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Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on the ‘Green Paper — Promoting the learning mobility of young people’ COM(2009) 329 final

OJ C 255, 22.9.2010, p. 81–86 (BG, ES, CS, DA, DE, ET, EL, EN, FR, IT, LV, LT, HU, MT, NL, PL, PT, RO, SK, SL, FI, SV)

22.9.2010   

EN

Official Journal of the European Union

C 255/81


Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on the ‘Green Paper — Promoting the learning mobility of young people’

COM(2009) 329 final

(2010/C 255/15)

Rapporteur: Ms PÄÄRENDSON

On 8 July 2009, the Commission decided to consult the European Economic and Social Committee, under Article 262 of the Treaty establishing the European Community, on the

Green Paper – Promoting the learning mobility of young people

COM(2009) 329 final.

The Section for Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship, which was responsible for preparing the Committee's work on the subject, adopted its opinion on 4 December 2009. The rapporteur working alone was Ms Päärendson.

At its 458th plenary session, held on 16 and 17 December 2009 (meeting of 16 December 2009), the European Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion by 173 votes to 4 with 2 abstentions.

1.   Recommendations

1.1   The EESC fully supports the Commission's efforts towards promoting the learning mobility of young people. In order to make such greater mobility a reality, potential hosts need to be encouraged to act as a magnet to draw such people to their countries and cities.

The learning mobility targets can only be met if there is full and widespread cooperation and efforts are made at all levels (EU, Member States, regions, educational establishments, social partners and civil society organisations, as well as by young people themselves).

1.2.1   The Commission and Member States should increase their efforts to eliminate barriers to mobility and to exchange best practices. The Committee calls on the Member States to implement community law correctly and to remove the administrative and legislative obstacles relating to residence permits, social security rights and recognition of student cards from other countries. Learning mobility was the key to the success of the Bologna process and the European Higher Education Area. The Committee believes that mobility can also be the key to the development of the Common European Life Long Learning Area. The introduction of a ‘European Trainee Statute’ or ‘European Student Statute’ will ensure equal treatment and address many fears and concerns about issues such as the recognition of degrees, health care and student support.

1.2.2   With a view to the validation and recognition of both formal and non-formal learning, the Lisbon convention on recognition needs to be formally recognised, signed and ratified.

1.3   In order to generate more support for learning mobility, including financial support, it is important for all parties to be aware of and recognise the benefits it can offer. The link between learning mobility and employability needs to be further explained and emphasised.

Promoting the mobility of young Europeans, and attracting the brightest young people to Europe from third countries are both important elements in maintaining Europe's competitiveness and its position as a key technological leader. The Committee strongly believes that the visa problems hindering mobility should be resolved immediately. The Committee is also convinced that long term, gradual expansion of learning mobility programmes into such third countries as China, India, Japan and the USA would be a reasonable investment.

1.4.1   The Committee would strongly recommend that serious efforts should simultaneously be directed towards avoiding a brain drain from Europe and at making Europe an attractive location both for scientists of European origin and those from outside Europe.

1.5   The European Union and the Member States will not reap the social and economical benefits of an increased number of mobile learners if there is no substantial increase in resources to support learning mobility. In times of crisis, structural investments should be made in a better-educated and a more competitive Europe. In order to improve funding, the EU should mobilise all existing mechanisms and partners and mainstream mobility in all relevant policies, allowing funding to come from the Structural Funds and the R&D Framework Programme. The ESF should become an additional source of funding, first and foremost for VET, complementing the existing funding from the Life-Long Learning Programme 2007-2013.

1.6   Increased learning mobility will only lead to improvements if the quality of the learning experience abroad is sufficiently high. The Committee therefore recommends that all mobility programmes adhere to the European Quality Charter for Mobility.

1.7   The Committee also recommends reforming the current mobility programmes – Erasmus, Leonardo, Comenius, Grundtvig and Marie Curie – to simplify procedures and ensure that there are as few bureaucratic obstacles as possible. It is especially important that educational establishments, local and regional authorities, social partners and civil society organisations be involved in this process.

1.8   The commitment to mobility should be expressed in an ambitious Benchmark on mobility in the new strategic framework for European cooperation in education and training (ET2020), this Benchmark should differentiate between different target groups (VET-students, teachers, non-formal education, higher education and school students) and should be based on a much more complete statistical data set.

1.9   In order to disseminate knowledge about learning mobility programmes and to increase the number of young people opting for a period of study abroad, more effective information on this subject should be provided than has hitherto been the case.

