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Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth interviewed by Ibercampus

Mariya Gabriel: “I am also a believer in the liberal-arts approach to education, the need for people to grasp the world including the entire spectrum of its natural and socio-economic aspects”

Ana González: European schools are already receiving refugee children from Ukraine. Is there a special program to make them more inclusive in the face of war? How do you estimate the impact of the millions of refugees on the entire European educational and innovative system?

At the European Commission, we have taken numerous actions to help Member States cope with the unprecedented high number of refugees entering our education systems.

First of all, we are mobilising EU funds to support Member States in receiving and integrating refugees from Ukraine, for example through a new instrument called ‘CARE’. This is introducing the necessary flexibility in the 2014-2020 Cohesion policy rules to allow a swift reallocation of available funding. In addition, the ‘REACT-EU’ funds can also be used to address these new demands with a total envelope of EUR 10 billion for 2022. And there are other actions we are taking, all to ensure that the financial side of things is as much covered as possible. In addition, the Commission will make available policy guidance available, which will help national authorities in integrating refugee children in education in the host countries. And of course there is the Erasmus+ Programme. With the knowledge and networks it has created, the programme is supporting schools, vocational education and training providers, higher education institutions and youth organisations in the integration of refugee teachers, pupils and learners in the current refugee inflow from Ukraine.

Secondly, we are bringing Member States together to share experiences about what is needed to continue the education of displaced children. We have set up an EU Education solidarity group through the existing mechanisms and tools for cooperation, to coordinate the work on refugee education, peer learning activities, policy guidance documents, focus sessions and webinars, among others.

And then there are very practical actions: The existing European online platforms such as the School Education Gateway, eTwinning and EPALE have all been adapted to exchange experiences and information on supporting the integration of Ukrainian refugee children and young people in educational systems in Member States.

And we are constantly thinking about other ways to support Member States in helping the refugees. I have for example just suggested to my colleagues, Commissioner Hahn, to frontload Erasmus+ funds from 2027 budget allocations to 2023. And the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) is currently exploring ways to mobilize the EIT Community networks and partners to create initiatives in support of Ukraine and its people.

The impact of the millions of refugees on the entire European educational and innovative system will be felt for years to come. Initially, the crisis will impose a significant strain on education, but the long-term impact should be positive overall. This experience will develop our ability to handle diversity and develop our resilience, making us stronger in the face of adversity.

Carlos Trías: fWould the idea of linking ERASMUS to the new phenomena of open science and social innovation seem attractive to you? How can that be done?

The European Commission encourages open science and social innovation already within a number of existing initiatives. For example, the European Universities alliances focus on the phenomena of open science and social innovation. They already show advanced practices and promote, in particular, the development and dynamism in science and social innovations. Through the European Universities alliances, the transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary collaboration among students across different disciplines in scientific research is already taking place.

European Universities provide the means to work in European knowledge co-creating teams, gathering students and academics, regional decision makers, researchers, local businesses, and civil society to address societal challenges through interdisciplinary approaches. This joint work is instrumental to stimulating the creation of interesting job opportunities.

And there is much more, for example through Erasmus+. Thanks to the bottom-up approach embedded in the programme, project holders are encouraged to come up with new and sustainable solutions and ideas. This contributes to making Erasmus+ a catalyst for innovation, particularly in teaching and learning. It can be applied, for example, through cooperation partnerships: different groups of universities can test and apply concepts of social innovation and open science to their curricula, teaching methods or administrative practices.

Carlos Trías: Even though the European Commission has little competence in the field of education, have you considered how you are going to link the Union’s extraordinary progress in sustainability with the qualification of professionals and the training of citizens?

I agree that we must ensure that all citizens are equipped with knowledge and understanding of the environment and sustainability we move to a greener, more sustainable Europe and world.

Sustainability is high in the European political agenda, also when it comes to education and training policies.

There is much collaboration on policy level, for example in January this year, when we released a new European competence framework on sustainability (GreenComp), which maps out the knowledge, skills and attitudes that all learners need for the green transition: critical thinking, systems thinking, empathy and connection with nature, for example. This new framework can inform the development of curricula, programmes and policies related to sustainability education and also courses for teacher professional development. At the same time, the Commission published a proposal for a Council Recommendation on learning for environmental sustainability to boost Member States’ efforts to equip learners with the understanding and skills towards creating a socially just and sustainable future. It covers all sectors of education and proposes action at four levels: the learner, educator, institution and systems.

