Friday, 10 October 2008

Industry wants to shape EU youth to its needs, Commission agrees

The European Round Table of Industrialists (ERT) wants to develop synergies between schools and enterprise in response to the current shortage of mathematics, science and technology (MST) graduates. Without this ‘human capital’ needed to fuel their research and development, EU-based companies believe it will be difficult to boost European growth and create jobs, as promised by the Lisbon agenda.

Media non grata

The ERT is one of the most powerful business lobbies in Brussels, gathering the 45 chief executives of flagship European firms (Total, BASF, Nestle, E.ON, Shell, Renault...). ERT presented its solution in detail at a ‘multi-stakeholder’ meeting held last week (2 October) in Brussels. A hundred or so representatives from business, academia, education and government attended the event, including European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and the European Commissioner for Science and Research Janez Poto─Źnik.

Journalists were not allowed to attend the speeches and debates. Instead, a press release was issued at the end of the day. “The business and education sectors are two worlds that are unfamiliar. We prefer that this initial contact is made with some privacy”, ERT spokeswoman Abigail Jones explained.

Spread the “Jet-Net model” at EU level

But what does ERT exactly advocate? The widespread use in the European Union of what could be called the “Jet-Net model”, under which member companies send employees into schools to talk about techno-industrial career opportunities and host student visits and practical projects.

Launched in 2002 by a handful of Dutch multinationals (Shell, Philips, Unilever, AkzoNobel...), the Jet-Net initiative now yearly reaches more than 33,000 students and 300 science and maths teachers in 150 secondary schools — a third of all Dutch secondary schools.

In Germany, a similar programme called WissensFabrik (“Factory of Knowledge”) was launched in 2005 by major German multinational companies like BASF, Bosch, ThyssenKrupp, etc. Its target audience, this time, is schoolchildren aged 6 to 12.

Innovation camps’ and ‘Discovery boxes’

The ERT also supports initiatives by individual members, which are generally carried out within the framework of their Corporate Social Responsibility programmes. Nokia, for example, organises ‘innovation camps’ for youth aged 14 to 19 in partnership with Junior Achievement Young Enterprise (JA-YE) Europe. Recognised by the Commission’s DG Enterprise as ‘Best Practice in Entrepreneurship Education’, JA-YE Europe describes itself as “Europe’s largest provider of enterprise education programmes” and claims to have reached 2.6 million students in 40 countries in 2007. Born in the USA during the First World War, the scheme is now supported by more than 100 leading transnational companies (Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Toyota, McDonald’s, Citigroup, ExxonMobil, EDF, Ernst & Young...), governments (USA, Switzerland ...), the Soros Foundation, the World Bank and the European Commission.

Siemens, for its part, distributes its ‘Siemens Discovery Box’, teaching material for free to nurseries to introduce preschool children (3-6 years old) to electricity and energy. The German electronics and engineering giant has also designed educational CD-ROMs on topics like the light, the hearing or Einstein for teenagers that have been endorsed by the German Association for Pedagogy.

School curricula to meet employers’ needs

“ERT member companies are determined to strengthen long term commitments to supporting Europe’s schools, teachers and universities”
, said Volvo CEO and ERT Vice Chairman Leif Johansson. “Businesses need to work closely with schools to put MST into meaningful life and career contexts, provide access to role models and keep teachers informed of what MST careers are”, he added. In order to “reach more students and teachers”, he stressed the need to “build on what already exists”, like the Jet-Net and WissensFabrik initiatives.

ERT Chairman Jorma Ollila, Chairman of Nokia and Shell, called for “the establishment of National and European support infrastructure for next best practice”. Indeed industry, which finances most of these programmes, mainly to boost its public image, would like to see Brussels pay for them.

This could become reality in the coming months and years. The European Commission supports ERT’s strategy. “There needs to be a continuous dialogue between the business and education worlds, to make sure that the curricula meet employers’ needs”, Barroso said in his speech.“But also to ensure that the ideas of our young students can be more easily transformed into economic and social values.”

Education to serve competition

The Commission President also delivered his conception of education in the 21st century: “giving every young person the chance to develop their talents and abilities to help us build a competitive Europe”. A utilitarian vision that could just come from a memorandum written by the ERT itself.

Last year, to combat young people’s apparent lack of interest in science, an ‘expert group’ set up by the Commission recommended shifting away from deductive science teaching to inquiry-based methods. This would create “opportunities for involving firms, scientists, researchers, engineers, universities, local actors such as cities, associations, parents and other kinds of local resources”, wrote the group headed by former socialist French Prime Minister, now MEP, Michel Rocard. So far, only industry managed to get involved in this new EU education paradigm...

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