Efficiency and equity in European education and training systems

Efficiency and equity in European education and training systems

Outline of the Community (European Union) legislation about Efficiency and equity in European education and training systems


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Efficiency and equity in European education and training systems

Document or Iniciative

Communication from the Commission to the Council and to the European Parliament of 8 September 2006 on Efficiency and equity in European education and training systems [COM(2006) 481 final – not published in the Official Journal].


When the Member States undertake reforms of their education and training systems, greater emphasis must be laid in education and training policies on the principles of efficiency and equity. The experiences of some Member States and the research on which this Communication is based show the beneficial effects which education and training policies can have in terms of equity and efficiency.

However, it is apparent that many education and training systems reproduce and even accentuate the existing inequalities, and the most vulnerable people are those with the lowest qualifications (32 % in 2004). Their record reveals that they do not have the same education and training opportunities as people who follow a full-time course, including courses of higher education.

Furthermore, education and training inequalities give rise to costs in terms of income tax, health expenditure and public aid, crime rates or delinquency (studies based on the USA and the United Kingdom). In contrast, education and training policies based on efficiency and equity offer the possibility of maximising long-term benefits, reducing economic and social costs and gaining added value for other policy fields such as sustainable development and social cohesion. Such initiatives do, admittedly, incur costs, but the costs of inaction and a high drop-out rate are higher.

Guaranteeing quality education and training for all EU citizens will also allow the EU to address the socio-economic challenges confronting it, namely the globalisation and competitiveness of newly industrialised countries, demographic patterns in the EU (its ageing population and migration flows), rapid changes in the nature of the labour market and the revolution in information and communication technologies (ICT).

Lifelong learning strategies

Efficiency and equity should be integrated on a forward-looking basis into lifelong learning strategies (national lifelong learning strategies must be adopted by the Member States by the end of 2006). Their repercussions and the effects of investment in education and training are substantial in the long term. In the context of these strategies, emphasis should be laid on:

  • long-term planning at local and national level when setting expenditure priorities;
  • validating learning in all contexts, including non-formal and informal frameworks, when it is conducive to the acquisition of knowledge or key skills. Such validation will be facilitated by the national and European qualifications frameworks;
  • an evaluation culture which makes it possible to establish solid data taken from research work, statistics or mechanisms to evaluate progress and thereby to support the effectiveness of the policy;
  • cross-sectoral policies. The lessening of inequalities does not stem only from education policy but also from its interplay with other policies on, for example, employment, the economy, social inclusion, youth, health, etc.

Education and training policies

Pre-primary education proves essential for the later stages of learning, especially in terms of achievement and socialisation. It helps to prevent early school-leaving, improve the fairness of results and raise overall skills levels, and also to reduce costs in other fields (unemployment, crime, etc.).

Which is why, following the example of Member States such as Belgium or Italy, pre-primary education must be accompanied by early intervention programmes so as to support the most disadvantaged. Furthermore, in order to consolidate the effectiveness of these programmes, they must be flanked by other intervention measures such as support for language learning and social adjustment.

These programmes must be suited to early childhood and take account of the type of education provided (learning, individual and social skills) and of pedagogical aspects (improvement in teacher supply, parental commitment). Parental commitment can itself be encouraged through special parental education and outreach programmes.

Primary and secondary education must be focused on the quality of basic education for all. In other words, the equitable provision of basic education and key skills must be guaranteed for everyone in a knowledge-based society. For instance, procedures such as early “tracking”, in other words the streaming of pupils aged between 10 and 12 according to their ability level into different programmes, should be avoided because this is a source of inequity, particularly in the case of the disadvantaged and immigrant populations.

Central accountability systems have been set up as a complement to the increased autonomy granted to schools in many Member States. This combination of institutional autonomy and accountability has proven to be positive in terms of effectiveness. However, it is necessary to ensure that the standards and evaluation criteria also take account of equity and the dispersion of results.

Here again, effectiveness and equity are guaranteed by appropriate education and teaching methods, achieved in particular by recruitment policies which ensure quality schooling. Furthermore, cooperation between teachers, parents and social support services must be encouraged, for instance by using updated social inclusion strategies based on a pedagogical approach.

Higher education, which encompasses education, research and innovation (“knowledge triangle”), is a key sector in the economy and in the knowledge-based society. That is why it must be more competitive and promote excellence, as underlined by the Commission in its Communication on the modernisation of universities in 2006. The Commission had proposed devoted 2 % of gross domestic product (GDP) to higher education within the next ten years.

Three elements are important for a modernised higher education system: it must be fair for everyone, be financially viable and play a more effective role. However, the national higher education systems which are free of charge are not necessarily the most equitable, because they favour people from privileged socio-economic backgrounds or who have been in higher education. In addition to this, the financing of higher education has not increased, unlike the number of students and the expectations placed on higher education. And the benefits enjoyed by students are not entirely compensated by the progressive taxation systems, which leads to an inverse redistribution effect.

It is therefore necessary to concentrate on investment in higher education, and in particular the introduction of registration fees. These will allow a fair rebalancing of the costs borne by individuals and society, and the benefits drawn by each person, while at the same time providing universities with additional funds. The quality of teaching, the management of the universities and student motivation would consequently improve.

However, in order to guarantee access for all to higher education, the introduction of registration fees must be compensated by financial assistance for the most disadvantaged because they generally invest less in their future when private returns are not guaranteed. This aspect is particularly important when registration fees are set according to an estimation of future return on investment. To solve this problem, the provision of study grants, bank loans and loans contingent on future income can encourage access to higher education.

