Gábor Halász



Education Policy Reform in the European Union

(Education policy for growth, employment and social cohesion)


Manuscript of the published version. To be quoted as follows:


Halász, Gábor (2013). European Union: The Strive for Smart, Sustainable and Inclusive Growth in: Yan Wang (ed.): Education Policy Reform Trends in G20 Members. Springer. pp. 267-288





Education sector reform policies of the EU.. 2

Policy reforms and strategic goals in the education sector 3

Policies related with particular subsystems. 5

Horizontal policies. 7

Lifelong learning as a general policy framework. 8

The content of community LLL policy. 8

A central element: reforming qualification systems. 9

The higher education modernisation agenda of the community. 10

The implementation of community education policies. 12

Governance and policy instruments. 12

Policy-coordination. 13

The future of education reform policies of the EU.. 15

References. 17





This article aims at presenting the key features of the education policy of the EU as part of its overall reform agenda. It exposes the specific strategic community priorities related with the various subsystems of education (vocational training, higher education, school education and adult learning), and also the horizontal goals that overarch the subsystems. The main components of the lifelong learning paradigm, as a general policy framework, are presented, with a special focus on the EU’s higher education modernisation agenda. A detailed picture of various policy instruments the community uses to support policy implementation is also presented. The final section of the article analyses the possible future developments of education reform policy in the EU.




Policy reform in the case of the European Union has a different meaning than for all the other G20 members. The EU, in contrast with the other G20 countries, is not a state. Although it shares many features with “normal” nation states, it is a unique political construct that cannot be described as a “real state”. Even though it has its citizens, its parliament, its government and its policies, and it does operate specific mechanisms of governance these are different from those characterising “real states”. The EU is more than an intergovernmental international organisation (for example, in certain policy areas it has full regulatory power) but less than a federal state (like the United States, Canada or Germany) because its constituents are not “provinces” with limited jurisdictions but powerful sovereign nations. This unique political construct has, however, highly elaborated policies even in those sectors where its regulatory power is missing or is very limited – such as education, for example – and it has a highly developed repertoire of implementation instruments that are put into operation even in these sectors. It can and, in fact, it does initiate policy reforms and it does have the capacity to implement them.


The aim of this article is to present the key features of the current education policy of the EU as part of its overall reform agenda. The article intends to show that the EU has been pursuing marked reform and modernisation policies in the education sector which are strongly embedded into and determined by its overall policy of social and economic modernisation. A special focus is given to the question of how reform policies, which had been defined at community level, are implemented in the member states. This focus is justified by the fact that implementing reform policies in the EU context is particularly challenging since the EU consists of sovereign members states which have almost full control of governing their education systems. The article does not have the intention to present specific policy reforms within specific EU member countries: it deals only with community level goals and actions.

Education sector reform policies of the EU

In the field of education the EU has a well-focussed reform policy which aims at enhancing modernisation processes in its member states. This reform policy is directly connected with its broader policy for “smart, sustainable and inclusive growth” as formulated in the so called EU2020 strategy proposed by the European Commission[1] and adopted by the main decision-making and law-making body of the Union: the Council of the ministers.[2]Smart” refers to the goal of founding growth on the most advanced technologies, “sustainable” refers to both environment friendly and efficient growth and “inclusive” refers to the goal of enhancing the maintenance of social cohesion.


The direct antecedent of the EU2020 strategy is the so called Lisbon strategy, adopted by heads of states of the European Union one decade earlier, in March 2000. The latter set goals for social and economic development to be reached by the end of the last decade. The EU2020 strategy is, in fact, the continuation or the prolongation of the Lisbon Strategy in an enriched and updated form. They both have been urging major reforms in the “European economic and social model” in order to improve the competitiveness of Europe while reinforcing social cohesion and protecting the environment. They both have been translated into specific sectoral strategies, including one for the education sector. During the last decade this was the “Education and Training 2010” strategy, and its prolongation, currently in force, is called “Education and Training 2020”.

Policy reforms and strategic goals in the education sector

The current “Education and Training 2020” strategy, proposed by the European Commission, was adopted by the ministers of education in 2009,[3] that is, prior to the overall “big” growth strategy. This is an important fact because it shows that the education sector is not simply implementing the “big” strategy but it also plays a kind of forerunner role. The prominent role of the education sector in the Europe 2020 growth strategy is shown even better by the fact that from the 8 measurable key policy targets (“headline targets”) approved by the heads of states in summer 2010[4] two are directly related with education (early school leaving and tertiary graduation) and three others (employment rate, R&D and poverty reduction) are strongly, although indirectly linked with the performance of the education sector (see 1. Table)


1. Table
Europe 2020 targets


Estimated starting value in 2010

Target value by 2020

1.Employment rate (in %)



2.R&D in % of GDP



3.CO2 emission reduction targets2

-20% (compared to 1990 levels)

-20% (compared to 1990 levels)

4.Renewable  energy



5.Energy efficiency – reduction of energy consumption in Mtoe

206.9 Mtoe

20% increase in energy efficiency equalling 368 Mtoe

6.Early school leaving in %



7.Tertiary education in %



8.Reduction of population at risk of poverty or social exclusion in number of persons

Cannot be calculated because of differences in national methodologies



According to the text adopted at the highest political level the goal of the community is “improving education levels, in particular by aiming to reduce school drop-out rates to less than 10% and by increasing the share of 30-34 years old having completed tertiary or equivalent education to at least 40%”.[6] This has sent a very clear message to the member countries: in the context of the current financial crisis they should restore the balance of their national budgets so that spending on education and training remains a priority.


