By Howard Stevenson, the University of Nottingham
In many parts of the world the new academic year is just beginning. In the European Union this is also the time of year when the EU’s annual cycle of economic monitoring and social policy coordination commences. Through a sometimes obscure process called the European Semester the European Commission ensures Member States’ compliance with the EU’s financial rules, but through the Semester it also makes recommendations relating to social policy at national level. Although these areas of social policy are ‘national competences’ (that is, the responsibility of Member States) the recommendations act as a powerful guide for action. Education policy, from early childhood education and care through to higher, vocational and adult education, features prominently in the European Semester – indeed there are more recommendations relating to education provision than any other area of the public services.
The EU continues to see the effects of austerity
This year’s European Semester takes place against a background of more than 10 years of austerity as the long shadow of the economic crisis begins to lift only slowly. Over the years the European Union has played a key role as the enforcer of that austerity. Moreover, as the EU’s own data powerfully shows, any signs of recovery are extremely uneven with many EU states a long way from recovery and oftentimes the most vulnerable sections in our societies are experiencing the greatest hardship. During these years of austerity public education systems were disproportionately impacted with government spending levels plummeting. In pretty much every EU country, across every education sector, swingeing cuts were experienced (see our report on post-crisis public investment here). Today, more than a decade later, in many EU countries investment in education is only slowly beginning to return to its pre-crisis levels.
However, what is now abundantly clear is that although the sharp end of the economic crisis may be behind us, the long years of austerity and cuts in public services such as education are creating a much bigger political and social crisis. The decimation of our social infrastructure, felt so acutely in every sector of education but in other areas of welfare provision too, is seeing our societies fracture. Populist politicians stoke divisions, promoting racism and xenophobia in a desperate bid to deflect attention from the real problems they refuse to tackle.
A Social Europe: warm words or a true commitment?
It is against this background that the European Union has re-committed to the development of a social Europe, in which there is ‘upward convergence’ across the EU on a range of social indicators from participation in education to healthcare provision and reducing income inequality. At the heart of this renewal of the concept of a social Europe is the European Pillar of Social Rights, intended to act as a ‘compass’ for improved social policy and welfare outcomes.
The renewed commitment to a new Social Europe is to be welcomed. If its potential is to be realised it can make a significant difference in the lives of European citizens, and in particular to those most vulnerable. However, the potential of this project remains uncertain – many Member States are antagonistic to its aspirations while it remains to be seen to what extent the new Presidency will push this agenda forward, or whether, in the face of reactionary resistance from national governments it retreats into caution and conservatism.
What is clear is that high quality public education for all must be at the heart of any demands to socialise the European Union. Some of the EU’s most impressive, and popular, achievements have been in the field of education. However, too often the EU has promoted a narrow approach to education, concerned only with how human capital can be developed to meet the labour needs of the Single Market. Such an approach was never sufficient to tackle the economic crisis we did face – and it is certainly not sufficient to tackle the political and social crises we now face. Rather what is needed at this time is a much more ambitious and hopeful vision of public education which is absolutely about personal development, but is also about rebuilding fractured societies by emphasising our common purpose and interdependence. Education must be at the heart of a Europe that is built on community and solidarity.
If education provision across Europe is to rise to this aspiration, then it will only be able to do so if it receives the levels of public investment that are so desperately needed. It is imperative therefore, that through the European Semester the European Union provides the maximum incentive and encouragement to Member States to drive up investment in education provision. This will be the acid test as to whether the commitment to a social Europe is anything more than warm words.
Unite for quality public education to secure change
The possibility of a more social Europe is to be welcomed and is an opportunity to be capitalised on. However, it is unlikely to be realised if the expectation is that this is something that will be delivered by politicians from above. The European Union already faces immense political pressures from those Member States who resist this ambition. Real change will only come about if serious political pressure can be mobilised from below – through an alliance of trade unions and civil society organisations.
Although such international action has often been difficult to organise, our school students have now shown what is possible with their extraordinary action on climate change. Their example now needs to be our inspiration as we build a mass, popular movement for quality public education for all in Europe and beyond.