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The Eurocrisis, Education and the Periphery

I have just returned from an Erasmus Teaching exchange in Sardinia where my lectures focused mainly on the Eurocrisis. I used all the ‘scary data’ charts that have emerged from it regarding bank debts, mortgage defaults and current account deficits, but what provoked the most discussion and, more generally, is the most damaging long-term and truly scariest of them all, is youth unemployment.

In the ‘PIG’ states it is at eye-watering levels. Austerity is being blamed for the levels but in truth there are more substantive reasons for this. Specifically the structure of the education systems in these countries is broken. Firmly rooted in the early 20th century the schools and universities of the ‘PIGS’ have not so much failed to keep up with modern educational trends as actively opposed them. The third level education systems of the PIGS are in a bad way. Not one in the 200 rankings, with Italy having 6 in the top 300 and Spain 3 (curiously all in based in Barcelona), while Portugal has only 3 ranked and Greece none in the top 400. From OECD countries with a combined population of around 127 million that is simply inexcusable.

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But it gets worse. After almost 30 years of EU membership, some €53 billion in direct EU transfer payments Portugal has the second lowest high school graduation rate in the OECD (60% of Portuguese 25-64 year olds have not completed high school, though the picture is improving somewhat). Spain, Italy and Greece are also at the bottom end of the OECD report on high school graduation rates. PISA studies confirm the low quality of education for those that manage to make it through the basic education system. This can be contrasted to the newer Eastern European member states whose scores on both student completion and education quality are improving. Not only are the PIGS being left behind by Northern European states but soon they will be left behind by the Eastern European states as well.

Though much has been made of the Los Indignados movement of young unemployed and students in Spain, little has come of their protests and encampments. Their calls for jobs and an end to austerity will go unanswered by the Spanish government. Perhaps they would be better served in calling for the total reform of the education system. Why not demand a system of apprenticeships to gain work experience and qualifications across all sectors of the economy as in Germany and Austria, or student focused primary and secondary schools as in Finland?

They do not because these solutions are structural, long-term and requiring of intense and sustained commitment not just by politicians but by society as a whole. The PIGS have become as much gerontocracies as they have bankrupt states over the past decade. The elderly ruling elite has actively prevented access to the upper echelons of the economy and politics to young people. Youth unemployment is just the most visible outcome of this active holding back of young people in the PIGS. Ending austerity will not change this, but neither will pro-longing it. Highly specific reforms in areas such as education coupled with the emergence of a new younger political leadership can offer a way forward.  My colleagues in Sardinia were generally positive about the long-term impact of recent educational reforms in Italy.  But on the matter of present Italian politics? ...