The specific education sector strategy adopted in 2009 defined four major objectives: (1) “making lifelong learning and mobility a reality”, (2) “improving the quality and efficiency of education and training”, (3) “promoting equity, social cohesion and active citizenship” and (4) “enhancing creativity and innovation, including entrepreneurship, at all levels of education and training”. Three of these four objectives are not new: they have been present in the sectoral strategy since the beginning of the previous decade. The fourth one (creativity and entrepreneurship) has also been supported by the community for a longer time, even if it did not figure among the big sectoral objectives set in the previous main strategy document. Under each of the four priority areas a number of specific key policy initiatives have been launched.


The policy initiative that might have the strongest and the deepest influence on the development of the education systems in the member states is the reform of national qualifications systems triggered by the adoption of the European Qualifications Framework (EQF).[7] This is a so-called “meta-framework” which aims at orientating national qualifications reforms within the member countries. The latter have committed themselves to establish their own national qualifications frameworks following the EQF principles, that is, linking the level of each national qualification to the European standards and describing specific qualifications in terms of learning outcomes defined as knowledge, skills and competences. The new national frameworks are to mediate towards the national education systems a common way of thinking about learning and about the formal recognition of outcomes of learning. Although this is a fully voluntary process, based on the autonomous decisions of each member country, it would be difficult for any of them to keep away from this harmonisation of national qualifications systems. In fact, the progress of this process shows that voluntary cooperation might often be a stronger unifying force than compelling regulations.


This is also demonstrated by the much better known Bologna process by which European countries are creating a European Area of Higher Education which also means harmonising higher education systems. It is important to stress that this is an intergovernmental process, launched outside the European Union by countries among which several have never been and will never be members of the EU. While harmonising the structure of educational system of its member countries is formally excluded by the EU Treaty, this is something that can be done and is being done on a voluntary basis. The European Commission supports the Bologna process by its implementation capacities but it is not the “master” of it. The commission has its own higher education policy priorities that actually go beyond the scope of the Bologna process as they include reform goals related with funding and governance which are not part of the latter and they stress particularly strongly the mission of higher education in enhancing economic growth and competitiveness.

Policies related with the particular subsystems of education

Traditionally vocational training has been the strongest component of community education and training policy because this was the only education-related field in which the original Treaty of Rome has endowed the Community with formal competences. This was extended to general education only in more than three decades later with the Maastrich Treaty. Vocational training is still a central component of the policies of the Union but today it is strongly embedded into a more general policy of skills and human resource development. This policy area has always been strongly connected with employment policy, and for more than one decade with the policy of lifelong learning which became part of the employment strategy of the Union developed after the conclusion of the Amsterdam Teaty in 1997. A key element of vocational training policy has been the efforts to make vocational qualifications mutually recognised and transparent in order to enhance the free movement of labour. The Union has significantly contributed to promoting the value and social recognition of vocational training in the member states.


Since the eighties higher education has also become a key policy area. Originally the related policies and measures were focusing on mobility, inter-university cooperation and strengthening linkages between higher education and industry but since the first part of the last decade the Union has been promoting a general modernisation strategy that goes well beyond the original focus. Linked with the Lisbon strategy, its departure point is a rather gloomy picture of the state of higher education in Europe, or, as the Commission has put it diplomatically in its most recent communication: “the potential of European higher education institutions to fulfil their role in society and contribute to Europe's prosperity remains underexploited” (European Commission, 2011a; 2). It has proposed reforms or improvements in three specific areas: curricula, funding and governance. The curriculum reform component aims at making teaching better connected to the needs of the world of work and make European universities more attractive globally. Funding reform aims at enlarging and diversifying the funding basis of higher education, and making it less dependent on direct state funding. The aim of governance reform is to make universities more autonomous, more accountable and more entrepreneurial.


School policy is a relatively recent component of community education policies. The strongest element of this is the decision taken by the Council and the European Parliament in 2006 to support the development of eight key competences in the school systems of the member countries. Based on a strong mandate, given by the heads of states in Lisbon in 2000, and after years of difficult professional debates and negotiations the Commission proposed eight key competences that all European citizens should possess (see box). Although the recommendation of the Council and the European Parliament is about key competences “for lifelong learning”, that is, formally they are not linked to any specific sub-systems of the education system, and the legal text does not mention the word curriculum, it is clear that this has a major impact on the conception of school education and school curricula. This has been made clear when the commission launched, in 2008, a public debate on the question of “What should our schools be like in the 21st century?” and the theme of key competences was in the centre of this debate. The policy proposal of the Commission emerging from this debate was entitled “Improving competences for the 21st Century: An Agenda for European Cooperation on Schools” (European Commission, 2008), and it placed the implementation of the key competence recommendation into the focus its proposed school policy. The recommendation, although unevenly, has had a significant impact on school policies in most member countries, often supporting ongoing domestic reforms targeted at standards, teaching practices and assessment (Gordon et al., 2009).


