If Serbia wants to secure its transition to a knowledge-based economy and catch up with Europe, improving the productivity and well-being of its citizens, the country must invest, among other things, in education. Ensuring a systematic approach to teachers’ education, as well as developing and maintaining the current positive trend of enrolment in early childhood education and care, represent steps in that direction

If Serbia sometimes doubts interest in the accession process of the countries of the Western Balkans within the European Union, Serbia needs to turn to the number of benefits it gets from the EU’s education programmes, in which it participates.

Tibor Navracsics, European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, expects that – following the adoption of the EU-Western Balkans Strategy and the Sofia Summit of 2018 – learning and mobility opportunities for Serbia and the rest of the region within the Erasmus+ programme will rise exponentially in the coming years. It was in this optimistic tone that we commenced this interview with Mr Navracsics, with yet another good news item.

SUPPORT

Following the adoption of the EU-Western Balkans Strategy and the Sofia Summit of 2018, learning and mobility opportunities for Serbia are expected to rise exponentially

GOAL

We want to make the future Erasmus programme (2021- 2027) even bigger, better and more inclusive

EXCHANGE

Within Erasmus+, almost 7,000 Serbian students and academic personnel have studied and worked abroad since 2014, while around 4,300 Europeans have come to Serbia

Serbia has just become a full member of the Erasmus+ programme. How we should take advantage of this?

– This is indeed wonderful news – and a step-change in the way people and organisations from Serbia can benefit from the opportunities offered by Erasmus+.

Now that Serbia is a Programme Country, its young people, academic personnel and educational institutions can get involved in a much wider range of activities. Besides higher education and activities related to non-formal and informal education, such as volunteering and capacity building for youth organisations, the other parts of Erasmus+ are now also fully open to participants from Serbia: sport, vocational education and training, as well as school and adult education projects.

This is how the agreement, signed on 5th February, will create more room for direct contacts between people, helping to build mutual understanding between Serbia and the EU. It also means that Serbian organisations can now reach out to partners beyond Europe in ways that were not previously possible.

In our increasingly knowledge-based economies, education seems to be one of the key pillars of growth, enhanced productivity and the wellbeing of citizens. In which areas of education should Serbia invest the most?

– Three aspects of reform seem to be particularly important for Serbia: ensuring a systematic approach to teacher education and development, maintaining the current positive trend of enrolment in early childhood education and care, and consolidating the wide range of existing quality assurance mechanisms.

Serbia adopted a forward-looking education strategy in 2015 that will run until 2020. The EU decided last year to support these reforms: this means an additional 28 million euros will be available to be invested in Serbia’s education system, in order to improve teacher education, develop a modernised qualifications system and support the education of minorities, including Roma.

The EU will support Serbia with an additional 28 million euros to be used for the improvement of teacher education, the development of a modernised qualifications system and the education of minorities

To what extent has Serbia already been taking advantage of the opportunities offered by the Erasmus+ programme?

– Serbia has been participating in Erasmus+ since 2014, as what we call a Partner Country. This has enabled Serbian organisations to gain broad experience in participating in the programme, together with their partners in the Western Balkans. To date, almost 7,000 Serbian students and academic personnel have studied and worked abroad, while around 4,300 Europeans have come to Serbia.

Following the adoption of the EU-Western Balkans Strategy and the Sofia Summit of 2018, learning and mobility opportunities for Serbia and the rest of the region within the programme are expected to rise exponentially in the coming years.

Do the financial means that a country has available and its investment in education have an impact on how successfully it can participate in Erasmus+?

– The vast majority of Erasmus+ funds are distributed through national agencies in Programme Countries. This ensures that countries have access to funding regardless of their overall financial means or the national priority given to education.

Furthermore, Erasmus+ can benefit all participating countries and individuals, regardless of the level of sophistication of their education systems. Indeed, participation in learning exchanges abroad, in strategic cooperation projects, and in policy cooperation, can help education institutions and authorities to learn from their peers and build their own capacities.

What kind of knowledge and skills do we need if we want to face the economic challenges that come with successful digitalisation?

– Digital transformation has an impact not only on labour markets and society, but also on education itself. All students, regardless of their age, need to be equipped with the right skills to use digital technologies in creative, critical and responsible ways. In the future, 90 per cent of jobs will require digital skills, from basic to advanced, and these skills will need to be updated continuously.

Schools and higher education institutions have a crucial role to play. However – given the pace and nature of digital change – I also see this as being about lifelong learning.

Last year I presented an action plan on digital education to support EU countries in boosting digital skills and helping schools and universities make the most of new technologies in teaching and learning.

