‘There is no need to study that. They will teach you everything you need to know at work’
This idea became a mantra to some of my peers at university. Unfortunately, with the education systems in many countries not being adequately adjusted to the needs of the job market, it becomes increasingly relevant. According to the EuropeKidsWant survey over 42% of 18 to 30-year-olds from the EU felt that school doesn’t prepare them for their future life. Are we, young people, overly critical? Maybe. However, colossal levels of youth unemployment, with rates reaching 43.6% in Greece and 38.6% in Spain, these concerns are clearly not trivial.
So, what’s behind this issue?
The vastly identified problem with schools is their outdated or inflexible curricula, often discriminating against students talented in areas such as art, sports or entrepreneurship. Since there is an acknowledgement of the need for a change, why doesn’t it happen?
Firstly, all of us need (at least it is believed so) to have a basic knowledge from all of the fields, which makes sense – if we didn’t have that, how could we choose our further path.
Secondly, the system needs to be unified for all the schools, which makes curricular changes costly and conceptually challenging.
Thirdly, with many students and parents already complaining about the number of classes, the introduction of new ones could have a negative effect on education.
On the other side of the spectrum, we have employers who often look for students with work/project experience, which is simply inaccessible to some or infringes on the school experience. Moreover, countries such as Poland do not offer insight programs for high school or university students (with a few exceptions introduced recently), which limits the ability of young people to find their area of interest. What goes in line with it is a number of unpaid internships, usually offered by public institutions, contributing to increasing social inequalities and inadequate perception of students’ work. Lastly, the idea of mentoring seems strange in mainland Europe (as opposed to the UK) – either due to lack of knowledge regarding its benefits, or a stereotypical approach towards it based on the assumption of selfishness and slyness of the mentor or the mentee.
During the European Youth Parliament session in November last year, I had a chance to challenge a group of current MEPs with questions regarding the actions of the EU aiming to reduce these problems. Although the MEPs in general acknowledged and supported the necessary changes to the education system and youth labour market, they retreated to a ‘safe space’ by pointing out that it is the competence of the member states.
But our voice, the voice of the youth, is often discriminated in our home countries, leaving the EU as the only place to actually fight for a change. Hopefully, the EU will engage more into the mediation as it can be one of the ways to ensure greater stability, competitiveness and coherence of the EU economy, which has taken a hit during the Eurozone crisis.
What are some possible solutions?
Students, deliberately, weren’t mentioned in the previous section, since even though they are a vital part of both the schooling and labour markets, they are not the decision makers. Nevertheless, the structural changes and adjustments have to be driven by students (although they will benefit the whole ecosystem) because they harm them directly.
Students, both pre-university and university level, have already established structures and undertaken actions that help their needs from the spectrum of education and employment. Good examples of such movements are student clubs and societies, speakers series and conferences as well as concerts and innovation hubs. Nonetheless, they are still marginal and focused around the biggest cities. Warsaw, where I grew up is a perfect example – all of these initiatives happen in the city, but as we move to the suburbs they become very sporadic and then non-existent more than 30 km outside of the town.
None of these initiatives can function without cooperation with the potential employers and representatives of the education system. What’s needed is a shift from the coexistence of the three stakeholder groups (young people, companies, education system) with brief episodes of collaboration, to a continuous discussion process, aiming to reduce the mismatch of expectations.
Besides the open dialogue, the perception of youth participation in the labour market by the society needs to be altered. To achieve that students, need to get an understanding of the value of unconventional types of education, including social education and soft skills, from the education authorities and the market. Countries such as the UK and US among few others have done that by including ‘Personal Statements’ – a short summary of a candidate’s profile and aspirations – as a crucial part of the university application processes and companies respecting extra-curricular experience.
So where do we go from here?
Although a change that relies merely on social involvement of the students is not sufficient to achieve a consensus between the three groups and eradicate youth unemployment, the participation of young people has to be a motor of the process.
The skills desired by employers can no longer be acquired just through school or university curriculum – with digital literacy, innovation, and soft skills being the most important ones. In the current situation, we can either wait for a slow and fiscally-costly adjustment, or we can empower students through funding and structural support from the education system as well as the recognition of extra-curricular qualifications by the employers. The help of the major employers will be necessary for the creation of a coherent, non-discriminating and open ecosystem, which will set a pace for the whole market.
Thus, whether the student potential will be recognized as the missing piece in the ‘puzzle’ required for an effective change or ignored leading to even higher levels of youth unemployment is up to the policymakers, but the change is coming. The clock is ticking.
The views, analysis, and recommendations are solely the personal opinions of the author. Author’s views are based on personal experience based on education and employment in both Poland and the UK, hence might not be applicable to other countries of the EU.
Krzysztof is a UNICEF advocate and a student at the University of Warwick, focusing on a BSc in Philosophy, Politics and Economics.