The European Key Competences[8]


ð Communication in the mother tongue;

ð Communication in the mother tongue

ð Communication in foreign languages

ð Mathematical competence and basic competences in science and technology

ð Digital competence

ð Learning to learn

ð Social and civic competences

ð Sense of initiative and entrepreneurship

ð Cultural awareness and expression


Besides the definition of key competences the professional development of teachers has become a cornerstone of community school policy. In the second half of the last decade education ministers meeting in the Council have adopted several decisions on this theme,[9] recognizing the strategic role of the quality of the teacher labor force in educational development. The theme of teachers was also the first among the thirteen action areas defined on the basis of the Lisbon mandate in the “Education and Training 2010” program which guided the education policy related activities of the community during the last decade.


A fourth area seen as a subsystem of education is adult learning. In 2007, after a Europe-wide consultation process the Commission proposed a separate policy package on adult learning which was backed, later on by the Council and the Parliament.[10] This was a kind of renewal of the recognition of “adult learning as a key component of lifelong learning” which has already been well reflected in the fact that participation in lifelong learning of adults is one of the major sectoral benchmarks in education. According to this benchmark, set originally in 2003, by 2020 15% of adults aged 25-64 should participate in adult learning as measured by the European Labour Force Survey which „asks about participation in formal and non-formal learning in the 4 weeks prior to the survey”  (European Commission, 2011b; 34).

Horizontal policies

There are several horizontal EU policies and priorities in the education field that are not necessarily linked with any particular subsystems of the education system although in some cases they are connected stronger with one than with another area. Perhaps the most important of them is supporting equity which has been present in education-related community policies since the beginning of cooperation in this sector in various forms, such as fighting against school failure, facilitating transition from school to work, promoting “second chance schools”, supporting the integration of children with special needs and that of immigrants and ethnic minorities. As referred to earlier (see 1. Table) reducing the proportion of early school leavers is currently a major policy goal supported by one of the community benchmarks.


The promotion of information technology in education has been a similar horizontal priority. The importance of this was recognised at community level earlier than in most members states and a number of specific programs have been launched or supported by the European Commission.[11] Quality assurance and development is a further policy priority that is relevant for all subsystems. The European approach to quality has had a major impact on national approaches, especially regarding such principles as the balance of internal and external evaluation, the involvement of stakeholders in quality processes and the use of quality management for strategic improvement.[12] Finally the promotion of cooperation between education and business has also been a permanent priority of community policies in education.[13]


Recently the theme of education/business nexus has been strongly connected with the issue of the contribution of education to innovation. Strengthening the innovation capacity of the Union has been a central component of community policies having a strong impact on education sectoral policy. Ministers declared 2009 the “European Year of Creativity and Innovation” in order to “raise awareness of the importance of creativity and innovation for personal, social and economic development; to disseminate good practices; to stimulate education and research, and to promote policy debate on related issues“[14] and now one of the “flagship” action programs of the Union in the framework of the EU2020 strategy is about innovation.[15]

Lifelong learning as the general policy framework

Since the beginning of the last decade all education sector reform policies of the European Union have been ranged under the umbrella of lifelong learning (LLL). The notion of LLL covers all subsystems of education, including informal and non-formal learning outside the formal education system and it is now seen as a kind of new paradigm of thinking about the world of education and education policies.

The content of community LLL policy

The idea to put lifelong learning into the very center of community education policy goes back to the seventies when the first major proposal for a community policy in education was formulated (Janne, 1973) but this became a central commitment of the European Commission only following the creation of legal bases for community actions in the education sector in the 1992 Maastrich Treaty (European Commission, 1993). The first detailed and coherent policy for LLL was proposed by the European Commission at the very beginning of the last decade following a one year long, active public debate in the member countries (European Commission, 2001). It is important to stress that this has been initiated as a “shared policy” of the employment and the education sectors. Making LLL policy highly operationalised and explicitly formulated became inevitable by the launching of the policy coordination process in employment policy following the Amsterdam Treaty in 2007.


As we saw, “making lifelong learning and mobility a reality” is the first of the four priorities of the education sector strategy adopted in 2009 for the current decade. Since its inception the LLL policy of the community has been confirmed, extended and deepened by a number of important decisions of the Council and the Parliament[16] but the main lines of this policy are more or less the same as they were set at the beginning. The so called “building blocks” of this policy (see box below) together have created a new paradigm that seems gradually to gain ground in the member countries partly due to the use of the community policy instruments (to be presented in more details below) supporting implementation. Since every member state is supposed to devise and implement a national LLL strategy, and both the strategy and its implementation are regularly evaluated by the community, there is a high probability that the European strategy has a significant influence on the content of the national documents and its building blocks do appear in the latter.