And then there are a number of activities we are doing directly with various actors in the education systems. We are for example supporting higher education institutions in preparing for the green transition through European Strategy for Universities. And there is the Education for Climate Coalition, a very nice grassroots movement, where we are providing a platform for pupils, students and teachers to share pledges for concrete actions, to inspire each other. Both these actions are part of our efforts of establishing the European Education Area by 2025 of providing quality education for all – and there is of course no quality if it is not sustainable.

 

Carlos Trías: Do you consider it is important to enhance children and young people in a world of sustainable finance and socially responsible investing?

Absolutely. Financial literacy by definition means the knowledge and skills needed to make important financial decisions. Every day, thousands of people are deciding where to open a bank account, which mortgage to choose, where to invest their money, how to save for retirement. This is not a nice skill to have. This is essential.

As a result, financial literacy was already included as one of the elements of the mathematics key competence in the EU Framework of key competences. However, according to the 2020 international survey of adult financial literacy conducted by the OECD International Network on Financial Education (INFE), about half of the EU adult population does not have a good enough understanding of basic financial concepts. While the overall figures are low, the problem is more acute in some parts of society than others, with the most vulnerable disproportionally affected. Low-income groups, for instance, as well as women, young people and older people tend to score lower than the rest of the population.

That is why we have now gone further. In January 2022, the joint EU/OECD-INFE financial competence framework for adults was officially published. The framework was developed in close collaboration with representatives of Member States. The framework builds upon the existing G20/OECD INFE core competencies framework on financial literacy for adults and adapts it to the EU context.

The framework integrates digital finance and sustainable finance competences as well as competences relevant for financial resilience. It outlines key areas of competences pertaining to personal finance e.g., planning a budget, investing, borrowing or preparing for retirement. And it covers the knowledge and awareness, skills and behaviours and the confidence, attitudes, and motivation that individuals need to support their financial well-being throughout their lives.

Ana González: The European Union has put forward some proposals in the field of education and training. What are the goals regarding upskilling and reskilling the European adult population?

Access to up- and reskilling opportunities is vital for the tens of millions of workers propelled into short-time work or unemployment, no matter their current level of skills or area of qualifications. We have to provide equal access to additional up-skilling opportunities for all people regardless of gender, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age, or sexual orientation, and including low-qualified/skilled adults and people with a migrant background. Similarly, all territories should be covered, from big cities to rural, coastal or remote areas across the whole EU.

Whilst most responsibilities for skills policies remain at the national, regional, and local level, the EU has an important role to play. At the Commission, we seek to encourage and support Member States to enact policies that go in the same direction and effectively reinforce the resilience of our economy and society.

The European Pillar of Social Rights action plan set the target of at least 60% of all adults participating in training every year by 2030. Currently, we are for example working on creating a European approach to micro-credentials, which will allow learners to certify the outcomes of small and tailored learning experiences they gained in one EU Member States in another one. Flexibility and mobility are key words, as always.

Ana González: What is the EU doing to set up the ‘long life learning’ concept in society?

In these rapidly changing times, our learning opportunities need to be adapted and be flexible and accessible for all. The EU supports Member States in crafting policies that enable those who have left school early to re-enter education. Likewise, those who need it should be able to access higher education and Vocational Education and Training programmes to acquire or update the skills that jobs now require.

Universities have a key role to play in preventing skill mismatches and bottlenecks that risk hindering Europe’s recovery. They are also key in enabling the development of learners as creative and critical thinkers, problem solvers and active and responsible citizens equipped for lifelong learning. Also, in the context of the European approach to micro-credentials I mentioned earlier: This will contribute to mobilising higher education in support of lifelong learning and contribute to professional reskilling and upskilling to meet new and emerging needs in society and the labour market.

Ana González: Innovation becomes progress when the society has access to new products or services. Are you working on joining innovation, universities and companies?

We have established the European University – Business Forum, a platform at European level for a structured dialogue between relevant stakeholders, to stimulate the exchange of good practices and provide for mutual learning. We hope that this will continuously inspire participants to take further action in their countries. Discussions at these Fora have already led to two major initiatives, Knowledge Alliances and HEInnovate.

