Does the European Union educate generations into being united in diversity ?

Does the European Union educate generations into being united in diversity ?

This year, we have celebrated the Erasmus program’s 30th birthday. It is largely considered as one of the most successful and profitable policies that the Union has implemented. Allowing students and young professionals to study and work in the countries of the Union, with financial help, in the name of their European citizenship, or of the partner nations’, it is considered both a very efficient educational tool and a very effective integration mechanism. It also is symptomatic of what the Union has been trying to do in the field of education : harmonize and enable the young Europeans to have their skills and diplomas recognized throughout Europe. This work is in the vein of the will of free movement of the workers stated in the Treaty of Rome signed 60 years ago.

Nevertheless such a work of harmonization has been really hard to implement considering the strength of national traditions and the cultural differences between the Member States. Since it was instated in the different European countries, public education has been used as a tool to strengthen patriotism, end regional cleavages and create an allegiance to the Nation, traditionally against the Church. Each national system is built according to philosophical views on society, and they vary a lot depending on the Welfare State they belong to. For example, private institutions play a paramount role in the British system, whereas private schools are forbidden in Finland. The content changes a lot also depending on the country. For instance, the way secularism is perceived in every country influences the way they educate : German children and teenagers are offered the possibility to study a religion in public schools, whereas it is strictly forbidden in French public schools. Also, the number of years spent at school and university is a paramount issue in the European educative integration : how to create equivalence when pupils and students aren’t the same age when they graduate from high school, when they get their bachelor, their masters, and when the value of these diplomas isn’t the same in each system ?

Concerning  primary and secondary education, a wake up call has been the first Pisa report in 2002, according to which European countries were not doing good. It was especially the case for Germany, which was doing worse than its neighbors with one more year of studying before graduation than most of the other countries. From then, the country has put in place reforms and today all the European countries’ students graduate at the same time.

For higher education, the Joint Declaration of the European Ministers of Education convened in Bologna on 19th June 1999 has established Union-wide norms :

« Adoption of a system of easily readable and comparable degrees, also through the implementation of the Diploma Supplement, in order to promote European citizens employability and the international competitiveness of the European higher education system

Adoption of a system essentially based on two main cycles, undergraduate and graduate. Access to the second cycle shall require successful completion of first cycle studies, lasting a minimum of three years. The degree awarded after the first cycle shall also be relevant to the European labour market as an appropriate level of qualification. The second cycle should lead to the master and/or doctorate degree as in many European countries.

Establishment of a system of credits – such as in the ECTS system – as a proper means of promoting the most widespread student mobility. Credits could also be acquired in non-higher education contexts, including lifelong learning, provided they are recognized by receiving Universities concerned »

However, huge inequalities remain between the different systems, both between the Member States and within them. A fair and equal European educative system bringing equal opportunities and high quality education all across the Union is still a goal to achieve.


The Union and its objective : painting a picture of what has been done and what needs to be according to the Social Justice in the EU index

The Social Justice in the EU index is a quantitative tool that aims at describing the state of social justice in the EU and in each Member State. It is composed of 6 indicators, one of which being « Equitable education ».

The way this indicator is entitled and built shows what the Union focuses on in terms of education. The term « equitable » refers to something that would be both economically efficient and socially fair. Using this term is a political statement : the Union wants the national systems to be efficient, meaning that it needs to enable people to get the right education to get a job and contribute to the economy, and fair, offering equal opportunity to every citizen no matter their gender, social class or place of birth. According to Pierre Bourdieu, education is the most important institution to fight social injustice and inequalities because it is the biggest institution of social reproduction. This index aims at showing us where education is the most profitable both to the students and the society in general, by a collection of data and sub-indicators of which the interpretation will help policy makers, at the European and the national level, identify the problems in this field and solve them.

A general assertion given by the first graph helps us identify the countries which do the best in this field. The best players are the Northern countries, but also Estonia, Lithuania and Croatia. The improvement of Poland’s score and classement is also noticeable, from a very average score in 2008 to the 6th place today. Also, in a general way, all the countries have improved their score since 2008. But studying the sub-indicators in detail will help identify the challenges ahead in the field of education.

