Building cognitive and social skills, combating radicalisation and coping with migration are the Presidency’s key priorities for education, according to Jet Bussemaker, Dutch Minister for Education, Culture and Science in the European Parliament. Neth-ER asks Bussemaker how she experiences the Presidency so far and what her ambitions are for the coming months.

Bussemaker: 'There is still much work to be done to improve the quality of education'

Q: How do you intend to translate the priorities you mentioned in the European Parliament into action?

A: As I said in the European Parliament, I have pursued two principal lines of action in terms of education: one for the long-term, and one aimed at the current situation. My long-term priority was first of all to devote attention to the skills agenda, as well as to the importance of investments in education for the benefit of economic growth and social inclusion. In terms of the current situation, we have put education's contribution to the issues of radicalisation and migration on the political agenda, and kept it there.

During a meeting of the Council for Education, Youth, Culture and Sport (EYCS) on 24 February of this year, a Council resolution was adopted aimed at the contribution made by education to encouraging socio-economic development and inclusive growth. As European ministers for education, we thus sent a clear message to the European Council stating that targeted investments in education are important, and that there is still much work to be done to improve the quality of education in Europe.

In terms of skills, we supplied content to assist the preparation of the proposals that the Commission will probably publish in June. This was done on the basis of two policy debates that were facilitated by the Dutch presidency in the EYCS Council and the EPSCO Council. I collaborated closely with my colleague Asscher on this point, and worked together with Commissioner Thyssen to formulate the key conclusions from the two debates in a joint letter. Our aim was also to raise awareness among our colleagues concerning the rapid developments occurring in society and the labour market, and of the need for responsiveness in national education and employment policy. Our joint goal is ultimately to realise the best possible transition between education and the labour market, and to equip citizens with future-proof skill sets. The main plea by the Dutch Presidency in the Council and in two official presidential conferences in Amsterdam concerned contributions to future-proof skills in vocational and higher education. I am grateful that Neth-ER also organised two seminars, on skills and higher education,  and was closely involved in the preparations for the Presidency conferences.

The main purpose of the political discussion on radicalisation was as the follow-up to the Paris Declaration, signed by the European education ministers in March 2015. I took on this issue because I believe that the problem concerns not only France or Belgium, but all European Countries. I have therefore kept the role of education in the prevention of radicalisation high up on the political agenda, and expanded on the contribution that education can make in this regard. We also took the initiative to organise a Peer Learning Activity as part of the Paris Declaration, where European experts from 16 member states came together to discuss the advancement of digital literacy and critical thinking. Last but not least, my colleague Van Rijn and I will, for the first time, be organising a joint debate involving the European ministers of Education and Youth. The topic of the debate will be: increasing the democratic resilience of young people.

Our third priority concerned the role of education in the refugee crisis. I decided to continue the policy debate that was organised during the Luxembourg presidency. Prior to the EYCS Council meeting in February, we held an informal lunch discussion among the European ministers of education and exchanged experiences on using citizenship and language education to develop skills to help migrants integrate successfully at social and other levels. This sent a clear political message regarding the effective use of education in migrant integration.

Q: The Presidency Conference of the 9th of March gathered input for the update of the Modernisation Agenda of the European Commission for the end of 2016. What would you like to see reflected in the Agenda of the Commission?

A: The above-mentioned changes in society, globalisation and technology have also affected higher education. The European Commission may announce a review of the higher-education modernisation agenda in the presentation of the European skills strategy in June. As I understand it, the review will look at increasing the relevance of education, learning and teaching to the labour market and other areas. The 'Skills for the Future' discussion is directly related to the challenges faced by higher education in the Netherlands, as also formulated in our Strategic Agenda for Higher Education and Research. Examples include stronger links to the labour market, sustainable regional partnerships with fertile learning environments, a flexible system for Lifelong Learning, the use of open and online education, self-cultivation (Bildung) and the importance of small-scale learning communities and good-quality, inspiring teachers. In addition to its role in the labour market, however, the social function of higher education must also be a focus area. These topics had already been largely discussed and prepared during both the Conference of Presidents on 'The Future of Higher Education' in Amsterdam and the Neth-ER seminar in Brussels. The participants in these two events  underlined the importance of these themes. There also turned out to be widespread support among the member states for putting the policy debate on higher education on the agenda. I am glad of course that Dutch higher-education institutions also provided an active response to the public consultation issued by the European Commission!

Q: The European Commission will publish a European Skills Agenda in June 2016. As you said in the European Parliament, skills must link the labour market with society. What do you consider topics that could or should be arranged at a European level in the field of skills?

A: Both education policy and labour-market policy are areas in which the EU has only limited authority, so it will primarily be up to the member states. But the EYCS Council and the EPSCO Council both showed plenty of support for getting the subject onto council meeting agendas on a political level. The European Commission has assured that it will respect national competences, and of course we will evaluate their proposals accordingly. However, I do see a role for the EU in supporting the active exchange of good national policy examples, and encouraging national reforms in this area. Such processes already exist (such as the European Semester), as well as resources relevant for skills, including Erasmus+ and ESF. But the fact that the framework is once more being clearly outlined, as well as modified in light of recent developments, is a positive step.