The key components of the LLL policy of the European Union[17]


ðValuing learning” (recognising competences acquired in informal and non formal learning; learning outcomes based qualifications reform)

ðInformation, guidance and counselling” (the development of lifelong guidance systems and European policy cooperation in this area)

ðInvesting time and money in learning” (promoting regulatory policies that support individual and company investment into learning)

ðBringing together learners and learning opportunities” (promoting flexibility in employment and education regulations so that they make it adult learning easier)

ðBasic skills” (defining new standard frameworks for key competences and re-directing teaching to develop these competences)

ðInnovative pedagogy” (enhancing innovation in education, especially in classroom level teaching/learning so that learning environments become more favourable for lifelong learning)


Since it has become the basic framework of community education policy more than one decade ago the paradigm of lifelong learning has gone through some evolution but, as mentioned, its basic pillars have remained broadly the same. Lifelong learning has always been understood in a very broad sense in the EU, encompassing all forms of learning from early childhood education (which has recently become a major priority area) to the workplace learning of adults. A key feature of this paradigm is to put the learner (the demand side) into the centre of education and training policies instead of providers (that is, the supply side), which has far-reaching implications for all policy aspects including legal regulation, funding or pedagogy. Opening the education sector towards the “outside world”, that is, strengthening its connections with the word of work and giving business a greater role has ever been a major priority in community education policy. This orientation has sometimes been criticized by those who think the education policy pursued by the EU is too “instrumental” or too much oriented by “neo-liberal values”(e.g. Field, 1998, BorgMayo, 2007; Lee–ThayerMadyun, 2008).

A central element: reforming national qualification systems

From an EU perspective the most important component of national LLL strategies and reform policies is, as already referred to earlier, the development of national qualifications frameworks (NQF) in accordance with the common European meta-framework (EQF). According to a recent official EU report by October of 2012 29 member or candidate member countries were developing or have already designed a comprehensive NQF covering all types and levels of qualifications. NQFs have been “formally adopted” in 21 countries: four of them have „fully implemented” their NQFs and seven of them were “entering an early operational stage” (CEDEFOP, 2012).


A particularly interesting element of this implementation process is the so called “referencing” which aims at checking whether national categories match correctly the corresponding European levels (Coles, 2011). This is the condition for national awarding institutions to issue national diplomas or other qualifications containing an indication of their “European level”. Since this is in the interest of the citizens who have obtained these qualifications there is a pressure on national governments to perform the referencing process even if they are not legally bound to do so. And, since the European framework is based on defining learning outcomes, national frameworks have also to follow the same logic.


One of the most important outcomes of the progression of LLL policies, including the implementation of EQF, is the blurring of borderlines between the various sub-systems of education, on the one hand, and between sectoral policies affecting the development of education, on the other. It is now difficult to draw a sharp distinction between policy areas such as education, employment, social care, regional development or innovation policy. The LLL approach has created a kind of common policy space in which measures taken in the various policy areas reinforce each other and create synergies.


The advancement of LLL policies in the member countries has now reached a stage that we could perhaps describe as a new policy generation often called skills policy. (European Commission, 2010b; OECD, 2012). Skills policies tend to put a strong stress on the demand side (as opposed to the supply side), they put more stress on workplace or work-based learning (as opposed to learning in schools), they see skills utilisation as important as skills production, and they shift the attention from matching demand towards creating skills equilibrium (OECD, 2012; Campbell, 2012). A new skills policy for the European Union was proposed by the European Commission in 2008 and this became the object of one of the 7 flagship action programs supporting the implementation of the EU2020 strategy.[18]

The higher education modernisation agenda of the community

The lifelong learning paradigm has given a new direction to community policies related with all subsystems of education. There is one sub-sector policy that deserves being treated in more detail because of its key contribution to the Lisbon agenda and the EU2020 strategy: this is higher education. The European Commission has continuously supported efforts to make higher education part of the broader lifelong learning system, although European academic circles have been reacting rather ambiguously to these efforts:. We can observe both extremely positive and very reluctant reactions. The former can be symbolized, for example, by the emergence of professional networks supporting “University Lifelong Learning”,[19] or by the adoption of the “European Universities’ Charter on Lifelong Learning” by the European University Association in 2008 (EUA, 2008). The latter can be symbolized by the high number of “critical” analyses of both the higher education policy of the community and the Bologna process.[20]


The higher education modernisation agenda of the Union interacts in an interesting way with the intergovernmental Bologna process, the latter aiming at the creation of a European Higher Education Area. This is a typical pattern of European education policy making which often transfers issues of contention either to other sectors, where the policy environment is friendlier or outside the Union into policy spaces with a more favourable dynamics (Corbett, 2011). This is also one of the examples of member country governments using the community to legitimate policies that are difficult to get through within their domestic policy-making machinery. In fact a large proportion of the academic community in the member countries seem to be reluctant to accept the higher education modernisation agenda of the EU. As formulated in a recent publication: “there is (…) concern, particularly voiced in some European university systems, that by increasing university dependence on non-state resources and deepening their engagement with industry and commerce, universities will lose their freedom to act in their traditional role as critics of society” (Shattock, 2008; 14).