We are supporting this with, for instance, SELFIE. This is a free online tool that we’ve developed to support schools in making good use of technology and working on how they teach digital skills. Serbia was one of the 14 pilot countries that tested SELFIE, and I am pleased to see that there is continued interest in using this tool in Serbia.

Given that each EU country is responsible for its own education system, how complex is it for the EU to create policies that will enable Europe to continue competing with the world’s most advanced regions?

– The role of the European Union is to support reforms in member states. We contribute to the development of high-quality education by encouraging member states to work together and learn from one another.

We work together very closely and I’m proud of what we’ve achieved over the past few years – particularly in terms of laying the foundations of the European Education Area that we want to build by 2025. This involves the mutual recognition of degrees, as well as budding initiatives such as European Universities.

A lot of cooperation at the EU level is guided by our Strategic Cooperation Framework in Education and Training (ET2020), which provides room for member states to share their experiences and work jointly towards agreed objectives. We are currently looking into how to continue this cooperation in the future.

Having said that, the results of the PISA test for EU countries are lagging behind somewhat. Which policies are available to achieve the target of less than 15% low-achievers by 2020? Do member states care as much as they should?

– This is indeed a serious issue – basic skills are the foundation of all other learning and are critical for people not only securing work, but in them becoming engaged, confident citizens.

EU member states have committed to improving on the worrying results. Last May they adopted a Council Recommendation on Key Competences for Lifelong Learning, aimed in particular at improving basic skills. Member states want to reach the target and are exerting great efforts to reach this goal.

Our flagship publication on education, the Education and Training Monitor, reports on their progress every year. And there are many different ways in which they are tackling the issue: including creating the conditions for the early detection of underachievement, raising the quality of teaching and integrating the teaching of basic skills into other subjects.

Teachers seem to be the most important factor for the success of pupils. However, we have seen a strong erosion of funds allocated to education, which has led to a declining number of teachers and reductions in their earnings. Ten years after the financial crisis of 2008, how much damage have these cuts done to the sector?

– Education expenditure in Europe is recovering, following several years of budget cuts. Most EU member states recently increased their basic salaries for teachers. However, serious challenges – such as teacher shortages and a decline in the profession’s prestige – persist.

Too often, teaching loses out to other professions in the competition for the best candidates, as teachers often earn significantly less than the average tertiary-educated workers. And too many teachers abandon the profession after only a few years, as they find the school environment too challenging.

Serbia was one of the 14 pilot countries that tested SELFIE, a free online tool we’ve developed to support schools in making good use of technology, and I’m pleased to see that there is ongoing interest in using this tool in Serbia

Our education systems must react urgently in order to reverse these trends, and to make becoming a teacher and remaining in that career attractive. At the European level, we have been working together with member states to identify and share good practise on issues pertaining to the training and support of our future teachers, including selection and recruitment, competence development, practical school experience and teacher educators.

Erasmus+ is not just one of the most successful EU projects in terms of promoting learning, but is also credited as a programme which, by helping young people forge friendships with others coming from different countries, builds a real European identity. How important is this at a time when the the Union is facing major challenges?

– Indeed, the Union and its member states face a variety of challenges that pose a serious threat, including xenophobia, divisive nationalism and the spreading of disinformation.

Taking part in Erasmus+ gives people of all ages a chance to experience what being European actually feels like, to make new friends from different countries and cultures, and to discover that there is more that unites us than divides us.

The programme and its predecessors have so far allowed millions of – mainly young – people to have their first independent experiences abroad; to learn about other peoples and cultures; to boost their language skills; and to see for themselves that peers in other countries share many of the same hopes and aspirations. This is why we want to make the future Erasmus programme (2021-2027) even bigger, better and more inclusive.

Let’s not forget that sport is an equally important part of the Erasmus+ programme. How can we live healthier lives and who has to take responsibility for bringing sport closer to every child?

– Research shows that being active makes children healthier and helps them achieve better results in the classroom. Team sports also enable them to learn important skills and understand values like team spirit. Access to sporting facilities and information about healthy lifestyles is often lacking, so schools are a great environment to encourage children to take up physical activities and learn about healthy living. But many other players also have an important role to play, from sports clubs and coaches, to youth organisations and governments.

We support EU member states and civil society in reaching out to children in different ways. For instance, the European School Sports Day takes place during the annual European Week of Sport. Last year saw almost 2.5 million children around Europe take part.

Moreover, since 2014, the Erasmus+ programme has supported fifteen projects targeting schools and helping them, for instance, to develop innovative curricula for physical education. I can only encourage everyone to take on the challenge and work together to bring the sport into the life of every child.