1.10   The Committee supports the establishment of a single European web portal where all information about pan-European learning mobility programmes could be readily found, and where businesses could find information (CVs) about young people looking for internship or apprenticeship opportunities and vice versa. European company networks (including SME organisations) and European professionals need to be encouraged to add information about learners’ mobility programmes to their websites and to advertise among their members.

1.11   To enhance the political process following the Green Paper, the Committee would recommend that the notion of learning mobility be defined and the age range of the people it covers specified.

1.12   The Committee is convinced that to promote learning mobility, language teaching should become a priority in the curricula of education and training institutions at all levels, and we would advise exploring options to make a year abroad mandatory for language teachers in all higher educational institutions and asking the Member States to do much more through educational policy to meet the target of every EU citizen speaking at least two other EU languages.

2.   Summary of the Commission's Green Paper

2.1   On 8 July 2009 the European Commission published a Green Paper on ‘Promoting the learning mobility of young people’. The aim is to open up a debate on how best to boost the opportunities for young people in Europe to develop their knowledge and skills by staying in another country for study or work experience, community work or additional training in the context of life-long learning.

2.2   The scope of the Green Paper is broad; it aims to address the situation of all young people in all different learning contexts, i.e. at school; at Bachelor, Master and PhD levels within university studies, as well as in internships, apprenticeships, youth exchanges, volunteer work or vocational training, in or outside the European Union (1). The paper seeks to promote organised learning mobility, focusing on physical mobility of young people (16-35 year olds), while recognising also the value of virtual mobility (in terms of developing partnerships, training and e-twinning projects). It aims to invite an exploration of how existing and new mechanisms and instruments can be better mobilised to promote the mobility of young people and how the different tiers of government – EU, national, regional and local – together with other stakeholders – business, civil society and private individuals – can be mobilised. It highlights a number of areas where further efforts are required and suggests possible courses of action. Examples of good practice are provided where applicable. Funding opportunities, education/training programmes and practical guidance exist for mobile learners, but need to be publicised and made more easily accessible.

2.3   The Erasmus programme, with its 20 years of experience, is proof of the benefits of higher education mobility. In its Lisbon Strategy report from December 2007, the European Commission stressed that Erasmus-type mobility should become a natural part of university education (2). The Commission has emphasised the importance of investment in education and training, i.e. in promoting knowledge and skills to combat the current economic crisis. Learning mobility should become an opportunity open to all young people in Europe to secure the future competitiveness and cohesion of the EU; the rule and not the exception (3). Mobility of knowledge should become a 5th freedom in the EU.

2.4   The Leuven Communiqué, adopted on 29 April 2009 by the Ministers in charge of higher education in the countries participating in the Bologna Process, stipulates that by 2020 at least 20 % of those graduating in the European Higher Education Area should have studied or trained for a period abroad (4).

2.5   The Green Paper therefore launches a public consultation and invites responses on the following issues and questions:

How can more young people be encouraged to spend time abroad for study, additional training, volunteering or work experience?

What are the key obstacles to mobility that need to be overcome?

How best can all those involved – schools, universities, businesses and business organisations, government departments and local authorities, civil society organisations and others – work more closely and effectively together, particularly to encourage young people of other nationalities to come to gain experience with them? In this connection, how can companies be motivated to host participants of mobility programmes, including young entrepreneurs and apprentices?

3.   Mobility: benefits, obstacles, and threats

3.1   As the Green Paper rightly points out, learning mobility ‘is one of the fundamental ways in which individuals, particularly young people, can strengthen their future employability as well as their personal development’.

Going to another country to study, as part of their existing job, to gain wider work experience, or for voluntary work, offers young people a real opportunity to broaden their horizons. However, according to the statistics given in the Green Paper, in 2006, existing mobility programmes (5) offered mobility opportunities to around 310 000 people - a mere 0,3 % of all 16-29 year olds in the EU. Eurostat’s data show that outside of these programmes, a further 550 000 university students undertake their studies abroad each year.

3.2.1   Nevertheless, mobility remains low despite the numerous efforts made by the European Institutions and others through support programmes and other opportunities. Mobility is more readily accessible for some students than others – for example for vocational trainees and apprentices many practical obstacles remain, not least as approximately 80 % of funds are for higher education.

3.3   Rather than being the exception, the Green Paper aims to encourage going abroad to study or work to become a natural move for a young European to consider. Young people need to gain a better understanding of the many benefits that this would offer them, including increased language and other skills and increased intercultural competencies that will benefit them all their lives in an increasingly multicultural world. Professional learning mobility equips young people with the right mentality, including a sense of self-initiative, making them outward-looking and confident. Experience shows that those who have studied abroad are likely to be more mobile during their working life.