The Knowledge Alliances, who have since evolved into Alliances of Innovation, are a way to directly support the collaboration between Universities and Business on education related aspects, through funding under the Erasmus+ programme.

We have currently 21 such alliances running and have just selected another seven, linked to industrial eco-systems. They design and create new curricula for higher education and vocational education and training and support the development of a sense of initiative and entrepreneurial mind-sets in the EU. We will have annual calls until 2027.

And of course, there is the European Institute of Innovation and Technology plays a crucial role in the integration of education, business and research in order to create novel and innovative solutions to pressing global challenges. The EIT is the only EU initiative that addresses innovation on a systemic level along the entire value-chain, from education to the market.

Ana González: In your opinion, what kind of educational programs would produce better leaders in the future?

So many factors come into play when it comes to good leaders. Let me try and name a few.

First, I would say that all future leaders need to acquire the necessary knowledge, skills and attitudes i.e., the key competences for their respective field of work. Leaders must base their decisions on the best available evidence.

And I am also a believer in the liberal-arts approach to education, the need for people to grasp the world including the entire spectrum of its natural and socio-economic aspects. Our EU Framework on key competences follows this approach, and combines key competences with personal fulfilment and health, active and responsible citizenship and social inclusion. Adding volunteering to one’s curriculum, engaging for example in the European Solidarity Corps, can add so much to an academic education.

A leader can also not afford to look only at his or her narrow area of expertise, but needs a much wider, more encompassing vision of the consequences of any decision which, while benefiting one, may hurt another element of society. Human societies are, after all, extremely complex organizations. A proper risk-benefit analysis of any action by taking into account data provided by professional experts from a variety of fields is the pre-requisite for leaders’ success.

Speaking about sustainability, future leaders may need to reconcile two competing and often contradictory goals. Finding the fair balance between economic development and our natural environment is not easy. It requires a holistic, competence-based education that looks at all aspects of our lives, including the psychological meaning of happiness and belonging.

All these are traits and skills that one can acquire through the right education.

Carlos Trías: Do you think digital education should have a greater impact on the education system? Please, indicate how and why.

Two years ago, the education and training community all over the world faced a difficult and unforeseen challenge. With the closure of most education and training institutions, governments had to find ways for every learner to continue learning despite staying home. We needed teachers and learners to become proficient in using new tools, we needed them to become used to a new learning environment. Back then, we adopted the Digital Education Action Plan 2021-2027, which addressed this challenge head-on. It was, and still remains, a blueprint for inclusive, effective, high-quality digital education across Europe.

At the outset of the Plan, we focused on the impact of the pandemic on education systems. We focused on building resilience and supporting digital skills so that education could continue. During that time, we learnt many lessons that are guiding the implementation of the 14 actions we have in the Action Plan today. We learnt that, even if our lives are strongly mediated by digital technologies, our education and training systems were not ready for the challenge. This is why, with the Digital Education Action Plan, we present and implement a vision for digital education in Europe, one where the adoption of technologies is impact driven, a vision that does not compromise quality nor inclusion.

Digital education can prepare our young people to be knowledgeable, confident, critical citizens of a new century. Therefore, digital education needs a stronger vision and more resourceful implementation in order to show its impact. Digital technologies can be shaped to fit the needs of each learner, from disadvantaged backgrounds to special needs, not forgetting gifted children. Because digital tools have the potential to act as an attention and force multiplier for teachers and educators.

Carlos Trías: Do you see a need to strengthen the bottom-up effect in Horizon Europe? If so, what are your thoughts on this?

Horizon Europe is divided in three pillars.

The first two pillar, Excellent Science and Global Challenges and European Industrial Competitiveness, have particularly strong bottom-up elements, where e.g., the European Research Council focuses specifically on curiosity-driven research. For activities within Pillar II, we aim to provide solutions to some of the major challenges that we are facing. These are identified not the least through strategic planning, which is built on input from a wide range of stakeholders, including researchers.

Under Horizon Europe’s third pillar, Innovative Europe, the European Institute of Innovation and Technology and the Knowledge and Innovation Communities, through their focus on innovation ecosystems, address innovation at a systemic level, along the entire value-chain, from education to the market. They do so by supporting the development of dynamic, long-term European partnerships among leading companies, research labs and higher education. These partnerships are called EIT Knowledge and Innovation Communities and each is dedicated to finding solutions to a specific global challenge, from climate change and sustainable energy to healthy living and food.

