Education and training statistics introduced

Latest update of text: October 2019.

Education, vocational training and more generally lifelong learning play a vital role in both an economic and social context. The opportunities which the European Union (EU) offers its citizens for living, studying and working in other countries make a major contribution to cross-cultural understanding, personal development and the achievement of the EU’s full economic potential. Each year, well over a million EU citizens of all ages benefit from EU-funded educational, vocational and citizenship-building programmes.

The consolidated versions of the Treaty on European Union and of the Treaty establishing the European Community acknowledge the importance of these areas by stating that ‘the Community shall contribute to the development of quality education by encouraging cooperation between Member States and, if necessary, by supporting and supplementing their action ... The Community shall implement a vocational training policy which shall support and supplement the action of the Member States’. As such, the European Commission follows up on policy cooperation and work with the EU Member States, while funding various programmes.

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Europe 2020 strategy

The Europe 2020 strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth put forward by the European Commission emphasises how the EU may improve its competitiveness and productivity during the period up to 2020. One of the principal means that may be used to improve productivity and competitiveness is investing in human capital (one aspect of which is investment in education and training). An Agenda for new skills and jobs was one of the seven flagship initiatives of this strategy: its goals included ‘equipping people with the right skills for the jobs of today and tomorrow’ and the initiative was designed to help the EU achieve its employment target whereby it is hoped that 75 % of the working-age population (20-64 years) should be in employment by 2020. In June 2016, a New skills agenda for Europe was adopted with 10 actions to make the right training, skills and support available to people in the EU. The 10 actions are designed to:

  • improve the quality and relevance of training and other ways of acquiring skills;
  • make skills more visible and comparable;
  • improve information and understanding of trends and patterns in demands for skills and jobs to enable people to make better career choices, find quality jobs and improve their life chances.

These agendas for new skills and jobs also contribute towards two additional headline targets that form part of the Europe 2020 strategy, namely to reduce the rate of early-leavers from education and training to below 10 % and to increase the proportion of people aged 30-34 years having completed tertiary education to at least 40 %.

Access to education, training and lifelong learning for everybody, everywhere in the EU is still one of the pillars of the the European Skills Agenda, a five-year plan to help individuals and businesses develop more and better skills and to put them to use.

Policy: strategic framework for education and training (ET 2020)

Political cooperation within the EU was strengthened through the education and training 2010 work programme which integrated previous actions in the fields of education and training. The follow-up to this programme, the strategic framework for European cooperation in education and training (later known as ET 2020), was adopted by the Council in May 2009. It sets out four strategic objectives for education and training in the EU:

  • making lifelong learning and mobility a reality;
  • improving the quality and efficiency of education and training;
  • promoting equality, social cohesion and active citizenship; and
  • enhancing creativity and innovation (including entrepreneurship) at all levels of education and training.

This ET 2020 strategy also sets a number of benchmarks to be achieved by 2020, including:

  • at least 95 % of children between the age of four and the age for starting compulsory primary education should participate in early childhood education;
  • the share of low-achieving 15 year-olds in reading, mathematics and science should be less than 15 %;
  • the proportion of early leavers from education and training aged 18-24 years should be less than 10 %;
  • the share of 30-34 year-olds with tertiary educational attainment should be at least 40 %;
  • an average of at least 15 % of adults aged 25-64 years should participate in learning.

Two supplementary benchmarks on learning mobility were added by the Council in November 2011 and May 2012, namely that by 2020:

  • at least 20 % of higher education graduates and 6 % of 18-34 year-olds with an initial vocational education and training (VET) qualification should have spent some time studying or training abroad, lasting a minimum of three months and two weeks, respectively;
  • the share of employed graduates (aged 20-34 years with at least an upper secondary level of educational attainment and having left education 1-3 years ago) should be at least 82 %.

In 2014, recent progress was assessed and priorities reviewed: in November 2015 the Council adopted a set of six new priorities for the period 2016-2020 based on a joint report (2015/C 417/04) from the European Commission and the EU Member States. The priority areas for further work towards 2020 include:

  • relevant and high-quality knowledge, skills and competences developed throughout lifelong learning, focusing on learning outcomes for employability, innovation, active citizenship and well-being;
  • inclusive education, equality, equity, non-discrimination and the promotion of civic competences;
  • open and innovative education and training, including by fully embracing the digital era;
  • strong support for teachers, trainers, school leaders and other educational staff;
  • transparency and recognition of skills and qualifications to facilitate learning and labour mobility;
  • sustainable investment, quality and efficiency of education and training systems.

Digital education action plan

In January 2018, the European Commission adopted a digital education action plan (COM(2018) 22 final). This included 11 initiatives to support technology-use and digital competence development in education, structured within three priorities:

  • making better use of digital technology for teaching and learning;
  • developing digital competences and skills;
  • improving education through better data analysis and foresight.

Renewed agenda for higher education

In May 2017, the European Commission adopted a Communication (COM(2017) 247 final) on a renewed EU agenda for higher education, focusing on four priority activities:

  • tackling future skills mismatches and promoting excellence in skills development;
  • building inclusive and connected higher education systems;
  • ensuring higher education institutions contribute to innovation;
  • supporting effective and efficient higher education systems.

The Communication also proposed to streamline EU support for higher education by:

  • creating a knowledge hub to enhance data quality, comparability, data collection and indicators and draw lessons from implementation of EU higher education data tools to date;
  • strengthening the work of the Eurydice network and cooperation with the OECD to avoid duplication of efforts and benefit from joint work;
  • simplifying student mobility by building on existing Erasmus+ projects for the electronic exchange of student data and explore the feasibility of establishing electronic student identification system;
  • initiating a discussion on efficient support to students, staff, institutions and higher education systems.