3.4   The EESC fully supports increased mobility for young people for study purposes and for expanding their work experience – as this would increase mobility for all ages. In order to make such greater mobility a reality, potential hosts need to be encouraged to act as a magnet to draw such people to their countries and cities.

The main beneficiaries of learning-related mobility are young people, educational and research institutions, and businesses. In the longer term it will improve the competitiveness of the EU, by building its knowledge-intensive society, and promote European citizenship, through strengthening Europe's sense of identity and creating a more positive attitude towards Europe among its citizens. Mobility promotes language learning and multilingualism.

3.5.1   The mobility of learners contributes to free movement of knowledge which might be considered the 5th freedom of the EU. In order to promote learning mobility, educational and training systems and institutions will need to become more open, not least to increase cooperation between educational establishments and make their work more effective. Mobility between enterprises and between enterprises and educational and research institutions will also have a far greater impact on clustering and technology partnership, which will strengthen Europe's competitiveness and its capacity to innovate.

3.5.2   Increased mobility will be of particular benefit to leading academic institutions through improved cultural diversity and the ability to recruit really outstanding research teams. Greater mobility will also be to the advantage of companies that have a multicultural, multilingual ethos and to any company that trades internationally. In a world where EU competitiveness is under increasing challenge from countries that are developing fast – China, India, Brazil and South Africa and in time many more – the future for EU businesses (above all the future of quality employment opportunities) will lie in either becoming leaders in new technologies and niche manufacture, heavily dependent on maintaining an EU cutting edge in research and development, or in the wider field of services.

However, there will be obstacles and dangers that will need to be guarded against; including:

a possible concentration of top level research, and linked teaching and learning, in fewer, elite, centres of excellence in Europe as outstanding students flock to these, at the expense of many lesser renowned establishments;

a possible concentration of study in major world languages (notably English, French, Spanish, and German) at the expense of those Member States whose languages are not widely known beyond their borders;

due to an increasing concentration on English, mobile students and researchers may be encouraged to move on elsewhere in the English speaking world, including the US, China, Japan and other parts of East Asia, and beyond: it may then be hard to persuade these people to return to Europe in due course. Any EU development in the area of mobility will need to include sufficient encouragement to mobile academics to base themselves in the EU in the longer term;

a wider brain drain, as job opportunities open up elsewhere in the so-called ‘middle-income’ (6) countries in the developing world;

main beneficiaries being Arts, not science, graduates, not least as in the science area many smaller companies will only be able to afford to employ core skills, with language and other such skills being more readily purchased.

3.6.1   To maintain Europe's position as a key technological leader it is essential to nurture the brightest talent. Today the USA is still seen to be leading the so called ‘war for talent’. About 400 000 Europeans with scientific and technical education live and work in America. Among the world’s top-50 universities, 36 were located in the USA compared to only 10 in the EU. But the USA’s leadership position will not remain undisputed either. Talent is no longer the exclusive preserve of the Western world. China, India, Brazil, Russia, and other countries are taking centre stage in the global race for innovation and talent. Business in Europe will face fierce competition in growing, attracting and retaining talents.

Despite several previous attempts through support programmes (7) and other tools (8) promoting learning mobility, there are also other obstacles including:

legal obstacles (administrative burdens);

practical obstacles (language knowledge, cultural differences, insufficient funds, economic inequalities, difficulties over the portability of funds, lack of readily accessible information about mobility programmes – notably through the lack of effective websites;

obstacles over mutual recognition of qualifications;

recognition of learning mobility in national curricula, plus problems with the right of residence;

very different funding practices and control of universities across Europe – some are independent (as in the UK), others are more closely State controlled;

insufficient commitment by Member States (9) and in the private sector (10).

3.7.1   Language is an important barrier to learning mobility (11) as without speaking the language of the host country, the learning and social experience will be seriously hindered. It is notable that only 18 % of Europeans have moved out of their region, while only 4 % have moved to a different Member State than the one in which they were born, and only 3 % have moved outside the Union. In the USA, 32 % of citizens live outside the state in which they were born. This may fundamentally be linked to the diversity of languages in the EU (12).

However, a key obstacle that must be overcome will be ensuring that for the students concerned, travelling abroad does not turn into a negative experience for any reason. Negative stories will be counter-productive, especially if the more vulnerable students – including those with disabilities, minority sexual orientation, from poor or ethnic minority backgrounds, or with other disadvantages - have a bad time, and that would do far more harm than good. The stay abroad must also be lengthy enough to ground new ideas and establish greater elasticity in attitude and behaviour. Virtual mobility can be a valuable tool for young people with disabilities. Young people for whom physical mobility is not possible could participate in virtual learning mobility by using IT tools. Virtual learning mobility must not replace physical learning mobility.