The first one is « Socioeconomic background and student performance ». It is an indicator of reproduction of the national education systems : the lower the score is the harder it is for low socioeconomic background students to perform a social ascension. What strikes on this sub-indicator is that it is definitely not in phase with the general one, encouraging States not to focus only on the general picture. Indeed, if the top countries of the general indicator are at the top, they are joined by average and low-average countries such as Italy and Cyprus. On the other hand, some average performing country in the general ranking are doing particularly bad in this indicator, noticeably France and Czech Republic. In these countries, the focus of the improvement pursued needs to be on the inclusiveness of their systems more than on the quality of their education.

The indicator of « Pre-primary education expenditure » measures children’s early exposure to school. An early exposure allows an early secondary socialisation and by doing so, lowers the negative effects of primary socialization for the lowest background children as regards to their ability to climb the social ladder. Also, a higher pre-primary education expenditure is favorable to gender equality, boosting women’s employment both directly and indirectly. The authors highlight in particular the success of Denmark in this field, and in an overall perspective. However, they also invite us to relativize these results and make a deeper analysis, because the country has not been able to make migrants benefit from this system as much as the Danish children.

The « Early School leavers » indicator is supposed to indicate the efficiency of the system in educating the integrality of the country’s population. Taking the example of Croatia, the authors highlight the fact that this indicator tends to ignore the quality of the education provided and its adequacy with the job market’s needs. Indeed, in Croatia, vocational programs are insufficiently developed, leading to massive mismatches and friction unemployment, touching especially the lower background kids, lacking the social capital to compensate these inadequacies.

At last, the « Less than upper secondary attainment » indicator aims at having a more precise idea of the efficiency of the systems. This indicator is really relevant, especially since, all over Europe, more and more people are getting an education and a higher education. Once more, the authors of the document emphasize on the limits of the indicator. The country with the best score, Lithuania, has problems with providing a quality education, enough vocational trainings and so adequate education regarding the needs of the job market. These problems leading to the massive youth unemployment score the country knows don’t reflect here, and in a general way these indicators fail at taking into account the issue of inadequacy.

If we look at the overall results in a dynamic way, we can make several observations :

  • Germany’s reaction to the so-called « Pisa Shock » is obvious : if the socioeconomic background remains heavily determinant, this influence is decreasing whereas the global picture is improving.
  • Poland is a top gainer in a comparative perspective. It seems that Tusk’s reforms emphasizing on synchronization, vocational training and lifelong training pays off. Moreover, this kind of strategy is what characterizes the systems of the best countries in Equitable Education.
  • On the other hand, Slovakia and Hungary are really doing bad. The biggest problems of these two systems are the lack of resources invested in the field of education and the lack of career oriented formations. Hungary is a special case however : since the arrival in power of Viktor Orbán, the education system is a party driven, underfunded system and the party in power has no intention to improve it, on the contrary. It is the most worrying situation across the Union because, dealing with an eurosceptic power, the Union will probably not be able to implement policies that could help compensate the lack of national public investment.
  • Portugal, Romania and Malta are also in great difficulty. Indeed, not only are they in great need of a reform of their unadapted systems, they are now underfunded, have lost efficiency and capabilities because of the austerity measures these countries have taken. The number of teachers there has decreased, brain-drain is huge and, especially in Portugal, the number of high school dropouts is colossal.

Globally, the analysis of this index shows that the national education systems across the European Union are very different. However, thanks to a deeper analysis, we can also point out that the same strategies work across the Union : focusing on primary education, vocational training and professional oriented formations.

The Union and higher studies : educate or integrate ?

If the EU doesn’t have integrated policies on primary and secondary schools, it however implemented two very significant policies in the field of higher education : the Erasmus program, especially today with the Erasmus + study and Erasmus + stage programs, and the Bologna declaration.

Since its formal establishment at the beginning of the academic year 1987-1988, the Erasmus program has been the object of a lot of changes and investments. Originally designed to enhance students and teachers mobility, its scope was progressively broadened. With the adoption of Erasmus + in January 2014, the Commission targets a larger range of Europeans : students, apprentices, teachers, lecturers, young people, volunteers, youth workers and people working in grassroots’ sport.