In fact, there are leading European academics who think that the EU is going too far in subordinating higher education policy to the needs of economic growth, competitiveness and employment and they are not happy with the proposal of the Commission to “involving employers and labour market institutions in the design and delivery of programmes, supporting staff exchanges and including practical experience in courses can help attune curricula to current and emerging labour market needs and foster employability and entrepreneurship.” (European Commission, 2011; 5).


Some observers describe the higher education policy of the EU as efforts to reformulate the existing tacit contract between higher education, the society and the state. This is a difficult process supported half-heartedly by a large part of the European academic community which has been often accusing the EU of being too “instrumental” in its thinking about the goals of higher education. This was expressed recently in the following way in the keynote speech of a leading European higher education researcher at an EU conference during the Polish presidency: “European higher education systems will have to find a fair balance in expected transformations so that the academic profession is not deprived of its traditional voice in university management and governance; so that the European professoriate still unmistakably belongs to the middle classes; and so that universities are still substantially different in their operations from the business sector, being somehow, although not necessarily in a traditional manner, ‘unique’ or ‘specific’ organizations”( Kwiek, 2012; 9).


The higher education policy of the European Union is strongly influenced by its innovation (or research and technology) policy. The latter has ever been a key element of community policies but it was given a new impetus within both the Lisbon agenda and – as mentioned above – in the EU2020 strategy. A related study rightly stated a few years ago that “higher education and research are interpreted as sub-systems of a larger overall European innovation policy” (van Vught, 2009; 18). The innovation policy of the European Union is very strongly connected with industrial policy. As one of the relevant websites of the European Commission puts it: “Innovation policy is about helping companies to perform better and contributing to wider social objectives such as growth, jobs and sustainability”.[21]  Most university leaders as well as decision makers in higher education policy share the idea that universities should play a stronger role in making European enterprises more competitive through boosting innovation. This has been recently manifested by the creation of a platform entitled “Empower European Universities” by “eminent thinkers and practitioners of higher education” with the aim of putting more pressure on national governments to shape national higher education policies so that they serve better the goals of European competitiveness and innovation.[22] These “thinkers and practitioners” – led by the Dutch ex-minister and former vice-president of the World Bank Jo Ritzen, who is one of those politicians who made, during many years, perhaps the most for advancing European cooperation in the education sector – share the idea that universities can “save Europe from its current economic problems” and “universities can contribute to recreating hope and optimism through more innovation in the economy”.[23]

The implementation of community education policies

The responsibility for the implementation of community policies is shared between the member states and the European Commission. The common discourse describes the European Commission as the “government” of the Union. It has, in fact, at its disposal a wide range of policy implementation instruments, similarly to national governments, excluding one: legislation.

Governance and policy instruments

Law making in the European Union is the prerogative of the Council of ministers and the European Parliament which adopt the policy proposals of the Commission and translate them into legal actions. The Commission is not, however, without power and effective competence. The “indirect” or “soft” competences of the Commission are particularly important in the education sector where the law-making competence of the Union is very limited: it is, according to the EU Treaty, supposed to supplement and support and not to replace the actions of national governments. The European Union, unlike its member states, does not have direct responsibility to provide educational services. Its main function is to promote development and modernisation, and the instruments it uses are the product of a several decade policy evolution. Today it commands sophisticated institutional mechanisms that one can describe as consisting of the following key elements: (1) structural and cohesion policy, (2) cross-sectoral instruments, (3) educational programs, (4) policy coordination, (5) knowledge and information management.


Structural and cohesion policy is probably the most important as it is served by two major funds: the European Social Fund and the European Regional Development Fund. The Commission uses them to support structural adjustment in the member states and the reduction of development disparities between them. The former is under the supervision of Directorate of Employment and Social Affairs Directorate, the latter is managed by its Directorate of Regional Development. Since the beginning of the last decade supporting the modernisation of national education systems figures among the goals of structural and cohesion policy and money from these funds can be used for this purpose. Education sector development programs are planned as part of the multi-annual national development programs of the member states, typically as a component of multi-sectoral human resource development or regional development programs. They have to be in accordance with the general regulations of the structural funds which specify the eligibility criteria for community co-funding. Only educational development programs supporting growth, employability and social cohesion can get community support, in accordance with the strategies mentioned in the first part on this article.


Cross-sectoral instruments or policy instruments of other sectors than education are particularly important in the European Union for influencing developments in the education sector. The “travelling” of policies from one sector to another has always been an important element of the implementation strategy of the European Commission (Halász, 2003). Sectoral policies are nowhere isolated from each other and this is particularly true in the Union. Lifelong learning and skills development are key components of employment policy. Education is seen a one of the most important instruments of community policies aiming at fighting against poverty and exclusion. As we referred to in the previous paragraph, human resource development is a major component of structural and cohesion policies as well as regional development policies. The policy of common market and competition covers all areas of cross-border flow of products and services, including the products and services of what we call the “learning industry” (e.g. educational publishing, the educational use of information technology or private provision of educational services). Transferring policy issues from one sector to another is very common in the Union: there have been many examples when policy initiatives were launched in the sector where member states were the most receptive for them.