3.8.1   For younger students, especially those of school age, it will be particularly important to ensure sufficient pastoral care to support the change of location, help with language problems, decent accommodation for the full length of their stay abroad, full financial support – over and above existing grant levels where topping up becomes necessary – and to ensure that they are generally accepted in their new community.

4.   Solutions: Answering the questions of the Green Paper

4.1   It is important for all parties to understand and recognise the benefits learning mobility has to offer them. Employers, and especially SMEs, have to be persuaded that learning mobility can create added value for their company, for example through promoting trans-national apprenticeships and internships or helping them to enter to a new market. However, in a free market, it is important to avoid any over-regulation at the EU level.

4.2   Preparing for a period of learning mobility: Information and Guidance

4.2.1   The Committee believes that quite often young people themselves don't ever consider how learning mobility might be of benefit to them, particularly improving their prospects in the labour market. While internet information portals on mobility have been set up (13), inter alia by the European Commission, there is serious doubt as to whether they are sufficiently user friendly or accessible. The Committee supports the establishment of a single European web portal where all information about pan-European learning mobility programmes could be readily found, and from where businesses could find information about young people (CVs of students) who are looking for internship or apprenticeship opportunities and vice versa.

4.2.2   European company and professional networks (including SME representative organisations) need to be encouraged to add information about learners’ mobility programmes to their websites and to advertise among their members.

‘Service points’ play an important role by giving advice to SMEs and other interested companies to encourage them to make extra efforts to offer more placements for young people.

4.2.3.1   Languages and culture

4.2.3.2   If we really want to remove one of the major barriers to learning mobility, and meet the target of every EU citizen speaking at least two other EU languages (14), the Committee would advise exploring options to make a year abroad mandatory for language teachers in all higher educational institutions and asking the Member States to do much more through educational policy to meet the target of every EU citizen speaking at least two other EU languages.

4.3   Legal issues

4.3.1   The Committee calls on the Member States to implement community law correctly and further to remove obstacles in the areas of administration and legislation: residence permits, social security rights, and the recognition of student cards from other countries. The Committee strongly believes that the visa problems hindering mobility should be resolved immediately. As regards third-country nationals coming to the EU for studies, unremunerated training, school exchanges or voluntary activities for a period longer than three months, Directive 2004/114 sets out specific conditions easing the visa procedure for them. However the criteria identified in the Directive and related to specific groups could actually be a barrier to mobility (15). The Committee supports the idea that EU Member States should consider extending the application of student directive 2004/114 to cover young people participating in the EU Voluntary Service, school exchanges or unremunerated training.

4.4   What should be done to promote more mobility from and to the EU?

4.4.1   Mobility needs to play an important part in relations between the EU and its neighbours, which should be involved in the policy discussion and the organisation of programmes.

4.4.2   As already outlined, the European population needs to update its skills in order to meet the challenges posed by globalisation and increasing competition. Europe's researchers must have access to the world’s best institutions to bring their experiences and expertise into Europe's research area, and Europe's students should have access to the world’s best education establishments. Promoting the mobility of young Europeans, and attracting young people to Europe from third countries are both important elements in Europe's future competitiveness. In order to attract them, the EU needs to have the best universities in place. European universities and entrepreneurs are seeking opportunities to improve cooperation in order to develop a competitive edge in the world of research and development (16).

4.4.3   To this end, the Committee considers it necessary to increase the number of foreign countries involved in the EU mobility programmes in the long term. The Committee believes that it was right to expand the geographical reach of the Erasmus Mundus programme and that a similar expansion should therefore also be considered for the Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs programme.

4.4.4   The Committee believes that long term, gradual expansion of learning mobility programmes into such third countries as China, India, Japan and the USA, would be a reasonable investment.

4.4.5   The Committee would strongly recommend that serious efforts should simultaneously be directed towards avoiding a brain drain from Europe and at making Europe an attractive location for scientists of European origin and for those from outside Europe too.

4.5   Recognition and Validation

4.5.1   The fact that validation and recognition of both formal and non-formal learning is still either insufficient or totally lacking is a significant obstacle to mobility. The PRIME study conducted by ESN shows that one third of the students have problems regarding the recognition of their study abroad. It is clear that higher education institutions and governments still have a long way to go. The Committee recommends that all Member States should immediately recognise, ratify and implement correctly the Lisbon convention on recognition.