As I said earlier, during the recent EYCS Council meeting on 24 February we adopted a resolution regarding socio-economic development and inclusion (the European Semester). This resolution not only stresses the need for government investments, but also provides guiding political statements regarding skills and the desired content of the New Skills Agenda. These include improvements to supply and demand (skills mismatches), addressing shortages among employers (skills gaps), and increased attention to a broader skills set for on-the-job and lifelong learning.

The Skills Agenda will also contain proposals for realising a number of more operational EU instruments that have already existed for some time. These were originally created to support cross-border job mobility, and are not yet being applied with equal breadth and consistency in all countries. Some specific examples include the European Qualification Framework (EQF) and Europass, but there are many others. As I stated during the consultations on this matter in the Dutch House of Representatives, I consider it desirable to improve, simplify and increase the transparency of the wide range of available instruments. It is therefore positive that the Commission plans to submit proposals to this effect, which the member states can further discuss in the Council. I hope that this strategy will also breathe new life into those instruments that have already proven their added value.

Q: Europe faces the challenge of an unprecedented influx of refugees. How can the European education community contribute in facing this challenge?

A: The refugee crisis in general is a social problem requiring both an all-encompassing strategy and a decisive approach. The greatest challenge concerns the volume, fluctuation and unpredictability of refugee numbers, necessitating extraordinary efforts, intensive collaboration, improvisation and creativity from all relevant parties. The unprecedented migration also brings all kinds of more specific challenges. One of these is the educational aspect, where we look both at the inclusion of asylum-seeking children in the education system, as well as at efforts to ensure that refugees of all ages – regardless of the length of their stay – can integrate into the host society in a way that improves their social and professional prospects, even when they have returned to their country of origin.

Now that virtually all EU member states are being confronted with a major influx of migrants, European collaboration on education can demonstrate its added value by promoting the exchange of knowledge and experience. The various 'peer-learning activities', that were  being organised during our  presidency are a good example of such exchanges, allowing European policy makers to meet each other and learn from one another's challenges and experiences.

Q: In the wake of the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo, you and the other European ministers responsible for education signed the Paris Declaration in March 2015. Herein you outlined the role that the field of education would take in fighting radicalisation. This is also one of the priorities for the Dutch Presidency and the follow-up to the Declaration was discussed in the last Education, Youth, Culture and Sport Council. Which efforts to fulfil the Declaration can we still expect from the Dutch Presidency?

A: As I mentioned earlier, we will be organising an informal lunch discussion during the EYCS Council, where European education and youth ministers will exchange ideas on the subject of radicalisation, and the potential joint role that could be played by education and youth care. Preventing extremism as a result of youth radicalisation is a key priority for both education policy and youth policy in the Netherlands. This informal lunch debate will pick up where the previous policy debate left off on 24 February, where education ministers expressed their views on three aspects of the Paris Declaration (citizenship education, equipping teachers and digital literacy). The Paris Declaration calls for a guarantee that our fundamental values are upheld, and encourages member states, where possible, to intensify education-related measures that can help prevent radicalisation.

Our joint  lunch discussion will target the question of how to encourage and maintain an open mind set among young people. The underlying principle here is that an open and unprejudiced attitude can protect young people from negative influences, in turn preventing the emergence of extremism as the result of radicalisation among young people. The discussion will also cover how youth care workers and teachers can identify and effectively combat violent extremism.

In addition to the informal lunch discussion, we also plan to further underline the ideas contained in the Paris Declaration by further focusing on one of the themes discussed during the February Council meeting, in the form of Council Conclusions on digital literacy and critical thinking. In order to preserve the fundamental norms and values within our society, it is important to foster open debate, as well as give young people the opportunity to learn to navigate media, and reflect critically on the messages they are exposed to.

Q: The Dutch Presidency starts off the trio programme of the Netherlands, Slovakia and Malta. What needs to be achieved in order for you to consider the Presidency of the Netherlands a success?

A: In a six-month period such as this, the continuity following our Presidency is of primary importance. We have taken a pragmatic approach to the EU agenda by following up on current and politically relevant topics, as well as devoting ample attention to areas such as  skills , which will affect the long term. We have aimed to promote interaction between all participants, both during the Council meetings and at the events organised in the Europe Building in Amsterdam. According to what I have heard, the working methods chosen were very well received. In both this regard and in terms of the set-up of the Europe Building, the Netherlands has demonstrated its best innovative capabilities and issued a splendid calling card. I am also very satisfied with the large turnout and active participation among my fellow European ministers in the EYCS Council that I have chaired. I hope to welcome many of them back in May. At the start of July, I will hand over the Presidency to my Slovakian colleague, Peter Plavcan, whose job it will be to ensure continuity during the next Trio Presidency. It is of course also up to the knowledge institutions to make their own contribution to translating the political outcomes into practical measures at the coal face. I have full confidence in the ability of Neth-ER to aid Dutch and European stakeholders in this regard!