Carlos Trías: How will you ensure that Horizon projects involve all relevant stakeholders, in particular young researchers?

As I have just mentioned, Horizon Europe is in its design a programme that has a crucial bottom-up aspect. At every level, we are involving stakeholders to drive European research and innovation.

Looking at younger researchers, I would like to stress that more than half of the funding from the European Research Council targets early- to mid-career scientists and scholars including PhD. Moreover, researchers with similar level of experience and CVs are evaluated against each other so young researchers are given the same chances as more experienced ones.

Horizon Europe is also involving a wide range of stakeholders via other instruments. For example, we are cooperating closely with the private sector and Member States when it comes to partnerships. Their goal is to address some of Europe’s most pressing challenges through concerted research and innovation initiatives. To give you some examples, we have partnerships on High-Performance Computing, Clean Aviation and Biodiversity. All these topics are cross-cutting, which is why we are working with all the relevant services inside the Commission. Additionally, the missions are also an important tool to involve all relevant stakeholders. To give you a short overview of the range of involved actors, for the mission Cities, 377 cities have declared their interest. For the mission on Cancer, we will work closely with health professionals and for the mission on our Oceans and Waters, youth is particularly important as part of the EU4Ocean coalition.

Finally, I would like to mention our action in favour of widening countries. We have to make sure that research and innovation excellence is spread in all European countries. Therefore, with Horizon Europe, we put in place a substantial Widening component, three time as important in terms of budget than the one of Horizon 2020. It will not only allow to continue and fine-tune existing actions known from Horizon 2020 (such as Teaming, Twinning, ERA Chairs or COST actions), but it will also support additional measures. Some of these novelties will include fostering brain circulation of researchers, improving the quality of proposals from countries catching-up in research and innovation and boosting activities of National Contact Points.

Gustavo Matías: You have just written that Europe delivers on business innovation. He is in luck for the acceleration of investments in Venture Capital, which almost tripled in 2021. In Bulgaria, it multiplied by 10. It is clear that talent attracts capital, although some experts think that it is the ability to innovate quickly and apply it to a better, more sustainable and happy world – something other than deep innovation. Do you think that both objectives can be made compatible?

Both objectives can be made compatible. Talent is the main asset of our innovation ecosystems and at the same time talent is the key for fast and impactful deep tech innovation. That is why, we are creating an innovation ecosystem that pays attention to the needs of European scientists, innovators and startups, helping them develop the next breakthrough technologies and create world-leading companies.

We aim for a renewed Innovation Agenda for Europe that brings together different innovation related policy initiatives, maps support instruments and proposes new actions and governance frameworks allowing for a more open, inclusive and flexible implementation of innovation policies. We cannot do this alone and are thus engaging innovation ecosystem’s actors at different governance levels.

Bulgaria has been successfully improving its innovation performance. Thanks to our joint efforts between 2012 and 2019, Bulgaria’s innovation performance improved by 6.9%.

Horizon Europe, with a budget of EUR 95.5 billion, will play a pivotal role in shaping, supporting and delivering on European policy priorities. We envisage robust investments in Research and innovation to support researchers, industry and citizens throughout the entire cycle.

The European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) will also contribute in developing a new ‘deep tech talent’ training programme to train more than 1 Million European on technologies such as synthetic biology, aerospace, AI, among others. EIT is an independent EU body funded under pillar III of Horizon Europe, with a budget of EUR 2.965 billion. Its mission is to strengthen Europe’s ability to innovate by powering solutions to pressing global challenges and by nurturing entrepreneurial talent to create sustainable growth and skilled jobs across Europe. The Institute operates through and supports the development of 8 dynamic pan-European partnerships – EIT Knowledge and Innovation Communities – among leading innovators from companies and SMEs, research laboratories, organizations and universities.

Finally, the development of the ERA Talent Platform will build on Euraxess to create an online one-stop–shop, with improved structure and governance, exploiting links to other EU initiatives. The platform will allow researchers to manage their learning and careers. The Research and innovation institutions should be able to better manage their pools of talents. The ERA4You initiative addresses the issue of researcher brain drain from less developed regions in Europe. It supports cross-sectoral brain circulation and academia-business collaboration for knowledge transfer, especially in widening countries.