Bologna and Copenhagen processes

Two policy processes are worth mentioning within the context of tertiary education and vocational training: the Bologna process put in motion a series of reforms to make European higher education more compatible, comparable, competitive and attractive for students, while the Copenhagen process is aimed at promoting and developing vocational education and training.

The main objectives of the Bologna process are:

  • the introduction of a three-cycle degree system (bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees);
  • quality assurance; and
  • recognition of qualifications and periods of study.

Otherwise, the Bologna process seeks to remove the obstacles to student mobility across Europe, and more broadly support the mobility of students, teachers and researchers. It sets out plans to create a European higher education area (EHEA) and in March 2010 the ministers of the 47 participating countries adopted the Budapest-Vienna Declaration, officially launching the EHEA. Ministers meet every two or three years to reflect on the progress made: in April 2012 they released a communiqué from Bucharest (Romania) identifying three key priorities — mobility, employability and quality — while emphasising the potential for higher education to contribute to growth and jobs. In May 2015, they met in Yerevan (Armenia) and underlined a commitment to: enhance the quality and relevance of learning and teaching; foster the employability of graduates throughout their working lives; make education systems more inclusive; conclude the implementation of structural reforms to higher education systems (for example, establishing common degree structures and credit systems). In May 2018, the meeting in Paris (France) called for an intensification of cross-disciplinary and cross-border cooperation as well as the development of an inclusive and innovative approach to learning and teaching.

The Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA) published a review of the implementation of the Bologna process in 2018, titled The European Higher Education Area in 2018: Bologna Process Implementation Report.

Since 2002, national authorities and social partners from European countries have taken part in the Copenhagen process which aims to promote and develop vocational education and training (VET) systems; at the time of writing 33 countries are active in this process. In June 2010, the European Commission presented its proposals for ‘a new impetus for European cooperation in vocational education and training to support the Europe 2020 strategy’ (COM(2010) 296 final). In December 2010, in Bruges (Belgium) the priorities for the Copenhagen process for 2011-2020 were set, establishing a vision for vocational education and training. Cooperation on vocational education and training was further enhanced by the Bruges communiqué on enhanced European cooperation in vocational education and training for the period 2011-2020 and Council conclusions from a meeting held in Riga in June 2015, whereby those countries participating in the Copenhagen process agreed on a set of deliverables for the period 2015-2020, including to:

  • promote work-based learning in all its forms with special attention to apprenticeships;
  • further develop quality assurance mechanisms in VET;
  • enhance access to VET and qualifications for all through more flexible systems;
  • strengthen key competences in VET curricula;
  • introduce systematic approaches to, and opportunities for, initial and continuous professional development for VET teachers, trainers and mentors.

With these in mind, a number of European initiatives have been developed to enhance the transparency, recognition and quality of competences and qualifications, while facilitating the mobility of learners and teachers/trainers. They include the European Qualifications Framework (EQF), Europass, the European Credit System for VET (ECVET) and the European Quality Assurance Reference Framework for VET (EQAVET).


The Erasmus programme was one of the most well-known European programmes and ran for just over a quarter of a century; in 2014 it was superseded by the EU’s programme for education, training, youth and sport, referred to as ‘Erasmus+’. The programme covers the period 2014-2020 and has an overall budget of EUR 14.7 billion. Erasmus+ replaced (and integrated) several programmes:

  • the lifelong learning programmes — Comenius, Erasmus, Leonardo da Vinci and Grundtvig;
  • the Youth in Action programme designed for young people aged 13-30 years with the goal of giving them a sense of active European citizenship, solidarity and tolerance;
  • some international cooperation programmes — Erasmus Mundus, Tempus, Alfa, Edulink and programmes for cooperation with industrialised countries.

With respect to education and training, the programme supports three main types of actions:

  • learning opportunities and mobility for individuals, both within the EU and beyond, for example through study and training, traineeships, and teaching and professional development;
  • institutional cooperation — for innovation and the exchange of good practices — between educational institutions, youth organisations, businesses, local and regional authorities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs);
  • support for policy reform — designed to promote the active participation of young people in democratic life.

It is expected that over 4 million people will benefit from Erasmus+, including around 2 million higher education students, around 650 thousand vocational training and education students, and around 800 thousand lecturers, teachers, trainers, education staff and youth workers. The opportunities offered by Erasmus+ extend well beyond the higher education sector, as the programme extends into a broad range of youth issues and sports across Europe.

In May 2018, the European Commission adopted proposals for the Erasmus programme for 2021-2027, involving a doubling of the budget to EUR 30 billion which it is expected should enable 12 million people to participate in the programme.

Education and training statistics

The measurement of progress towards the objectives described above requires a range of comparable statistics on enrolment in education and training, numbers of graduates and teachers, language learning, student and researcher mobility, educational expenditure, as well as data on educational attainment and vocational learning. Education statistics cover a range of subjects, including: educational systems, attainment, finance, personnel, learning mobility, languages, the transition from education to work, as well as adult participation in (lifelong) learning.

The standards for international statistics on education are set by three international organisations:

The main source of data is a joint UNESCO/OECD/Eurostat (UOE) questionnaire on education systems and this is the basis for the core components of the Eurostat database on education statistics; Eurostat also collects data on regional enrolments, foreign language learning and credit mobile graduates.

Data on educational attainment and adult learning are principally provided through household surveys, in particular the EU labour force survey (EU-LFS), which is complemented by an adult education survey (AES) and the continuing vocational training survey (CVTS).

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