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Our societies are changing, becoming more diverse, more mobile and more digital. Whether in tapping into the opportunities these changes offer or grappling with the challenges they pose, education plays a critical role in preparing people for their future lives and work and in enabling them – and our societies – to adapt to change. When it comes to shaping our education systems and those teachers and trainers that make them work, national governments will continue to take the lead. However, the European Union can, and must, support national efforts in those areas where a broader, multi- and trans-national approach can more effectively deliver change.

One obvious area where work has begun and must intensify is digital education and skills. A staggering 43 % of people between 16 and 74 in the EU lack basic digital skills and 17 % have no digital skills at all , with substantial disparities across the Member States. It is estimated that 9 out of 10 jobs in the immediate or near future will require some form of digital skills . In other words, we now have a serious mismatch between the labour market and our education systems.

At the same time – and perhaps even more pressingly – people in today’s society require a level of ‘digital literacy’ simply to function. Even making medical appointments requires some degree of digital proficiency. Allied to that, in a society that operates increasingly online, people need to know basic cyber safety and security, to understand data protection and to have the media literacy required to critically appraise the information they obtain. These are all new basic life skills that education systems must impart.

Getting it right opens up new opportunities. The online space offers access to information and knowledge that previous generations could only acquire through painstaking hours spent in the library, while people with the right set of skills and knowledge can successfully navigate the job market and start up innovative companies. Failing to get it right, by contrast, risks creating a new social divide. When it comes to digital skills, it is often older people and especially those who are out of work or in low-paid jobs who struggle to adapt and have limited access to the training opportunities on offer. Digital education must therefore be tackled through a lifelong-learning approach. Europe has a role to play in developing the right approach and in helping to reduce disparities across Member States. This is a priority for the new Commission and it is a priority for the European Parliament’s Committee on Education and Culture.

Yet, managing the digital transformation is not the only challenge that calls for a response from our education systems. In Europe today, we are facing greater threats to our democracies than we have since the end of the Second World War. Often aided by the tools of the digital age, populists have stolen a march on traditional political parties across Europe. Of course, there is nothing wrong with challenging the status quo, but there is very definitely something wrong with providing simplistic answers to complex questions and pretending that all would be rosy if we just turned back the clock to some imagined “golden age past”. Today’s societies are more diverse, culturally, linguistically and in terms of religion, than they once were. It is something we should cherish, but it also presents fresh societal challenges.

Citizenship education, based around an understanding of shared values and ideals and a celebration of diverse cultures and backgrounds (‘unity in diversity’ in other words), has a particularly potent role to play in fostering a sense of belonging and thus inclusive, cohesive societies. It can also promote civic engagement, strengthening our democracies. The EU has been, and will continue to be, a particularly effective vehicle for resolving conflict, overcoming nationalistic bias and for intercultural understanding. The EU’s flagship education, youth and sport programme – Erasmus+ – makes a real difference to individuals in this respect. A 2019 European Commission study found that 95% of Erasmus+ participants get along better with people from different cultures after their exchange and that people feel more European after a stay abroad, with comparatively greater gains among those with an initially weaker sense of European belonging.

Perhaps the most pressing of all current global challenges – how to change our societies to reduce climate change and become fundamentally greener – also has a strong educational dimension. Indeed, it should give us all pause for thought that schoolchildren across the world walked out of classes to tell us that climate change matters. The response to the climate challenge must be multi-faceted and the Commission’s new European Green Deal shows that Europe understands this. I am delighted that education is viewed as a part of the response, and the European Parliament’s Committee on Education and Culture will work hard to make sure we get that part right.

As we look to become greener and more sustainable, there are obvious areas where education can play a role. Firstly, we need to make sure we raise awareness about the right practices in everyday life. Here, the EU can help to develop teacher training support or curricula. Then there is the question of skills for the green economy – making sure that people are trained for those jobs that will be needed in the transition. Finally, there is the obvious nexus between higher education and research where smart use of EU funding – for example through the proposed European Universities and Vocational Education and Training Centres of Excellence – can help to drive green technological innovation.

Education is undoubtedly at the heart of societal change, and a key tool to adapt to such change. Yet effective education means an ability to evolve and to respond smartly to changing realities without actually leaving people behind and hence take the risk of fragmenting societies. This must be the focus for education, both in Europe and beyond.

It is our common obligation to not only pay lip service to the role and importance of education, but also fill that rhetorical commitment with life.

1Digital Economy and Society Index Report 2019, European Commission.

2The Digital Skills Gap in Europe, European Commission.

Member of the European Parliament from the European People’s Party (Germany), Chair of the Committee on Culture and Education