If the Commission emphasizes on the fact that this program is a formidable opportunity for its beneficiaries, « aim[ing] at boosting skills, employability and supporting the modernisation of education, training and youth systems », this policy has also proven to be a fantastic integration tool. As Magali Ballatore demonstrates, the mobility introduced by the Erasmus program is a new kind, enhancing the positive value of emigration and introducing a new kind of integration. She uses the term of « entre-multiples », emphasizing on the multi-centrism of the experience : not only do Erasmus students interact with nationals of the hosting institution but with students coming from the entire Union, and furthermore, they also have an actual direct interaction with the Union as an administrative entity, making its role and its utility more obvious to them than to most people. To her, this is one of the motives thanks to which Erasmus students tend to feel more European, and more globally to acknowledge their citizenship. She really insists on the fact that, contrarily to extra-Union immigrants, the Erasmus students are not pressured to assimilate to the country they go to. They are urged by their interactions to find what they have in common with the other Europeans, while actually getting more aware of their regional and national particularities. Given the temporary nature of their migration but also the intense socialization most of them lives, rather than strengthen an European identity at the expense of the national one, it increases the awareness of both, accentuating the duality of these young Europeans’ identities.

However, this program addresses to people with a high cultural capital, and a more cosmopolitan habitus before they go : these are people who are not to be convinced of the utility of the EU and of the possibilities offered by their supranational citizenship. On the other hand, those who feed the eurosceptic movement, or who are the most likely to, are those with the shortest education, who go through vocational training or no training at all. If the Union wants Erasmus to actually be an integration tool, the Commission needs to encourage these people to do it, and offer them the possibility to do so during their short studies and early in their professional lives as they are already employed. The point being that if the less educated are net beneficiaries of the program on a personal level, the degree of integration of the new generations to the Union will significantly improve, and the Erasmus program will be more than an educative tool.

The same question of the nature of the tool can be asked about the Declaration of Bologna. Indeed, even though it has been presented by the participants as a way to improve the mobility and the employability of young people across Europe, so therefore as an integration tool, as Jean-Émile Charlier states, it mostly serves national interests. Indeed, contrarily to Erasmus that is handled by the Commission, this policy has been implemented at an intergovernmental level, pushed forward by States, especially France, the UK, Italy and Germany, who wanted to be more attractive for foreign students for economic reasons, and reasons of hubris. Furthermore, this declaration has been rejected by the Commission, traditional motor of European integration.

If we look at the results of the policy, it is pretty obvious that the harmonisation is far from being achieved. Most countries kept their national traditions. For example, the « 3-5 principle » is not followed by a lot of countries. The UK and Spain kept their four year-long undergraduate programs more professionally oriented than in the rest of Europe whereas the law degree in Italy is still a five year-long graduate program with no undergraduate. This mechanism has instated a cooperation-competition relationship between the European countries in terms of higher education which can be analyzed in terms of game theory as a situation in which cooperation is envisaged only at a critical risk of failure. Universities cooperate on a basis of reputation gain and still try to steal each other their best students in the process. They keep their national particularities when they give them a comparative advantage and try to dodge the fair competition effects of the Declaration by concluding bilateral agreements with other universities.

The Bologna Declaration has however effectively improved the recognition of diplomas across Europe, especially those of smaller countries. It is still to be considered an integration tool on the common market perspective. But it mostly allowed universities to get ties by level and reputation, increasing the social and regional disparities in higher education both at the national and European level.

Education as a cultural issue : discussing the extents and limits of an integrated education system

Considering Education as a power held by the governments, it is obvious that the extends of it given to the European Union are unequal. Bernard Esmein demonstrates the difference between primary and secondary education on the one hand, and higher education on the other, in a symbolic perspective. If States are willing to give up power on higher education, it is mostly because they have a gain from it : internationalization of the profiles and the diplomas of their youth enable it to get better jobs, better paid, increasing tax revenues ; it also makes them more mobile, increasing the adequacy of each national job market with an adaptable European demand.

On the other hand, if States are not willing to give that power for primary and secondary education, it is not because they wouldn’t gain from it. We can explain this difference with the concepts of « barrier » and « level » developed by Edmond Goblot. Here, the rational idea of net gain for the States in giving up power does not have, as we could expect, a « level » effect, meaning that it is not sufficient to make States give up their power. Nevertheless, there is something of a « barrier » effect, meaning that its presence will unable any conferral of power from the State to the Union : it is the cultural and historical attachment of Nations to their educational system. For national States, primary and secondary education is a tool of national cohesion and nation-building. It allows them to control their population better by transmitting values and attachment. Olivier Ihl describes this mechanism as the construction of a secular civil religion in Europe. Indeed, through the transmission of symbols and a narrated history, the national education systems build more than a sense of belonging but an actual celebration of the group throughout symbols, « totems ».

