EU aims to be more attractive to students and scholars
The European Union is taking steps to make it easier and more attractive for non-EU students and academics to study and work in Europe. A European Commission proposal tabled last month sets out a new directive that will replace existing EU legislation governing the movement of non-EU students and researchers to and within EU Member States.
"Coming to the EU for research or study is far more difficult than it should be," said EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, Cecilia Malmström. "We have to remove these obstacles to make the EU more open to talents. Such mobility benefits the EU and our economy through the circulation of knowledge and ideas."
The European Commission's statement on the proposed legislation continues: "Moving to Europe temporarily is an opportunity embraced by over 200,000 students and researchers from outside the EU every year. However, far too many of them have to face unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles. Current rules for obtaining a student visa or a residence permit are often complex and unclear; procedures can be lengthy and vary considerably across Member States and moving from one Member State to another can be very difficult or even impossible. This hampers the possibility to provide EU countries with a greater pool of talent and reduces the appeal of the EU as a world centre for excellence." The Commission expects to have new legislation arising from its current proposal in place by 2016, and in so doing to set out "clearer, more consistent and transparent rules across the EU." Major components of the proposed legislation include:
- Procedural guarantees, most notably a requirement that Member States process visa or residence permit applications within 60 days in order to "make the application process more straightforward and transparent."
- "Simpler and more flexible rules" to make it easier for students and scholars to move between Member States – an item of particular interest for those engaged in joint programmes that cross national borders.
- Students will be allowed to work for 20 hours or more per week. Under some conditions, international students and scholars will also be allowed to "identify job opportunities or set up a business."
- Protection for additional groups of non-EU nationals, such as au pairs, school pupils and remunerated trainees, who are not addressed under existing EU legislation.
Having grown from a founding group of 6 countries – Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands – the European Union is now an economic and political union composed of 27 member states. The European Commission reports that "around 220,000 non-EU nationals entered the EU for the purposes of studies, pupils exchange, un-remunerated training or voluntary service" in 2011, as did 7,000 non-EU researchers. In 2011, the top receiving Member States for non-EU students were France (64,794), Spain (35,037), Italy (30,260), Germany (27,568), and the Netherlands (10,701).
Investing in education and technology
The EU's new legislative proposals appear against a backdrop of significant funding challenges for European education, and reflect as well a renewed drive within Europe to close some persistent gaps in high-value, high-demand sectors of an increasingly digital economy. A recent study of education spending in 25 Member States found that education budgets in the EU are feeling the strain of ongoing austerity measures across Europe. As the accompanying report notes:
"The financial crisis of 2007-2008 and the consequent economic downturn have had a huge impact on public finances in all European Union countries over the last 5 years. Increasing public deficits and the level of public debt raised fears about the sustainability of public finance in the European Union. This situation led the European Commission and Member States to take strong actions to stabilise and then consolidate their fiscal situation."
The study analysed funding at all levels of education, from pre-primary to tertiary level, and found that investments in education have fallen in 8 out of the 25 countries since 2010. In a related media statement, the European Commission notes, "Cuts of more than 5% were imposed in Greece, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania and Portugal, while Estonia, Poland, Spain and the UK (Scotland) saw decreases of 1 to 5%."
"These are difficult times for national treasuries but we need a consistent approach on public investment in education and training because this holds the key to the future of our young people and a long-term sustainable economic recovery," said Androulla Vassiliou, European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth. "If Member States fail to invest properly in modernising education and skills, we will fall further behind our global competitors and find it harder to tackle youth unemployment."
Commissioner Vassiliou picked up on this important theme in a recent speech to an information and communications technology (ICT) job conference in Brussels.
"Digital competence has become a core skill that everyone should be learning at school - it is essential to our economic growth and to people's employability and inclusion in society. Almost unnoticed at a time of financial trouble and economic slowdown, there is a silent crisis that is calling into question our ability to bring about a better future. A gap is growing between the skills that many new jobs require and the number of people who have those skills. The gap is wider for jobs that require mathematical, computing and technical skills. A fundamental re-shaping of our economies is taking place. The pace of change is quickening, and we are not keeping abreast. In Europe, we have more than 1 out of 5 young people jobless and over 2 million job vacancies unfilled. For unfilled digital jobs, we are looking at a situation where there is barely 1 ICT graduate for 3 digital jobs. This is putting Europe at a growing disadvantage with other parts of the world. This is not just a missed opportunity; it is a direct threat to our future prosperity."
The Commissioner's remarks reflect broader EU initiatives to invest in ICT training, including the maintenance or expansion of funding for ICT programmes and the recruitment and development of ICT and STEM educators at all levels. In her remarks, the Commissioner noted as well the priority placed on ICT training by the European Commission and that, "We are committed to using more of the Union's budget to support the Member States in their effort to provide education and training that teaches skills for employability." As evidence of this commitment, she cited the EU's Lifelong Learning programme. Lifelong Learning has a current budget of nearly €7 billion for 2007 to 2013 and is currently funding a range of activities to promote ICT in education, including the Erasmus mobility programme. This programme is set for a major expansion under the proposed "Erasmus for All" plan for 2014–2020 and "will support even more actions for developing e-literacy, creativity and open education." Commissioner Vassiliou also pointed to the EU's forthcoming "Opening up Education" initiative to be introduced later this year. It will "examine how Member States can maximise the contribution from new technologies [and] look at new learning pathways, new resources as well as a new generation of educational providers." It seems clear from all of these recent developments that even in a period of austerity, Europe continues to look to education – to an increasingly international, open, and technology-oriented education system in particular – as a major pillar of social and economic development. As is always the case, the key to realising this potential will lie in the EU’s ability to develop effective policy, to harmonise policies across its Member States, and to sustain its current and planned investments in education at all levels.