Fixing the Broken Promise of Higher Education in Europe

The third paper in the FEPS YAN series focuses on the role of education for the transition to the labour market and the mismatch between investing in education and developing a low-wage sector.


Study. Get degrees. Get a good job. And you will live the good life. European and national policies have both sent this message to young people. In other words: a degree in tertiary education was supposed to guarantee a reliable income and good life prospects. So the story went, graduates didn't need to worry about whether there would be enough jobs, given that, as stated by the Lisbon Agenda, European economies were transitioning to knowledge-based economies. Their social backgrounds were also not supposed to have mattered, as higher education was to provide social mobility regardless of past advantages. In this paper we will explain how this promise got broken and what we can do to fix it.

The phenomenon currently occurring in Europe has been defined ‘the broken promise of higher education’ (Brown et al., 2011). This broken promise has a double facet. Firstly, higher education has changed in its societal meaning. Indeed, higher education represents one of the main areas of change in contemporary European societies. According to EQUNET, about 50% (on average) of young people (between 16 and 34) can expect to participate in Higher Education, with peaks of participation of 70% from Eastern countries (EQUNET, 2010: 31). During the second half of the 20th century there was an expansion or massification of student participation (see Figure 1) which had also a considerable impact in changing the socio-economic structure of the student body. The goal of achieving diversity in the student body was, indeed, also at the centre of European agenda (see the ‘Bologna' Conference of Ministers responsible for Higher Education, 2007).

The EU workforce has never been more educated than it is now, mainly as a result of focus of the Lisbon agenda on increasing participation in higher education. At the same time, many graduate job markets are getting worse. For example, at the time of writing almost 1 in 5 recent graduates in the UK is unemployed, when just ten years ago it was 1 in 10 (Office for National Statistics, 2012: 5). The current economic crisis is of course an important factor here, but probably not the only one. It seems that there is a mismatch: an increasing number of higher educated workers who are not being absorbed by the number of jobs which require that level of qualification. A college education seems no longer a guarantee for a good job and it did not succeed in increasing European social mobility as had been previously hoped. Moreover, even if the social make-up of students is more heterogeneous, the welfare systems often do not support students in university or address the inequalities in higher education

Background about the FEPS Young Academics Network

The four authors of this study are :Lorenza ANTONUCCI, Rémi BAZILLIER, Pim PAULUSMA and Michael WEATHERBUR. (See details in the PDF)

They are members of the Young Academics Network (YAN) which was established in March 2009 by the Foundation of European Progressive Studies (FEPS) with the support of the Renner Institut to gather progressive PhD candidates and young PhD researchers, who are ready to use their academic experience in a debate about the Next Europe. The founding group was composed of awardees of the “Call for Paper” entitled “Next Europe, Next Left” – whose articles also help initiating the FEPS Scientific Magazine “Queries”. Quickly after, with the help of the FEPS member foundations, the group enlarged presently incorporating around 30 outstanding and promising young academics.

FEPS YAN meets in the Viennese premises of Renner Institut, which offers great facilities for both reflections on the content and also on the process of building the network as such. Both elements constitute mutually enhancing factors, which due to innovative methods applied makes this Network also a very unique project. Additionally, the groups work has been supervised by the Chair of the Next Left Research Programme, Dr. Alfred Gusenbauer who at multiple occasions joined the sessions of the FEPS YAN, offering his feedback and guidance.

This paper is one of the results of the second cycle of FEPS YAN, (the first one ended with three papers in June 2011), in which 5 key themes were identified and are being currently researched by FEPS YAN working groups. These topics encompass: “Education, Labour and Skills”, “Economic governance in the EU”, “Migration and Reassessment of integration models”, “Youth unemployment” and “Social Europe and public opinion”. Each of the meetings is an opportunity for the FEPS YAN to discuss the current state of their research, presenting their findings and questions both in the plenary, as also in the respective working groups. The added value of their work is the pan-European, innovative, interdisciplinary character not to mention, that it is by principle that FEPS wishes to offer a prominent place to this generation of academics, seeing in it a potential to construct alternative that can attract young people to progressivism again. Though the process is very advanced already, the FEPS YAN remains a Network and hence is ready to welcome new participants.

FEPS YAN plays also an important role within FEPS structure as a whole. The FEPS YAN members are asked to join different events (from large Conferences, such as FEPS “Call to Europe” or “Renaissance for Europe” and PES Convention to smaller High Level Seminars and Focus Group Meetings) and encouraged to provide inputs for publications (i.e. for FEPS Scientific Magazine “Queries”). Enhanced participation of the FEPS YAN Members in the overall FEPS life and increase of its visibility remains one of the strategic goals of the Network for 2013.

See the first paper - The European Youth Guarantee: a reality check

See the second paper - How Eurobonds Relate to European Integration