In fact, some nations have had retractive strategies regarding the europeanization of their primary and secondary education. For example, in the Netherlands, for ten years Dutch has been the one and only teaching language allowed at this level of education, even though English is the most used teaching language for higher education there. In the last French election, the right-wing candidate François Fillon and the far-right one Marine Le Pen both wanted to recreate and teach the « national novel » to boost patriotism, stating that a French romanced history was central to protect the national identity.

On the other hand, other countries in Europe, usually smaller and less culturally influential, are very open to europeanization in their systems. More generally, the Union’s educational impact is heterogeneous. We live in a globalized world and as Mary Kaldor states it « Globalisation processes do not only favor cultural interconnectedness, they favor cultural disconnectedness as well. Globalisation breaks down the homogeneity of the nation-state. Globalisation involves diversity as well as uniformity, the local as well as the global. ». The European creature is the result of globalization logics, the will of more openness and interconnection, but as we look at education, it also stimulates cultural retractive reflexes as the Nations feel threatened in their cultural core by it. All countries react in different ways, that creates heterogeneity. But all countries are arbitrating between economic rationales and cultural attachment, that creates schizophrenic educational policies.


Education is a burning topic because it is a high stake topic. Forming future minds implies several realities, in terms of personal development, professional formation, social mobility, cultural belonging. In an increasingly globalized world, where competition is at the center of economic logics, standardization of educational experiences and criteria is both a chance for young Europeans and a danger. It is a chance to be mobile because recognized. A danger because by increasing competition it may increase inequalities.

However today’s lack of harmonization is harmful. Indeed, the educational protectionism made by States keeps students from certain countries to get the quality and adequacy that their education they need.

It is not being culturally intrusive to say that all European States should focus on primary education, vocational trainings and life-long trainings. However, saying is all the Union can do.

In European studies, the question is often to wonder how to achieve more integration without ever wondering if the channel of integration could influence the benefits of it. So let’s wonder : besides from its questionable efficiency, is education a beneficial integration tool or does ideology damage its purpose ?


Rémy Gendraud


Academic sources :

  • Ballatore, Magali. Erasmus et la mobilité des jeunes Européens. Mythes et réalités. Presses Universitaires de France, 2010.
  • Bourdieu, Pierre, « L’école conservatrice. Les inégalités devant l’école et devant la culture », RFS, 1966.
  • Charlier, Jean-Émile. « Qui veut encore harmoniser l’enseignement supérieur européen ? », Reflets et perspectives de la vie économique, vol. tome xlv, no. 2, 2006, pp. 23-30.
  • Durkheim, Emile, Les Formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse: : le système totémique en Australie, Paris, Félix Alcan, coll. «Bibliothèque de philosophie contemporaine», 1912.
  • Esmein, Bernard. « L’impact social et culturel de la construction éducative européenne », Carrefours de l’éducation, vol. 38, no. 2, 2014, pp. 103-125.
  • Goblot, Edmond, La barrière et le niveau. Étude sociologique sur la bourgeoisie française moderne, Paris, Félix Alcan, coll. «Bibliothèque de philosophie contemporaine», 1925.
  • Kaldor, Mary, (2004). Nationalism and globalization. Nations and Nationalism, n° 10 (1/2), p. 161-77, London : LSE-ASEN.
  • Ihl, Olivier, « Religion civile : la carrière comparée d’un concept (France – États-Unis) », Revue internationale de politique comparée, n° 3, vol. 7, hiver 2000, p. 595-627.
  • Reed-Danahay D. (2003). « Europeanization and french primary education. » In K. Ander-son-Levitt (coord.). Local meanings, global schooling. Anthropology and World Culture Theory. New York : Palgrave.
  • Schraad-Tischler, Daniel and Schiller, Christof, Social Justice in the EU – Index Report 2016, Social Inclusion Monitor Europe, p. 27-34.
  • Tarrius, Alain, Les Nouveaux cosmopolitismes. Mobilités, identités, territoires, Éd. de l’Aube, 2000.

Institutional sources :


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