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Strengthening Education in Europe, 9th Conference of the European Ministers of Education

 

Background for the Media

In the year 1998 Austria chaired its first presidency of the Council of the European Union. It was at that time when in the wake of the armed confrontations in Ex-Yugoslavia, the Austrian Federal Ministry of Education hosted a presidency conference on “European Educational Co-operation for Peace, Stability and Democracy”. It seeked to raise awareness for the importance of education in promoting a democratic and peaceful development in the region of South Eastern Europe, and for the role of education reforms in achieving this goal.

The conference gave birth to the Graz Process, and subseqently shaped it as an international initiative under Austrian patronage, focused on the promotion and support of education reforms in the countries of South Eastern Europe through regional co-operation and capacity building. In 1999 the Enhanced Graz Process took over the coordination of the education and youth agenda of the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe and became widely known as the Task Force Education and Youth.

The main area of Austrian support through the Enhanced Graz Process/Task Force Education and Youth is to prepare, facilitate and support the participation of the countries of the region in a wider European Area of Education, since 2003 mainly through the Education Reform Initiative of South Eastern Europe

Conference Background

 

The “Lisbon Process” is the main driving force for education reforms, also in the region of the Western Balkans. At the 7th Conference of European Ministers of Education in Nicosia in 2003, and at the 8th ministerial conference on “Lifelong Learning – From Rhetoric to Reality” in Oslo in 2004, the Ministers of Education from South Eastern Europe joined in a Memorandum of Understanding on the EU commitment to the Lisbon goals of building a socially cohesive, competitive knowledge society, by subscribing to the “Detailed Work Programme on the Follow-up of the Objectives of Education and Training Systems in Europe”.

Following the Memorandum, the Education Reform Initiative of South Eastern Europe was established and designed to serve as a regional platform for exchange and capacity building. This was a clear sign of a shift in the significance of education and training for the countries of the Western Balkans: From a tool for stabilisation in a post-conflict region, education became a key element in the process of European integration.

In 2003, the European Union reiterated its “unequivocal support” to the European perspective of the countries of the Western Balkans in the so called “Thessaloniki Declaration” adopted at the Summit under the Greek EU Presidency. It further stated that “the future of Balkans is within the European Union” and indicated the importance of adopting European standards towards this goal. Priority has been given also to the institutionalised support of the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe in the stabilisation and association processes. Austria has hosted the Task Force Education and Youth of the Stability Pact, since its foundation in 1999.

Continuity

 

In line with the emphasis of the Austrian Presidency on quality in education, the Vienna ministerial conference, “Strengthening Education in Europe”, will concentrate on the role and significance of education within the revised Lisbon strategy, and on ways to achieve the set objectives.

The education systems and institutions in Europe face a shared demand for a sufficient level of competitiveness and cooperation in a globalised world, as well as a common challenge in managing the task of building a socially cohesive knowledge society. The need for an inclusive European dialogue, especially in the course of establishing a European area of education and training as requested in the context of the re-launched Lisbon strategy, has never been greater than today.

The Vienna Conference follows the long-standing tradition of regular meetings at ministerial level, which, since the 1990s and the founding of the Task Force Education and Youth, have served as a forum for exchange and cooperation (always including the countries of South Eastern Europe) on current matters in the field of European education policy. The communiqués of these conferences summarise the discussion outcomes and serve as points of reference for joint efforts towards strengthening the European area of education.

Themes

 

The final communiqué of the Oslo Conference of European Ministers of Education in 2004 underlined the importance of strengthening the connection between policy and practice through a dialogue at a broader European level, in particular with regard to putting in place strategies for lifelong learning.

In the context of the mid-term review of the Lisbon strategy and of its re-launch in 2005, there was consensus that, from a lifelong learning perspective, quality education and skills as well as higher education – as a sector located between research, education and innovation – are among the key prerequisites for raising the competitiveness of Europe and for achieving the Lisbon goals .

The demand for an enhanced contribution of education and training to growth, employability and greater social cohesion in Europe should, therefore, be addressed by further promoting the European area of education, inter alia, by strengthening the role of universities, by enhancing the synergy between higher education and research and by developing a European Qualifications Framework (EQF) as a common reference instrument covering both VET and general education (secondary and higher).

This is why EQF is among the central themes at the present Vienna Conference of European Ministers of Education. The introduction of EQF has been prompted by the revised Lisbon strategy and by the Bologna and Copenhagen processes (to both of which also the countries of the Western Balkans have subscribed). In a mid-term perspective, the possible shape of the future EQF as well as the catalysing role and the design of pertinent national qualification frameworks will be a key point in the European discussion on education and training. The countries of the Western Balkan region participate in the discussion process through the activities of the Education Reform Initiative of South Eastern Europe (ERI SEE) and the European Training Foundation.

Also on the agenda of the Vienna Conference are the particular role of universities as regards the knowledge society in Europe and the continuing association processes of the Western Balkan countries with the European Union. Consultation with high-level ministry representatives from the Western Balkans region on this and on other topics of the Vienna conference has been recently completed. Its outcome is incorporated in the conference paper, “Western Balkans Education and Higher Education Policy”.

The discussion outcome will be summarised in a conference communiqué.

 

 

Date: 15.03.2006