Dear Dr Basha, dear university Presidents, Rectors and vice-Rectors,

I am pleased to join you today and I am glad that you are focusing today’s discussion on education. Quality and inclusive education is the foundation for personal fulfilment and active citizenship. It helps young people find their place in society and economy. It gives them the knowledge, skills and competences needed to thrive in life.  

But quality and inclusive education provides even more than that.

It will reduce brain drain. It will give businesses a skilled workforce and the national and regional economies a better chance to be competitive.

Now more than ever, education should be placed high on our political agenda. It requires special attention, a visionary approach and deeper cooperation at national and EU level.

In parallel, we have to build a robust synergy between education, research and innovation. Such a synergy is a must if we are to keep Europe strong, including in the face of global challenges, be it a pandemic or green and digital transitions.

Enhanced cooperation is key to all this.

Strong cooperation with the Western Balkans, including Albania, has always been at the core of my work. I look forward to further strengthening this cooperation and giving it a new impetus in all areas of my portfolio, including education, research and innovation.

Today I would like to share with you how I intend to achieve this.

Education, research and innovation are areas with great potential that bring real added value to citizens, the economy and society. I have already started working closely with the Western Balkan region, including Albania on a new and ambitious Western Balkans Agenda, which combines all these areas in order to increase the region’s capacity to meet global challenges.

Together we can work to further develop human capital, create sustainable innovation ecosystems and build a strong knowledge-based economy. We can promote inclusive and high quality education and training systems that can offer new opportunities for young people in the region.

The Western Balkans Agenda will also encourage full association of the region to our programmes, for example the Erasmus+, European Solidarity Corps, Creative Europe and Horizon Europe.

My goal is that you benefit even more from all relevant EU strategies and networks. This is why, the Western Balkans feature as a priority region in all my recent initiatives - the new Digital Education Action Plan, the European Education Area and the European Research Area.

What does this mean in practice? Let me give you just a few examples.

First, in the field of digital transformation, the Western Balkans Agenda will encourage the development and implementation of digital education strategies in the region and support teacher training. We will continue with initiatives, such as the Digital Opportunity Traineeships, which gives students of all disciplines the opportunity to get hands-on digital experience in fields demanded by the market.

We will foster the development of regional Digital Innovation Hubs and their linking to the Science and Technology Parks, and the EIT Knowledge and innovation Communities. This will support companies boost their competitiveness using digital technologies.

The Agenda will also provide an opportunity for more active participation of the region in the European Education Area and, based on the European Universities Initiative, will inspire the transformation of the higher education sector.

The importance of vocational education and training should also be mentioned. Attractive and labour-market relevant VET programmes play a strong role in opening up pathways for young people into employment and preparing them for future labour market opportunities.

Further strengthening VET systems is therefore crucial for the recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, as VET has proven to be an essential part of the efforts to support youth employment. In particular, apprenticeships and other forms of work-based learning are a tested pathway to help increase employability and make access or return to the labour market easier.

It will also be imperative to help the large numbers of young people who have left education and are inactive. The European Union, through its Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance, will support the Youth Guarantee schemes in the Western Balkans.

As for the Erasmus+, I am pleased to see that, thanks to this programme, between 2015 and 2020 around 12,900 students and staff took part in exchanges between the EU and Albania. More and more higher education institutions in the country are participating in the development of joint master’s degrees together with partners in Europe. The Erasmus+ budget for the new programming period is close to double, which will provide even more opportunities for cooperation.

Second, it is important to note that researchers from the Western Balkans are already well integrated into the European scientific community. We see this clearly in the Horizon 2020 figures: the participation of stakeholders from the region has doubled since 2014 and the amount of competitive funding received has more than tripled.

Under the new Horizon Europe programme, the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions will continue to support the continuum between education, research and innovation in the region in full synergy with the new Erasmus+ programme, and EU foreign policy instruments such as the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance.

I encourage Albanian universities, researchers, enterprises, research organisations, and any other relevant socio-economic organisations to increase their involvement in this EU flagship programme for the training and career development of researchers.

Starting already in 2021, the first Horizon Europe Work Programme will include concrete measures for the Western Balkans to foster collaboration and to strengthen the capacity of the research institutions in the region.

The role of the European Innovation Council and the European Institute of Innovation & Technology in the region is also worth mentioning. They will continue to address innovation, along the entire value-chain, from education to the market, by bringing together the three sides of the Knowledge Triangle (education, research and innovation).

Finally, our efforts will be successful only when Europe can benefit from the potential of all its talents.  That is why, we need to foster gender equality in education, research and innovation.

We still have a lot of work to do. The latest She Figures publication show that in the EU, women occupy only 24% of top academic positions and represent less than 10% of patent holders. In the tech sector, only two in 10 ICT specialists are women while the gap between women and men is even wider in STEM fields.

In Albania, preliminary figures actually indicate a much higher share of women among doctoral graduates, over 60%, all fields considered, and the highest rate of increase across all Member States and Associated Countries in recent years, which is very encouraging. Yet, absolute numbers remain very low.

Gender equality is a topic that is very close to my heart. My most recent initiative in this field is called Women TechEU. I launched it on the International Women’s Day. It will support women leading deep tech start-ups and offer first-class coaching and mentoring to female CEOs and founders, as well as funding to help them take their business to the next level.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Any successful policy requires a good understanding of challenges and a willingness to act with determination.

Current challenges require a solid investment in knowledge as a strategic prerequisite for economic and social success.

The Commission is here to help you and other Western Balkans countries.

We will use all the tools and initiatives available, including the forthcoming Western Balkans Agenda on innovation, research, education, culture, youth and sport, to advance cooperation and boost socio-economic recovery and convergence with the EU.

I wish you a fruitful discussion.

Thank you.