Those within the education sector tend to see the so called educational programs as the most important sectoral policy instrument, although the resources available here are much lower than those spent directly or indirectly on educational development through the structural or the employment/social policy (Moschonas, 1998). Education programs are, nevertheless, increasingly important as illustrated by the continuous growth of their budget since the first of them was launched in 1986 (see 1. Figure). Originally there were separated programs for each subsystem of education – the names of the original programs, connected to the four big subsystems (that is, Comenius for schools, Erasmus for higher education, Leonardo for vocational training and Grundtvig for adult education), are still in use – but today they are integrated into the so called Lifelong Learning Program (LLP).[24] They fund a wide range of actions such as student and teacher mobility, pedagogical innovations, inter-institutional cooperation, various networking or policy development projects. Funding from the educational programs is typically project-based: proposals submitted by institutions or individuals are selected either by the national LLP agencies of by a central agency in Brussels. Proposals have to be in accordance with eligibility criteria defined by the Council decision[25] about the new generations of programs and the selection is based typically on competitive open tenders.

1. Figure
The total budget of educational programs 1986–2013 (million euro, current prices)

                  Source: European Commission (2006):


Since the decision on the Lisbon strategy a new policy coordination mechanism has been developed and applied also in the education sector. The so called Open Method of Coordination (OMC) is an innovative method of governance in the European Union tested first in the employment and social policy area following the Amsterdam Treaty (1997). In 2000 the decision of the Lisbon European Council[26] opened the way to apply it also in the education sector. Normally the OMC consists of four components: (1) the setting of common policy goals, (2) the definition of measurable indicators and benchmarks linked with these goals, (3) member states translating the common goals into national action plans and reporting on progress, and (4) community evaluation of national performance including the formulation of country specific policy recommendations. In fact, OMC is applied to education sector in two different, parallel channels. On the one hand, the education sector has developed its own OMC mechanism in the “Education and Training 2010” strategy framework and, later on, this was prolonged under the name of “Education and Training 2020” strategy. [27] On the other hand, education and training related elements appear also in the “big” growth and employment strategy of the EU (the Lisbon strategy and, later, the Europe 2020 strategy), that is sectoral policy coordination takes place also in the overall framework of coordination.


The OMC applied in the education sector is a kind of “lightened” version: member countries are not obliged to elaborate specific sectoral national action plans (although, as mentioned, the education and training sector, together with others, appears in the overarching national action plans for growth and employment). Countries have been, however, obliged – since 2004 – to submit biannual education sector progress reports to the Council and the Commission and the latter has performed a regular evaluation of their policy achievements. This is done for each individual country; and also for the community as a whole (see the summarized results of the last such evaluation in 2. Figure). The figure shows time series of values for five key targets: growth of studying maths/science/technology, participation in adult lifelong learning, the proportion of early school leavers, the proportion of those acquiring upper secondary qualifications and the proportion of low achievers in reading. The dotted line symbolises the target values, the five other lines the actual achieved values of the five target areas.

2. Figure
The average value of education sector benchmark indicators between 2000 and 2010 compared to planed progression

Source: European Commission, 2011b        

Policy coordination in every sector, but particularly in education, is achieved partly through symbolic instruments such as giving feedback and enhancing policy learning. The community has devoted significant resources to develop activities that made it possible for national authorities to take part in working groups and clusters aiming at developing common frameworks and standards (such as the European key competence framework mentioned earlier) and learning from the experiences of those member states which have performed better than others in certain areas.[28] This leads us to the fifth community policy instrument knowledge and information management. In fact, the European Commission, having no direct regulatory power in education uses knowledge and information spreading as one of the most important tools to achieve its policy goals in this sector. The Commission is an advanced knowledge broker in a perfect position as it sees developments at the same time in 27 different systems. In the eyes of the Commission the 27 national systems behave as living laboratories: trying out permanently various policy solutions. Some of these solutions fail, but others survive and prove to be successful. The Commission invests much into gathering, analysing and spreading information about these processes. Given the fact that, contrary to national governments, it does not have local executive branches, it is obliged to gather information through various surveys and quasi-scientific analyses, which make it more knowledgeable than most national governments having no similar knowledge management facilities.[29]

The future of education reform policies of the EU

The future of education reform policies of the EU seem to depend on two main factors: the relationship between the community and its members and the capacity of the community to influence the behaviour of its members, on the one hand, and the relationship between policies in the education sector and other sectors, on the other. During the past decades we could witness two key trends. One was the continuously growing role of the EU in education policy and its increasing capacity to influence educational developments in its member states. The other was the permeability of borderlines between education policies and other policy areas and the continuous possibility for other sectors to influence the development of education. The key question is whether these two trends will continue in the future.


