong learning, thus analytical expertise, as presented in this seminar, was important.

In his presentation, David White, Director for Lifelong Learning, Education and Training Policies, DG Education and Culture, placed lifelong learning in the context of a changing economic environment in which low skilled jobs are vanishing or moving "east" and thus the low skilled are in danger of becoming marginalised. To avoid this, Member States have committed themselves to have coherent and comprehensive lifelong learning strategies in place. Essential features of these strategies are that they cover all systems and levels, have evidence-based priorities, avoid dead-ends and are created and implemented in partnership with stakeholders. Areas in which progress has been made include qualifications frameworks and validation of non-formal and informal learning, the recognition of the importance of pre-primary learning and the autonomy and accountability of higher education institutions. However, there are still areas where some challenges have to be faced, particularly when it comes to early school leaving, participation of older workers and the low-skilled, making VET attractive and the transition between VET and higher educational training. Thus the way forward lies in improving the knowledge base, ensuring sustainable funding, raising skills levels, addressing socio-economic disadvantage, using the potential of migrants and high quality teaching.

Magda Zupančič, Vice Chairperson of the Employment Committee (EMCO), stressed the importance of preventing education failures in order to prevent labour market failures. Education in school should be combined with work training. However, not only young people needed attention, an important issue was also improving the skills of older workers.  EMCO has developed guiding principles for strategies in lifelong learning, such as: to prevent early school leaving and provide a second chance to those who prematurely left initial education; to foster lifelong learning by establishing frameworks for training and continuous  education and to make financial arrangements sustainable, including the use of ESF; to anticipate challenges by assessing future labour market needs and the corresponding skills requirements; promote vocational training by linking it with work practice experience and ensure that skills are recognised; to support access to the labour market, including better matching demand and supply and providing active labour market policies, with personalised help complemented by incentives and sanctions; to involve all relevant actors including the social partners and providing incentives to municipalities to offer activation measures at local level.

Mark Keese, OECD, emphasised that evidence points to clear economic benefits from lifelong learning both for individuals and for society as a whole, but there was also evidence of sub-optimal investment in training. Furthermore, participation in adult learning activities varies substantially across countries, individuals and over the lifecycle.  It was clear that more data were needed in order to determine long-run economic outcomes of training and there was a need for better measures of informal learning. The OECD is currently developing a new survey to measure adult skills as part of its Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). It will measure consistently across countries the incidence and volume of training as well as the benefits of learning. It will also be able to link training more directly to skills. Barriers to training and its potential benefits will be identified.

The effects of education on employment, wages and productivity: a European perspective

Thematic expert, George Psacharopoulos, European Expert Network on Economics of Education (EENEE), focused in his presentation on the effects of education on employment, wages and productivity. Education increases labour force participation (which is even more true for men than for women), and earnings and decreases unemployment. However, education has also wider social benefits. It raises tax revenues, health and civic participation while reducing welfare payments and crime. Educated people also tend to perceive themselves as happier than less educated people. So, education yields high private and social returns as well as fiscal returns. When it comes to the country performance of EU Member States, great varieties can be found. For instance, pre-school coverage is low in countries like Ireland, Greece and Poland. At lower secondary level, Italy, Greece and Portugal score low, according to the most recent PISA study. For the upper secondary level, drop out rates are high in Malta and Portugal. Furthermore, only two European universities, Cambridge and Oxford, can be found in the world≠s top 20. Finally George Psacharopoulos presented some policy advice, such as to give priority to the lower levels of education and to fund general education curricula as well as education quality improvements. Fees should be charged in higher education, which must be balanced with student loans, and decision-making in education should be decentralised.

The effects of training on employment, wages and productivity: a European perspective

Giorgio Brunello, University of Padova, IZA, CESifo and EENEE, concentrated on the effects of (workplace) training on employment, wages and productivity. In this respect Europe proves to be very heterogeneous with low education and low training in the "Olive Belt" (Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal) and high education and high training for instance in Scandinavia. He emphasised that a better-educated labour force is associated with higher training incidence and intensity. However, there are large variations in training incidence and intensity, across countries, as well as within countries. Most training is organised or paid for by employers and decreases with age. Large and innovative firms usually train more. When it comes to the effects of training on wages, some European studies find a 5-6 percent wage return to a training course. However, training does not pay off only for employees but also for employers. Some European studies indicate that productivity increases faster than wages after training, therefore investment in training remains profitable. The main training policies in Europe include co-financing schemes for firms (levy/grant schemes, tax deductions, "train or pay" schemes), co-financing schemes for individuals (vouchers, learning accounts, grants) and apprenticeships and pay-back clauses. Among the policy issues that he raised were substitution effects and deadweight losses, certification, forecasting of skill needs and dissemination of information. He also stressed that policy evaluations in this field were almost non-existent. Furthermore, he called for product market deregulation and policies that foster innovation, both of which tend to stimulate skill formation at work.

