As an education researcher, I believe that education could be the solution to many of today's societal problems—be it easing socio-economic disadvantage, preventing gender stereotypes, halting radicalisation or fighting online disinformation. Education can also better equip people to tackle potential issues in the future. However, much research focuses on what works and does not work in education only after the fact, when it is too late to actually do something about it.
To help EU decision makers understand the possible future effect of different education and youth policies, we developed four future education scenarios for a recent RAND Europe study. The study used foresight techniques, championed by my colleague Dr. Fay Dunkerley.
While it is unrealistic to expect a study such as this to predict what the future will look like, a future scenarios approach can help identify different ways in which the future may plausibly unfold. Seeing how policies implemented now play out in the different scenarios can show us what the possible implications of policy decisions could be. This in turn can contribute to evidence-based policy making.
To develop the scenarios, we first identified the main current challenges in education and youth in the EU, and what factors are likely to affect their future development.
Seeing how policies implemented now play out in different scenarios can show us what the possible implications of policy decisions could be. This in turn can contribute to evidence-based policy making.Share on Twitter
These challenges included poor social inclusion, which can greatly affect life chances; youth unemployment, which remains high on the social and economic policy agenda; skills misalignment between the skills obtained in the education system and labour market needs; and migration in the EU, which is both a challenge and opportunity that education, social, and labour markets still struggle to embrace. In addition, new forms of communication not only affect how society works and how people interact but also democratic participation.
To understand how these challenges may develop over time and the implications for education policy making, we used a structured methodology to develop the four future education and youth scenarios. These scenarios—Fragmented Europe, Aligned Europe, Cold-feet Europe and Ostrich Europe—show how key education- and youth-sector drivers interact with wider social, economic and technological factors to shape the future in different ways.
For example, in the Fragmented Europe scenario, society and industry have embraced digitalisation, albeit at different rates across the EU, the education system is failing to prepare students for this change, and workers are not able to play their role in the labour market, with bad consequences for the economy and society.
In Aligned Europe, technological innovation and the creation of many high-skilled jobs has led to a booming economy by 2035. Education has been at the top of the EU's spending agenda for the past 15 years, with investment in technology-aided personalised learning creating a model of education that is more accessible.
For Cold-feet Europe, digitalisation has had a radical effect on the labour market, with fewer workers needed. While people are ready to take on the jobs of today, there is not enough demand for a skilled workforce. Digitalisation was supposed to support growth but the economic situation is not as good as expected, and society is concerned about what the future will bring.
And finally, Ostrich Europe depicts a future in which education funding is seen as critical, however co-operation between Member States is in decline and education and labour market issues are discussed and addressed in isolation. While the economic situation might look good in the short term, and society is not particularly concerned about the future, there are clear indications that the situation is not sustainable.
We then tested five policy options, considered by policymakers as priority development areas for the EU, in each of the scenarios. They were: student-centred learning and flexible pathways; inclusive digital learning; targeted investment in early years; developing socio-emotional development and soft skills; and strengthening the teaching profession.
The study showed us that:
- Personalised learning policies could be successfully implemented across all scenarios but may only achieve some of their objectives or be targeted at different population segments, depending on the level of funding available and on the prevailing socio-economic environment.
- Inclusive digital learning could be widely adopted and provide scope for educational inclusion, but is likely to be successful where there has also been investment in digital infrastructure.
- Short-term solutions that focus on reacting to the needs of the labour market, rather than developing more resilient skills, are less likely to involve targeted investment in early years or socio-emotional development.
- All the other policy options that may require changes to working patterns for teachers as well as changes to how and what they teach are enabled by supporting the teaching profession.
Ultimately, this study informs EU policymakers, in particular MEPs, on policy options and their implications for the education and youth sectors in the EU. It seeks to help them prepare for the scenarios identified—both in terms of facing challenges and embracing opportunities.
Since the future is highly uncertain, and since I still strongly think that the solutions to most of our problems to come lie in today's education policies, I believe that our study gives policymakers tools to help make our education system fit for the future.
Axelle Devaux is a research leader at RAND Europe and deputy head of the Brussels Office. Her research work focuses on education policies with a particular interest in education technologies
This commentary originally appeared on Encompass on January 13, 2020. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.