Gustavo Matías: In the face of the lack of supplies with the Covid pandemic, the European Chip Law tries to combine the double digital and green transition to achieve a “lasting technological and industrial leadership” increasing the market share of semiconductors to 20% by 2030 – thus quadrupling production. Do you not see the risk of another failure like that of the Lisbon Agenda in 2000 to achieve the largest digital knowledge economy in the EU, or even later in 2013 with chips, when the EU identified its strategic relevance in a specific policy document that never had the expected effects?

Semiconductor chips are the essential building blocks of digital and digitised products. From smartphones and cars to critical applications and infrastructures for healthcare, energy, communications and industrial automation, chips are central to the modern digital and green economy.

Europe has many strengths and some opportunities for improvement in the semiconductor value chain. The EU is home to world-leading research and technology organisations and many excellent universities and research institutes. These are pioneering the techniques behind the production of some of the world’s most advanced chips. However, at the moment Europe only has an overall global semiconductors production market share of less than 10%. In order to reach 20% of the market share of semiconductors by 2030, we need to quadruple the production. There are three key actions through which we will address this:

First, Europe must reinforce its capabilities in semiconductors to ensure future competitiveness and maintain its technological leadership and security of supply. The sector is both capital and knowledge intensive. Chip supply chains are global, complex and rely on a few manufacturing sites. We need to bring together our excellent researchers and the industry in Europe to build up the necessary capabilities.

Additionally, we need substantial investments on Research and development to allow a strong position in the next generation of ever smaller, faster and more energy-efficient chips. We have an excellent scientific base. In recent years, the EU has already invested in semiconductors and chips through various programmes, including Horizon 2020. Reducing the cost and time of designing new chips, reducing electricity consumption and waste generated during manufacturing, making chips more efficient are some of the many examples of the portfolio of projects funded by the European Innovation Council and the European Research Council.

Finally, we need to expand on the value chains. The “Materials 2030 Manifesto” signed by industry and research players is a good example of this. The Manifesto is addressing the need to secure strategic autonomy and the vulnerability of Europe’s value chains. Only by investing in Research and innovation will the scaling-up of technologies for advanced materials have a positive impact on our technological sovereignty and the green and digital transformation. New materials for semiconductors – the next generation after silicon we use today – need to be developed and deployed in the coming years to support Europe’s ambitions of a 20% market share for chips.

Gustavo Matías: We return to the talent-results relationship. Research and innovation against cancer have especially advanced during the last two decades. They have improved diagnosis, treatment and care. However, they do not reach care well due to many administrative barriers and a lack of massive screening. The Commission advises extending this to 90% of patients by 2025. How can this goal be achieved?

The EU is supporting Members States to implement efficient cancer screening via different concrete initiatives.

First, to support a new EU-supported Cancer Screening Scheme for EU countries, which will be put forward under the Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan, the European Commission’s Group of Chief Scientific Advisors[1] released a scientific opinion on cancer screening at the beginning of March. This opinion provides recommendations to improve the participation in existing population-based screening programmes for cervical, colorectal and breast cancers, to extend screening programmes for lung and prostate cancers and to take advantage of the latest technological possibilities and scientific evidence to optimise risk-based cancer screening and early diagnosis throughout the EU. It also outlines the areas in which further research is required, as an input to the EU Mission on Cancer which aims to improve the lives of more than 3 million people by 2030. The mission launched a call for proposals on 15 December 2021 to develop and validate new methods and technologies for affordable, faster and more precise screening and early detection. Selected projects are expected to start by end 2022-early 2023.

Moreover, in addition to its initiative on Breast Cancer, the Knowledge Centre on Cancer will provide new guidelines and quality assurance schemes on cancer screening, diagnosis, treatment, rehabilitation, follow-up and palliative care for colorectal and cervical cancers. This will include voluntary accreditation and certification programmes for national cancer centres and screening programmes, while continuously updating the existing guidelines on breast cancer.

Finally, in order to ensure that 90% of all EU citizens benefit from the new Screening Scheme, EU countries are invited to obtain relevant funding from the EU4Health programme, hands-on technical support from the Technical Support Instrument and loans from the European Investment Bank to establish and improve screening programmes in their countries and regions. The European Regional Development Fund, managed by national authorities in Member States, could also support investments on screening and early detection.

 

[1] https://ec.europa.eu/info/research-and-innovation/strategy/support-policy-making/scientific-support-eu-policies/group-chief-scientific-advisors_en

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