Thursday, May 24, 2012

Taking stock of education and skills: the youth perspective

With his vantage point at the helm of the largest youth platform in the world, European Youth Forum (YFJ) President Peter Matjašič is well placed to assess the state of education and skills across Europe. Indeed, the YFJ represents millions of young people by way of national councils from Iceland to Azerbaijan, lobbying such important international bodies as the European Union, the Council of Europe and the United Nations to adopt policies that are in the best interests of European youth.

Educationtoday met with him at the OECD Forum to get his views on the state of young people's education and skills across the continent today.

educationtoday: How can today's students and young workers prepare themselves for rapidly evolving labour markets? 

Peter  Matjašič: The YFJ has been working on education since its inception fifteen years ago, focusing on quality and equality of access. We have a holistic view of education. Formal education must be supplemented by non-formal education, by which I mean you still have an organised activity, but one that is not organised by universities or colleges but by youth organisations, for example. Plus informal learning, which is what you gain from life experience.

Education is not necessarily enough. What we strive for is what we call youth autonomy. And to make the transition to the labour market, there are certain tools, such as internships.

The Youth Guarantee is another measure to ensure no young people are out of employment, school or training for more than four months. It means there are public programmes that ensure young people can get an internship or be retrained.

educationtoday: How do you ensure companies don't simply use internships as a means to get skilled young workers at little cost? 

Matjašič: First of all, for us it was important to put things into perspective. To do this, we carried out a survey of 4 000 interns across Europe last summer. We found the majority of interns enjoy being an intern, but at the same time they are aware of their precarious status. So, internships can be good tools if they're managed properly. For example, interns should be paid at least the minimum wage of the country they work in. To ensure this, we developed the European Quality Charter On Internships and Apprenticeships and pushed EU policymakers to propose it. The commission picked it up and will present a proposal themselves.

educationtoday: You mentioned entrepreneurship. This involves a certain measure of independent-mindedness and creativity. How do you think schools can better equip young people with these qualities?

Matjašič: The so-called life skills, or soft skills, are not being acquired through education. The value of peer-to-peer education you get in youth organisations is immense. Education needs to be hands-on with analytical thinking, which tends to be more the case in Northern Europe, whereas in Southern Europe teaching is often more ex-cathedra, where students simply learn what the teacher tells them. And this model in times of crisis fails young people in that studying hard is no longer enough to get a job.

I would also add that the way society sees entrepreneurship needs to be changed. Today, too many young people see it as solely about profit.

educationtoday: To what extent do you feel there is a skills mismatch today in Europe? 

Matjašič: The problem is in part because there's a disconnect between education and jobs. But at the same time, we aim to foster autonomous and active citizens. We don't want young people to be told, for example, they have to study mechanics because that's where jobs are. They need to be informed to make the right decisions. Proper career orientation in schools is key.

educationtoday:  Do you think there is a problem of over-skilled or over-educated young people today?

Matjašič: From a technical perspective, in terms of the level of education they have, yes. However, if you look at the actual knowledge young people have, I have my doubts as to whether they're over-skilled. They're definitely over-educated for certain things. But I would say it's more up to the individual today. People feel they need a master's degree because a bachelor's is not good enough anymore, so you have a proliferation of degrees, which makes them less valuable. The knowledge is no longer the focus, and I see this as a danger. We don't want education to just be a tool to enter the labour market

educationtoday: What can be done to ensure young people today have a broad education that allows them to be active citizens? 

Matjašič: Non-formal education, informal learning and volunteering need to be recognized. People can then have specific knowledge from formal education and life skills from youth organisations, for example. Interdisciplinary approaches are also important.

Links:
European Youth Forum
OECD Skills Strategy
OECD Forum 2012
Photo credit: OECD Video Invest in skills to boost jobs and growth

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