If the answer to the second question is affirmative we anticipate the continuation of the trend of education being seen as a key factor in social and economic development, that is, in supporting Europe to become more competitive in the emerging global knowledge economy while preserving the values of equity, inclusion and sustainability. If the first question is also answered positively, we can predict that the EU as a community, instead of being an abstract entity above the concrete reality of the member states, will remain a real common space for educational policy development on the European continent.


As for the second question, the probability of the affirmative answer is very high. Given the fact that the EU does not have direct responsibility for the daily operation of systems of educational provision, the vested interests of social actors whose fate depends on the specific institutional arrangements of given sectors and of the different subsystems of education do not play a dominant role in determining the content of education policy. Thus, community education policy will remain future- and reform-oriented, and it will not lose its openness to the variety of sectoral agendas and approaches particularly in employment, social affairs, regional development and innovation. The EU will probably continue to play a leading role in fostering modernisation and educational reforms in Europe.


The first question – the potential impact of EU on the member states – is less easy to answer. We see in several members states the growth of “euro-scepticism”: it becomes more and more frequent that political groups opposing the transfer of power from the nations to the supranational entity gain power in national elections. There are strong actors in each national education system that are not welcoming the modernisation agendas – be they national or supranational – and therefore are not susceptible to the current orientation of EU policies. They are, therefore, typically opposed to EU interference into national affairs in the education sector even if they have, in general pro-European attitudes.


There are perhaps three factors that might increase the probability of the influence of the EU growing further. The first is related with the current fiscal, monetary and economic crisis. The crisis has been forcing member states, particularly those using the Euro as their currency, to tighten monetary coordination and budget control. For instance, the so called “European semester”, which is also described as “new architecture for the new EU Economic governance”[30] mechanism, adopted by the member states in September 2010 is now making possible the ex-ante coordination of national budgetary and economic policies. The education sector cannot, naturally, remain unaffected by this, even if the jurisdiction of the EU continues to be very restricted in this policy area, since this process affects all budget areas, without exception. The second factor is related with our second question: the increasingly cross-sectoral nature of education policy. If the opponents of the EU modernisation agenda get strength in national education systems and make the dynamics of national education policy shift towards and “anti-European” line, this will not prevent the penetration of education and training related EU policies into the national systems through doors opened by other sectors.


The third factor is connected with the internal dynamic of the development of policy instruments within the EU. Some of them – such as the instruments of structural policy and those embedded into the education programs – are developed and redeployed in a cyclical way through medium term re-planning. The rules of the use of the structural funds as well as those of the education programs are re-formulated every seventh year based on the experiences gained during implementation. As evaluations often criticise the existence of parallelisms and the fragmented character of programs and the lack of strategic coherence the re-formulating exercise typically results in streamlining and in the reinforcement of strategic orientations. One can expect this to happen also in the current revision period. Streamlining and strengthening strategic lines always imply stronger community control and less exposure to the specific fragmented interests of the member states. This would mean, in the case of structural policy that member states will have to subordinate their national development goals even more to common strategic priorities, that is, they will have to devise, for example, education development programs that will be even more linked with the overall modernisation agenda of the Union. In the case of education programs institutions and individuals in the member states will have to make even more efforts, if they want to win community support, to demonstrate that their proposals are in line with the EU priorities.


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The author



Dr. Gábor Halász is professor of education at the Faculty of Pedagogy and Psychology of the University Eötvös Loránd (ELTE) in Budapest where he is leading a Centre for Higher Educational Management. He teaches, among others, education policy, education and European integration, global trends in education and sociology of higher education. He is the former Director-General of the National Institute for Public Education in Budapest (now Institute for Educational Research and Development) where he is now scientific advisor. His major research fields are education policy and governance, comparative and international education, skills formation policies and theory of education systems. He has worked as an expert consultant for a number of international organizations, particularly the OECD, the European Commission, the World Bank, and the Council of Europe. Since 1996 he has been representing Hungary in the Governing Board of the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation of OECD (between 2004 and 2007 he was president, and between 2011 and 2012 acting president of this Board). For more information see Gábor Halász’ personal homepage: (http://halaszg.ofi.hu/English_index.html).



[1] See European Commission (2010a). For more detail see also the European Commission’s related website (http://ec.europa.eu/europe2020).

[2] Council Conclusions on Europe 2020. Council of the European Union (ECOFIN). Brussels, 16 March 2010.

[3] Council conclusions of 12 May 2009 on a strategic framework for European cooperation in education and training ( ET 2020 ). Official Journal C 119 , 28/05/2009 P. 0002 - 0010

[4] European Council Conclusions. Brussels, 17 June 2010

[5] Source: Source: European Commission (http://ec.europa.eu/europe2020/pdf/targets_en.pdf)

[6] European Council Conclusions. Brussels, 17 June 2010.e.

[7] Recommendation of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 April 2008 on the establishment of the European Qualifications Framework for lifelong learning [Official Journal C 111, 6.5.2008].

