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Belgian Presidency: a disjointed vision of social rights and lifelong learning?

Last week, two milestone events under the Belgian Presidency of the European Council took place in Belgium, but while coated with good intentions, it was a missed opportunity to build coherence in our policies in lifelong learning. 

The Belgian Presidency has put social rights and lifelong learning at the core of its agenda, and rightly so given the current social and economic context. Two events took place back-to-back to signal the political intention to keep on building a social Europe that protects its citizens and offers development opportunities for all: the High-level conference on the European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR), and the Conference on Lifelong Learning.

The first event, on 14-15 April, promised to take stock of the action plan around the EPSR and to reiterate the commitment; it concluded with the adoption of a declaration on the future of social Europe, dubbed “La Hulpe Declaration”, from the town next to Brussels where the conference was held. Unfortunately, this declaration seems to fall short of the commitment undertaken when the EPSR was launched. It would have been important here to see the right to lifelong learning and the need to ensure a lifelong learning mindset as going beyond “widespread labour shortages and skills mismatches” in EU Member States; indeed, lifelong learning is not a quick fix to long-term issues and it serves first and foremost learners, providing opportunities for personal development to citizens before adapting to labour market needs.

Moreover, this approach signals another missed opportunity to look at a wider population age beyond the merely working-force age; the Pillar of Social Rights was a wide political commitment that was specifically designed to support rights which all Europeans hold. Learning should be ensured for its intrinsic value, instead of instrumentalising social rights for economic purposes solely. Though it is clear that skills required by the labour market of the future will inevitably enrich other aspects of one’s life, they cannot encompass the entire diversity of competences needed to thrive in society. La Hulpe Declaration is a great opportunity to strengthen social dialogue but unfortunately a missed one to bring in the civil dialogue and wider social actors (such as civil society) onboard. Its narrow focus on learning and training for workers fails to address what in our understanding should have been the right holistic approach to the implementation of social rights such as the one on lifelong learning. In fact, none of the education and training stakeholders were invited. 

Following the La Hulpe Summit, the Belgian Presidency convened a conference on lifelong learning in Brussels on 17-18 April. This flagship conference explored in more detail the core of lifelong learning, addressing why some people thrive in this dynamic landscape, while others are harder to reach. In a constantly changing world, lifelong learning gives individuals the power to thrive in this dynamic landscape, while enhancing our economies and societies at the same time. During this conference, education and training stakeholders (including LLLP and its members) got to speak to reinforce one message: that we must place learners at the centre of all education activities. As LLLP General-Secretary Raffaela Kihrer explained in the panel discussion, structural inequalities prevent an inclusive lifelong learning culture for some groups - especially older people. This is where the challenge of coherence intervenes: as civil society and wider stakeholders were ignored from the La Hulpe conference, partnership was championed at the lifelong learning conference but without going beyond higher and adult education institutions. LLLP General-Secretary warned against making learning pathways flexible for the labour market, instead of for the learner, capturing the general feeling of a conference that seemed ready to adapt the learning offer for those already benefiting from learning, without providing sufficient consideration on facilitating the right to learn for those most disadvantaged in society.

Both events showed a very narrow understanding of lifelong learning, confined to being the sparring partner of the labour market that for various reasons is putting extra pressure on our education and training systems. Though the social function of education and training, at large, should not be confused with one of the specific by-products, that is to make the economy advance, even less shall be such a short term view that forgets about the long term value it brings to the society.

Disconnecting lifelong learning policies from economic concerns is an endeavour that we, as civil society organisations, shall not fail to bring forward at any given occasion. Strengthening civil dialogue in this regard will help going beyond purely economic oriented policies in education and training and maintain the humanistic vision we all aspire for.


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