Country examples

The United Kingdom shared its experience with the so-called Learner Accounts. In September 2000, England introduced Individual Learning Accounts (ILAs), aiming at widening participation in learning and helping to overcome financial barriers to learning faced by individuals. ILAs were available to everyone and were to be used to pay for learning of the learner's choice. However, the scheme was far more popular than expected, so that the government had to announce the withdrawal of the scheme in October 2001. There were concerns about how the scheme was being promoted and about abuse of the system by learning providers, offering low value and poor quality. Thus the system was reformed, starting with two pilot projects in September 2007.  The experience of these Learner Account pilots will help to develop the concept further. For this purpose the UK envisages the introduction of Skills Accounts, which will give individuals greater ownership and choice over their learning. They will include a reform of information, advice and guidance, the creation of a new adult careers service and the introduction of Learner Accounts as the means by which adult learners would access their entitlements to funds covering all or part of their course fees.

Norway presented their policy on validation and recognition of non-formal and informal learning. The Norwegian lifelong learning strategy started in 1999 with the so-called Competence Reform, which gave all adults a statutory right to education, acknowledged the workplace as an important learning arena and established a system for validation and formal recognition of non-formal and informal learning. The latter was particularly important to give individuals a second chance and give credits for their learning in the workplace or at home. The national validation project was established for documenting and validation learning attained through paid and unpaid work, organisational involvement and organised training. The methods developed for assessing non-formal and informal learning include the dialogue-based method, the assessment of the portfolio and vocational "testing". In the validation procedure it is important that a person's competences and skills are seen as something more than can be objectively measured. Competence and skills are created in relation with other people within a particular context and cannot, therefore, be assessed in simple quantitative ways. Thus the validation system is not a "one size fits all" system.

Views of the Social Partners

The country presentations were followed by a panel discussion involving representatives from the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), The European Centre of Enterprises with Public Participation and of Enterprises of General Economic Interest (CEEP), BusinessEurope, the Social Platform as well as the thematic experts.

Bengt Hedenström, CEEP, emphasised the importance of lifelong learning to fulfil the Lisbon objectives. Particular focus should be given to increasing the labour market participation of older workers and their involvement in training activities. The value of age was often underestimated. He also stressed the importance of the interaction between formal and non-formal education. In order to take away all barriers for adult education and participation in lifelong learning, more investment in public services was needed. Joël Decaillon, ETUC, focused on the transferability of rights. If an employee changed company it had to be ensured that his or her training and knowledge would be recognised by the new employer. Although the validation of skills was mainly based on trust, it was vital that the process was also transparent. He emphasised the importance of social dialogue and the European Social Model to strengthen solidarity in all Member States on all levels.  For Heikki Suomalainen, BusinessEurope, measuring, improving and promoting effects of lifelong learning was vital for Europe. In the context of lifelong learning, a closer look had to be taken at the increasing demand for adult learning, ageing populations and technological changes. However, the motivation of adults to take up lifelong learning was an issue often neglected.  He elaborated on the role of employers in adult learning, concluding that educational and vocational training might be expensive but employers could also not afford to ignore it. David Lopez, Social Platform, stressed that lifelong learning was also a tool to create better citizens. Although much had been said during the seminar on the link of lifelong learning to employment, its social aspect should not be overlooked. The Social Platform advocates a true universal access to lifelong learning for everyone and the necessity to avoid newly-created inequalities and discrimination (e.g. old-young, men-women, migrants). He stressed the need of strengthening social, civil and society dialogue in Europe.

Closing remarks

The seminar was closed by Robert Strauss, DG EMPL, Head of Unit on European Employment Strategy, CSR, Local Development. He stressed that mutual learning, as provided by this seminar, was not a question of simple "copy and paste" but an important tool to address common challenges. Thus the goal of the Mutual Learning Programme of the European Employment Strategy, consisting of Thematic Review Seminars and Peer Reviews, was not imitation but inspiration. 

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