[8] Recommendations of the European Parliament and of the Council of 18 December 2006 on Key Competences for Lifelong Learning (2006/962/EC), Official Journal of the European Union, 30.12.2006

[9] Draft Conclusions of the Council and the Representatives of the Governments of the Member States, meeting within the Council, on efficiency and equity in education and training (2006/C 298/03). A Official Journal of the European Union 8.12.2006; Conclusions of the Council and of the Representatives of the Governments of the Member States, meeting within the Council of 15 November 2007, on improving the quality of teacher education. (2007/C 300/07). Official Journal of the European Union 12.12.2007; Conclusions of the Council and of the Representatives of the Governments of the Member States, meeting within the Council of 21 November 2008 on preparing young people for the 21st century: an agenda for European cooperation on schools (2008/C 319/08). Official Journal of the European Union 13.12.2008; Council conclusions of 26 November 2009 on the professional development of teachers and school leaders (2009/C 302/04). Official Journal of the European Union 12.12.2009

[10] European Commission (2007); Council conclusions of 22 May 2008 on adult learning (2008/C 140/09). Official Journal of the European Union 6.6.2008.; European Parliament Resolution on Adult learning: It is never too late to learn. 2007/2114 (INI)

[11] Resolution of the Council and the Ministers for Education, meeting within the Council, of 19 September 1983 on measures relating to the introduction of new information technology in education; Council Resolution of 13 July 2001 on e-Learning; European Commission (1996).

[12] Council Recommendation of 24 September 1998 on European cooperation in quality assurance in higher education (98/561/EC); Recommendation of the European Parliament and of the Council of 12 February 2001 on European cooperation in quality evaluation in school education (2001/166/EC). Official Journal of the European Communities L 60/51.

[13] See, for example, the „University-business dialogue and co-operation” website of the European Commission (http://ec.europa.eu/education/higher-education/business_en.htm)

[14] See the official website of the year: http://create2009.europa.eu/about_the_year.html

[15] See the “Innovation Union” website of the European Commission (http://ec.europa.eu/research/innovation-union/index_en.cfm?pg=keydocs)

[16] See particularly the following decisions: Council Resolution of 27 June 2002 on lifelong learning (2002/C 163/01). Official Journal of the European Communities C 163/1; Conclusions of the Council and of the representatives of the Governments of the Member States meeting within the Council on Common European Principles for the identification and validation of non-formal and informal learning (May 2004); Resolution of the Council and of the representatives of the Member States meeting within the Council on Strengthening Policies, Systems and Practices in the field of Guidance throughout life in Europe (May 2004);    Resolution of the Council and of the representatives of the Member States meeting within the Council on Strengthening Policies, Systems and Practices in the field of Guidance throughout life in Europe (May 2004); European Qualifications Framework for lifelong learning. Recommendation of the European Parliament and of the Council (April 2008)

[17] See for the source of the list in quotation marks European Commission (2001). The details in brackets are explanations referring also to major subsequent policy developments.

[18] See the “Agenda for new skills and jobs” website of the European Commission (http://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?langId=en&catId=958)

[19] See, for example, the „European University Lifelong Learning Network” created in 2006 by 100 partner institutions in 31 countries which created an online  „Managers’ Handbook” for university leaders intending to open their institutions towards LLL (see http://distance.ktu.lt/thenuce/ebook2006/INTRODUCTION/fcontent.html ).

[20] See for example Tomusk (2007) and Olsen & Maassen (2007).

[21] See the “Industrial innovation - Innovation Policy” website of the European Commission (http://ec.europa.eu/enterprise/policies/innovation/policy/index_en.htm)

[22] See the platform’s website: http://empowereu.org/

[23] See Jo Ritzen’s article on 12 August 2012 in University World News'. (http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20120807141433279). See also Ritzen (2012).

[24] See the relevant website („The Lifelong Learning Programme: education and training opportunities for all”) of the European Commission (http://ec.europa.eu/education/lifelong-learning-programme/index_en.htm )

[25] The current Lifelong Learning Program was launched in 2006 (Decision no 1720/2006/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 15 November 2006 establishing an action programme in the field of lifelong learning. Official Journal of the European Union. 24.11.2006)

[26] See European Council (2000): Presidency Conclusions. Lisbon. 23- 24 March 2000

[27] See the relevant website („Main policy initiatives and outputs in education and training since the year 2000”) of the European Commission (http://ec.europa.eu/education/lifelong-learning-policy/policy-framework_en.htm )

[28] See the website entitled “Exchange of good practice and peer learning” of the European commission (http://ec.europa.eu/education/lifelong-learning-policy/exchange_en.htm) and particularly the website entitled “Knowledge System for Lifelong Learning” of CEDEFOP (http://www.kslll.net)

[29] See, for example the „Higher education – Studies” website of the Commission for all recent analyses in the field of higher education policy (http://ec.europa.eu/education/higher-education/studies_en.htm) and also its website entitled “Research and Analysis” (http://ec.europa.eu/education/lifelong-learning-policy/analysis_en.htm)

[30] See a popular explanation on the relevant website (“European semester: a new architecture for the new EU Economic governance – Q&A”) of the European Union (http://europa.eu/rapid/pressReleasesAction.do?reference=MEMO/11/14)