At the same time, higher education must become more attractive for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, those who have the qualifications to enter higher education and also for young children and their families. The cultural perceptions of higher education must also be changed. Greater emphasis must therefore be laid on the provision of information through school visits, lifelong mentoring and guidance schemes, and comprehensive outreach and access policies (including bridging programmes and earmarked places).

The relationship between education and the world of work must be improved. Education should involve vocational training in order to make occupational schemes more attractive and facilitate the transition of university graduates with vocational qualifications. This is all the more necessary since the needs of the labour market have evolved, and there is now increased demand for more highly qualified workers. Furthermore, other factors such as the ageing of the population or unemployment among young people also enter into play; for instance, the number of Europeans of at least 65 years of age will increase by 65 % by 2050, whereas the working population (15 to 64 years) will decrease by 20 %.

Early intervention to increase participation in education and raise the level of studies is not enough to improve employment prospects. Clear, flexible courses starting with vocational education and moving on to an apprenticeship and employment need to be introduced, following the example of the vocational education and training systems (VET). They offer participants the possibility of reasonable returns in the form of income.

Adult education also helps people adapt to a changing world of work and thereby improve their employment prospects. However, people with the fewest qualifications are those who benefit the least from learning and training in their working lives. Only 10.8 % of European adults take part in a formal, non-formal or informal learning activity throughout their lives, which is far below the EU reference level, namely participation of 12.5 % by 2010.

These training courses offer considerable cultural and social benefits (motivation and feeling of social commitment, reintegration into the learning cycle). Here again, however, the track record of these programmes’ ability to enhance the employment prospects of disadvantaged adults has generally been mediocre. It can be improved in two ways:

  • in education, through partnerships between businesses, the public sector, the social partners and local organisations in the community sector which focus on target groups and their needs. Such partnerships have been successful in preventing drop-out;
  • in working life, through training courses in the form of partnerships which focus on the skills required by employers. These courses match the skills required on the labour market and also aim to reconcile supply and demand and facilitate training and career choices. They have been effective in improving the employment prospects of the disadvantaged. The Member States offer information and training programmes, thereby encouraging private investment and easing the costs borne by businesses and workers. In parallel to this, employers must invest in education and training in order to remain competitive and assume their social responsibility, which entails becoming “learning organisations”.

EU action

The Member States are responsible for their education and training policies, but EU-wide action can promote mutual learning and exchanges of good practices between Member States. The EU therefore helps the Member States to integrate the principles of effectiveness and equity into their education and training systems under the revised Lisbon Strategy and the ” Education and Training 2010 ” work programme.

Furthermore, these principles will also be integrated into the work on adult education, the creation of a European Qualifications Framework and a European framework of statistics and indicators in addition to research projects which are part of the EU’s Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Development.

The action programme in the field of lifelong learning and transnational cooperation through the mobility of individuals will also encourage the acquisition of new skills and adaptation to the European labour market while improving quality and connections between education and training institutions in the EU.


The EU Member States must have high-quality education and training systems in order to meet the challenges of competitiveness and social cohesion. These objectives are part of the Lisbon partnership for growth and employment, and of the open method of coordination on social inclusion and social protection. The spring European Council of 23 and 24 March 2006 reiterated not only their importance but also the need to accelerate the pace of reform.

Key terms used in the act
  • Efficiency “involves the relationship between inputs and outputs in a process. Systems are efficient if the input produces the maximum output. Relative efficiency within education systems is usually measured through test and examination results, while their efficiency in relation to wider society and the economy is measured through private and social rates of return.”
  • Equity “is viewed as the extent to which individuals can take advantage of education and training, in terms of opportunities, access, treatment and outcomes. Equitable systems ensure that the outcomes of education and training are independent of socio-economic background and other factors that lead to educational disadvantage and that treatment reflects individuals’ specific learning needs.”

Related Acts

The Education, Youth and Culture Council of 13 and 14 November 2006 adopted its conclusions on this Communication. It recalled the role of the Member States and the benefits of cooperation at European level, and supported the need for a trans-sectoral approach in order to ensure efficiency and equity in lifelong learning. In addition to welcoming the Communication from the Commission, the Council declared that quality was essential as a common objective for all forms of education and training. This concerned not only learning through education or educational activities, but also the capacity of education and training systems to meet individual, social and economic needs, strengthen equity and improve well-being.
The Member States were asked to pay more attention to optimising the resources of the education and training systems by incorporating the principles of efficiency and equity and setting effective reform and investment targets by concentrating on pre-primary education, targeted early intervention programmes and education and training systems which can be sources of equity, guaranteeing access for all to education. The Council also focused on the need for qualified staff with access to in-service training. Furthermore, sufficient financing is needed for education and training, whether public or private, and for adult education and continuing vocational education and training. The world of work must also be more involved in education and training: businesses must be involved in the research and development aspect, and employers need to have active partnerships in order to develop the skills required by the economy. In order to guarantee quality, equity and efficiency throughout the education and training system, it is necessary to encourage evaluation and monitoring procedures, studies and the supply of transparent information. This would make it possible to assess the results of reforms, the adjustments and needs which could result from them and the development of teaching and learning methods and practices. The Commission and the Member States are therefore asked to cooperate with research centres and take account of these results in the context of Community programmes, in particular the objectives of the Education and Training 2010 programme.


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