“Everyone has the right to education and to have access to vocational and continuing training. This right includes the possibility to receive free compulsory education. The freedom to found educational establishments with due respect for democratic principles and the right of parents to ensure the education and teaching of their children in conformity with their religious, philosophical and pedagogical convictions shall be respected, in accordance with the national laws governing the exercise of such freedom and right.”
(Article 14- EU Charter of Fundamental Rights)
Free education is a fundamental right, but it is not always granted
Education is a human right, however, not all the member states (MS) provide free and equal access to education. When looking at the average tuition fees per country in the EU, only few of them -such as Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden- are fully free. The European Union has been facing a problem of education inequalities for years, recently amplified by the coronavirus crisis. Globally, the pandemic affected 91% of students and teachers and resulted in school and university closures. It is reasonable that the first reaction to a global pandemic was to stop the virus by avoiding any forms or ways of possible contamination. Stopping the virus and saving lives became the priority for governments all around the world, therefore, school closure was one of the first measure to be adopted.
In the long run, school closures will have serious consequences for future workers, as the average student already missed one-third of a year of learning. Every government decided to deal with the situation with the tools and instruments at their disposal, and digital education became crucial from one day to another.
As a matter of fact, digitalization implies new investments in technological infrastructure and disposals that represents the first level of accessibility. In this sense, pandemic stressed the diversity already existing among schools, regions, countries, students and families. The ones already positioned on the innovation frontier (endowed with high connectivity, powerful disposals, internet skills and know-how) could react immediately to the switch in learning methodology. The ones who already lacked in technological skills and equipment suffered more the school closure by enlarging the diversity gap. Among those inequalities, a major concern is given to the equity in access distance learning with digital education. Once again, in the situation of emergency we are living, families with underprivileged backgrounds were the most disadvantaged. Indeed, they usually tend to have less access to internet connection or no devices at all. In order to solve these issues, some European countries, such as France and Portugal, took actions and made efforts to reach those learners and provide them with printed assignments and working sheets.
Nevertheless, during a webinar by the CEPS, Larissa Zierow, the Deputy Director of the Institut für Wirtschaftsforschung Center for the Economics of Education, showed the results of a three-months investigation of nation-wide school closures in Germany. In order to highlight the inequalities suffered by children during the lockdown, the population was divided in two groups: families with non-academic background, and families with academic background, meaning that at least one parent has an academic degree. The general outcome of the investigation is that in Germany there is almost no digital learning infrastructure which led to a drastic decrease of time spent on learning from before to during the lockdown. The support of schools to pupils during school closures was very low with few online teaching and half of the learners did not even have one class for some courses. Regarding the distinction between learners with families with non-academic background and with academic background, it appears that the first group received less support by their schools without receiving many feedbacks for their work. The second group, probably because of the pressure of their parents towards the school or the level of the institutions, received more support and teachers provided more online classes.
The OECD Director for Education and Skills, Andreas Schleicher, discussed, in a webinar, the consequences of shaping education after to Covid-19. During the conference, he concluded that access, use and quality of online resources amplify inequalities. Therefore, a ‘just-in-time’ professional development is in urgent need.
European Commission learning from the public
The Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, Mariya Gabriel, shared her view regarding the Covid-19 pandemic and the education, saying that it is the first time in many years that students and teachers fully switched to digital education. In fact, she pointed out that this is the moment in which we can learn from experiences and make sure to develop the new ‘Digital Education Action Plan’. This latter is a project by the European Commission which contributes to the creation of a European Education Area by 2025. The main goal of the current Action Plan is to stimulate and support purposeful use of digital and innovative education practices. To do so, three main priorities are outlined:
1) Making a better use of digital technology for teaching and learning
2) Developing digital competences and skills
3) Improving education through better data analysis and foresight
It is important to mention this plan as a key aspect of digital education is to ensure equity, quality of access and infrastructure, which was not universally guaranteed during the lockdown. The Commission opened a public consultation to gather views and experiences of all citizens, institutions and organizations. The 9th of September 2020, the Executive Vice-President, Margrethe Vestager, hosted a ‘EU Dialogue’ to close the public consultation on the new Digital Education Action Plan. The consultation has helped the Commission to set up the priorities for a renewed Digital Education Action Plan released on the 30th of September 2020.  During the Dialogue, questions and comments were raised by stakeholders in digital education and different topics were touched. From the chance to look at old problems by a different point of view, to the opportunity of exploring and training new ways of learning. According to Ms. Vestager, this new Action Plan can make people realize that education is a precondition to have Europe ready for the digital age.
