Jan Truszczyński: "each student receives a rucksack"

28 February 2011

Jan Truszczyński has been director-general at the European Commission's Directorate-General for Education and Culture (EAC) since May 2010.  EAC’s mission is to build a Europe of knowledge and develop the European cultural area. The Lifelong Learning Programme (LLP) is a means to achieve this by promoting more mobility and learning experiences for both students and teachers of all ages and in different types of education. In this way, students play an active role in building a stronger knowledge-based economy in Europe.

Neth-ER: How can we differentiate between the mobility patterns of students and staff, while finding a balance in terms of an increase in quantity and quality?

Jan Truszczyński: Our education programmes focus on both large-scale mobility and excellence. Erasmus is designed to enable a maximum number of students to experience studying or working abroad, whereas Erasmus Mundus promotes excellence by providing support to a select number of students for joint masters' courses and doctorates. We want to continue this dual approach in the future. But our real challenge is to achieve more mobility while increasing the quality. For this, we must do more to ensure recognition of mobility periods and better equip participating students with the necessary foreign language skills. The same is true for Erasmus staff exchanges. Typically lasting one week, this form of mobility could in future be longer, budget permitting.

Neth-ER: How can we stimulate degrees of mobility within the new Lifelong Learning Programme (LLP2)?

Jan Truszczyński: A longer period abroad is of greater benefit to the participant. A traineeship in another country, for example, has to be of certain duration if the trainee and host company are to benefit from the experience. An Erasmus student needs to spend at least three months abroad and at the most a full academic year while traineeships organised by short cycle higher education institutions need to be at least 2 months. Within this broad range, the actual duration of the stay abroad depends largely on institutional requirements and student preferences. In any case, it should not be imposed by the EU. 

As far as staff at higher education institutions is concerned, usually it is not possible for them to leave their post for more than a few days. That is why the current rules are rather flexible and allow a minimum duration of 1 day for teaching assignments and 5 days for staff training. In both cases the maximum duration is 6 weeks. 

The fact that Erasmus is now under review for the new programming period 2014-2020 gives us the possibility to bring mobility opportunities in line with the Bologna cycles and introduce more flexibility. This can be done, for example, by introducing a system where each student receives a sort of 'rucksack', that is a certain amount of mobility credits to be spent on study periods or placements abroad, depending on the students's situation and needs.

Neth-ER: What can EAC do to stimulate the differentiation process of the missions of higher education institutions in Europe?

Jan Truszczyński: EU Member States remain responsible for the organisation and funding of their education systems. But the European Commission can do a lot to drive forward the modernisation agenda and to help EU countries learn from each other's experience. In addition, we have a specific role in promoting and supporting cross-border learning mobility.

We have essentially a supporting role. Firstly, we help Member States work together and learn from each other by setting up peer learning on specific issues and by defining benchmarks. Secondly, we support universities and other institutions, for instance by financing the development of joint degrees or specific research projects and by funding staff mobility. And thirdly, our support to individual students is well illustrated by the Erasmus programme which has helped more than 2 million students go abroad for studies or placements. 

The European Commission also supports several projects and initiatives which can have a role in stimulating diversification and specialisation in European higher education institutions. One such example is work on classification and mapping, which allows for a better understanding of the missions and profiles of Europe's 4.000 or so higher education institutions. This is to be complemented by a multidimensional ranking tool 'U-multirank', which is currently under development. This customisable ranking would make it possible to tailor a ranking according to priorities selected from a menu by the user. We expect development work on this to be completed by July.

Neth-ER: How can we strengthen skills development at a regional level by taking into account not merely higher education but also vocational education and training, maximising the full potential of the Structural Funds (SF)?

Jan Truszczyński: Across Europe jobs are becoming more knowledge and skills-intensive.  According to the latest forecasts available in the EU, at the end of this decade half of all jobs are expected to require medium level qualifications, with the majority of them being vocational ones, while another 35% will require high-level qualifications (currently 29%). This represents a considerable challenge for our education systems - but also an opportunity - to help people acquire the right level and type of skills needed in the labour market of tomorrow. 

Countries and regions need more higher education graduates to drive sustainable growth. Many universities are already now important actors in their regional economies, providing skilled graduates to the local labour market and working with companies to ensure that their curricula are responsive to the needs of regional businesses. In order to give more people the opportunity to enter higher education we need to make it more attractive to school leavers, more open to non-traditional student groups, and we also need to act to reduce drop-out rates.

But university is not for everyone. Vocational education and training (VET) is a valuable alternative as it provides the sort of skills most jobs require already today. There are enormous skills shortages in vocational professions which the EU needs to address, and which are very often due to an outdated negative image of vocational training which keeps young people from enrolling.

The EU will also be increasingly looking at higher vocational skills. In the Bruges Communiqué, which lays out a strategy for vocational education and training until 2020, our Member States agreed to develop post-secondary and higher vocational education and training to better respond to growing labour market demands. The Commission will specifically look at the role of vocational excellence for smart and sustainable growth, in particular from a regional and sectoral perspective. Also, our Leonardo da Vinci programme offers very good funding opportunities to develop and adapt best practices, including skills development at a regional level. Ensuring that vocational skills are relevant to the needs of the labour market is one of the priorities for transnational projects on the development and dissemination of innovative approaches. And of course, already more than 114.000 vocational training students were trained abroad under Leonardo exchanges.

These issues will also be on the agenda of the new forum we are organising to bring together the world of vocational education and training and businesses in 2012 and which will complement similar ongoing efforts with universities. It is clear that the different EU interventions, including the Structural Funds, need to form a comprehensive framework. A more integrated approach could not only strengthen skills development at the regional level, but it could also help national and regional authorities to increase their sense of ownership of the process. I believe that the Lifelong Learning Programme, thanks to the fact that it is an EU-wide programme supporting EU priorities, is naturally well-placed to provide overall guidance.

Neth-ER: What will be the relationship between the modernisation agenda including entrepreneurship and skills development and the new Common Strategic Framework for research and innovation including FP8, CIP and EIT?

Jan Truszczyński: It is clear that the drive to modernise universities in Europe requires the fostering of excellence in education and skills development. This is fully recognised in the 'Innovation Union', the flagship initiative under the Europe 2020 strategy which provides the basis and rationale for the future Common Strategic Framework for research and innovation.

Concretely, this concerns a range of ongoing reforms spanning the governance, financing and international performance and attractiveness of European universities. We have launched a public consultation on this issue and will present our agenda for the modernisation of higher education later this year. Nobody questions the importance of a focussed research effort, driven by a strong link and co-operation between research lab and business. But just as necessary and important - yet often understated - is to create an equally strong link between research and business, and education in a knowledge triangle. 

The European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) is an EU body that has been created to fill a market gap here and integrate, for the first time at EU level, education with research and innovation. Building on its autonomy and flexibility it can adapt quickly to emerging needs and leverage funds from other private and public partners into an integrated innovation chain.

As for Marie Curie actions, the EU continues to offer support to researchers for training, mobility and career development. This instrument allows us to involve businesses in the training of young researchers, for instance through the European Industrial Doctorates, and to support staff exchange between universities and businesses.

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