I have just returned from Turin, where I formed part of a very small parliamentary delegation (three MEPs) from the Unemployment Committee, which has oversight of the European Training Foundation (ETF). We were led by the redoubtable French MEP Madame Pervenche Beres, who also chairs the Committee. The ETF is a fairly small operation with a budget of €19 million. It is housed in a vaguely art deco building perched on a dramatic hilltop in Turin. The building is suffering from subsidence, and its 1930s flat roofs are not entirely watertight, but that’s another story.
The ETF’s function is to advise on Vocational Education and Training (VET), and apprenticeships, in the EU’s neighbouring states, including states applying for membership of the EU. These are mainly in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and North Africa (plus Iceland), and there are around thirty of them. The ETF simply advises, and contributes to the planning of relevant EU support programmes. It does not have the budget or the remit actually to deliver training programmes. Clearly the EU’s total spending on VET greatly exceeds €19 million.
I am sure that the ETF’s work is of great benefit to the countries on the receiving end. But it raises the question of why, in these hard times, EU taxpayers are funding it. The argument seems to be that VET will contribute to prosperity and therefore stability in those countries. In the cases of those that may in future join the EU, it will help prepare them for membership. For the others, it will provide a hinterland of skilled workers who may in future contribute to EU economies, either by immigration or by doing work outsourced from the EU. And there is an almost reluctant and shamefaced admission that by promoting prosperity in the neighbourhood, we reduce the incentive for illegal immigration into the EU.
I was astonished to find that there is another, separate EU agency working on the same issues. It carries the improbable acronym of CEDEFOP, and is based in Thessalonica, Greece . CEDEFOP concentrates on EU member-states, rather than the neighbourhood, and has more emphasis on comparative research, and sharing best practice, rather than advising and planning programmes. Nevertheless, it deals with the same core competences, and there appear to be very significant areas of overlap and synergies between the two. They of course insist that they have quite distinct remits and that little would be saved by combining them. But I feel this needs a closer look.
Whatever else they do, they are the masters of cliché. I was reassured (but not much) to hear that they are dedicated to entrepreneurial learning; to “learnership” as well as apprenticeships; to evidence-based policies; to knowledge-sharing in the EU policy framework; to capacity-building for national stakeholders; to improved governance; to human capital development in a context of sustainability; to fulfilling an intermediating role between the EU and partner countries; to networking and partnership for cooperation amongst multiple stakeholders including education, business and the inevitable “social partners”; to peer-learning activities on cross-cutting thematic issues; to social inclusion with sustainable financing; to multi-disciplinary approaches, facilitating policy dialogues and study trips; and above all to a competence-based approach to human resource management. Oh, and to “holistic problem-solving in vocational tasks”. So that’s alright, then.
One amusing anecdote. Some way through the second day, and in an entirely unrelated context, Madame Beres came up with a remarkable outburst that she had clearly been gestating for some time. She berated the ETF in uncompromising terms for inviting us at all, arguing that it might appear to be an attempt to exert undue influence on the parliamentary committee charged with scrutiny of the ETF. Nor should they have paid for our transport from the airport. This was a slightly weird intervention, given that (A) the ETF had not invited us – the initiative for the meeting came from the parliament; and (B) if Madame Beres had had any reservations about the propriety of the trip, she should surely have raised them in advance, not halfway through the event. In any case, it seems a little churlish to eat the dinner first, and then to blame your host for providing it.