4.5.2   The Committee supports the idea that learning mobility should be available for young people in all forms of education and in all forms of learning: formal, non-formal and informal. Educational mobility between the different educational levels needs to be promoted. Links need to be built between general education, vocational training and higher education, and credit systems should be fully implemented to ease mobility in VET where national structures differ considerably. In addition, pathways should be developed connecting initial and continuing training. Crucial to achieving this will be a swift and coherent implementation of the European Qualifications Framework.

4.5.3   Recognition of differences between countries in requirements for higher degrees and acceptance of each other's awards, differences in fees allowance and other scholarship and other criteria need to be fully assimilated where necessary. For example European Master Degree requirements are not equal to those for a Japanese Master Degree, whilst a Japanese student would also need to continue paying a fee to their own university, which would make attendance in Europe prohibitively expensive for them.

4.6   A new partnership for learning mobility

4.6.1   The targets of learning mobility can only be met if there is full and widespread cooperation and efforts are made at all levels (EU, Member States, regions, educational establishments, social partners and civil society organisations, as well as by young people themselves). A real readiness to act by Member States is crucial to advancing learning mobility.

4.7   Should we set targets for mobility within the EU?

4.7.1   The Committee believes that more work needs to be put into the statistical data used in the Green Paper since only true statistical records can tell us how effective current learning mobility programmes are (17) and help design solid future strategies with real mobility targets (%) for different target groups.

4.7.2   It is crucial that the Bologna process set a clear target for mobility and similar targets should be set in other areas of education. The Committee therefore supports the idea of setting mobility targets for vocational education and training, for teaching staff, school students and for non-formal education. These targets should be set not only for the EU as a whole but also for all Member States. Furthermore, regions and educational institutions should set their own targets as well. When setting targets, quality of education should always come first.

Brussels, 16 December 2009.

The President of the European Economic and Social Committee

Mario SEPI


(1)  Leaning may be formal – within the educational system – or informal – in the Youth and volunteering context.

(2)  Strategic report on the renewed Lisbon strategy for growth and jobs: launching the new cycle (2008-2010), COM(2007) 803.

(3)  Report of the High Level Expert Forum on Mobility, June 2008, http://ec.europa.eu/education/doc/2008/mobilityreport_en.pdf.

(4)  http://www.ond.vlaanderen.be/hogeronderwijs/bologna/conference/documents/Leuven_Louvain-la-Neuve_Communiqué_April_2009.pdf.

(5)  Erasmus, Leonardo, Comenius, Grundtvig, Marie Curie, Culture Programme, Youth in Action, European Voluntary Service within Youth in Action Programme, Europe for Citizens Programme).

(6)  Tunisia, Brazil, South Africa.

(7)  Erasmus, Leonardo, Comenius, Grundtvig, Marie Curie, Culture Programme, Youth in Action, European Voluntary Service within Youth in Action Programme, Europe for Citizens Programme.

(8)  Europass, the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECT, for higher education), the Diploma Supplement, the European Qualifications Framework for Lifelong Learning, the European Credit System for Vocational Education and Training (ECVET), Youth-pass, EURAXESS, the ‘student visa’ Directive and the ‘scientific visa’ package.

(9)  Doctorates are different in every Member State and there is a wide variation in VET systems from one country to another.

(10)  The private sector is not sufficiently informed about learning mobility support programmes and it is debatable what benefits they can offer to employers.

(11)  The figures (2002-03) show that an average of 1.3 and 1.6 foreign languages are taught per student in the Member States in general lower- and upper-secondary education respectively. Students in VET are even further away from the goal of achieving command of two foreign languages.

(12)  Only 3 % of SMEs in Europe have subsidiaries, branches or joint ventures in other countries.

(13)  PLOTEUS (Portal on Learning Opportunities throughout the European Space), the European Youth Portal, the Study in Europe Website, the Euraxess - Researchers in Motion Gateway, the Marie Curie Actions, Your Europe and Euroguidance Websites, the EURES Job Mobility Portal, Eurodesk, the Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs Website and the European portal for SMEs.

(14)  The target set by the 2002 Barcelona European Council.

(15)  For example, the Directive requires students from third countries to have minimum financial means to cover their living costs.

(16)  See also the Commission Communication ‘A new partnership for the modernisation of universities: the EU Forum for University Business Dialogue’ - COM(2009) 158.

(17)  Also comparative analyses with bilateral learning mobility schemes, for example such as ‘Vulcanus’ in Europe and in Japan (for engineering and science students) should be considered, since they are effective, and well targeted.


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