One of the ideas emerged from the consultations is that digitalization is necessary, however, physical mobility must not be forgotten. Students need to come together and develop personal relationships. Thus, digitalization does not mean that pupils will stay at home in their comfort zone since they need external stimulus in order to understand complexity, find solutions and innovate. Among further advantages, digitalization offers the opportunity to look at the ‘old problems’ –bullying, mental health issues, pupils with learning disorders- with innovative and different solutions. New digital tools will help teachers to differentiate in a classroom, when handling students with different needs. Additionally, it will allow students to learn in different ways as the teachers’ ‘tool box’ is broader with quizzes, video making, animations, music, etc.
Ms. Vestager has expressed her concern regarding the extreme situation in which we experienced digital education due to coronavirus. In fact, it is very important to take in consideration how the lockdown showed us the level of inequalities in education. From the access to the basics -internet connection and an electronic device- to the role of the parents. As for the latter, we have to realize that not every family during the lockdown, was able to support their children as not all the parents have the same job and can substitute the teachers. We just have to think about how many parents were working in hospitals, who did not live the lockdown as others. It seems that we reached the point in which we realized, as a European community, how much inequalities are still affecting the education sector. Nevertheless, this is the moment in which we can learn from all we have seen during the lockdown and acknowledge what are the real problems that need to be solved. Regarding the future of digital education, the lockdown was an opportunity since we are now aware of the fact that we need a technological development in the field. The New Digital Education Action Plan takes into consideration all those situations.
Digitalization in the field of education is part of a broader project: The Digital EU. In the aftermath of the State of Union 2020, by the Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen, Ms. Vestager and the Commissioner Breton gave a conference on the Digital Decade package.
Ms. Vestager presented two proposals to advance our digital agenda:
1) New regulation for the European high performance computing joint undertaking
2) Recommendation for MS to boost investments in connectivity infrastructure
More connectivity is necessary to have digital solutions. Thus, the EU wants to speed up the investments in high speed internet for business, public services and for citizens. This is the moment in which we should not slow down, therefore, the EU is calling on MS to develop a toolbox on how to invest in more connectivity for everyone. 
The coronavirus has shed light on the many problems we still have in the education system and on the need to improve digital education. The 30th of September 2020, the European Commission proposed new initiatives, investments and required stronger cooperation of MS to make education and training system fit for the digital age. The Commission suggested to invest 20% of the recovery facilities in digital transformation to reskill and upskill people. Among the initiatives, the Commission adopted the New Digital Education Action Plan that sets up new goals to be reached between 2021 and 2027. The new plan was presented by Margaritis Schinas, Mariya Gabriel and Margrethe Vestager and it has two long-term strategic priorities:
1) Fostering the development of a high-performing digital education ecosystem
2) Enhancing digital competences 
Regarding the first strategic priority, Ms. Vestager explained that in order to achieve it, we have to “start young” and make sure every school is equipped to run this digital transformation. Thus, the Commission will launch a strategic dialogue with EU Member States to prepare a proposal on the enabling factor for successful digital education. It will develop a European Digital Education Content Framework that will build on European cultural and creative diversity. It will support digital transformation plans at all level of education and training through Erasmus cooperation projects. A specific guidance to assist schools in this process will be developed, it will include different aspects from network connectivity to basic technological equipment and new trainings for teachers.
The second strategic priority will focus more on giving people basic digital skills from an early age (digital literacy, computing education, good knowledge of artificial intelligence) as today 1 in 5 young people failed to reach the basic level of digital skills. In order to do so, the executive Vice-President said that we need to make sure that teachers themselves feel confident and have access to the required skills. Thus, the Commission will expand the current competence scheme to give them the opportunity to have the necessary training. At the same time, a new certificate (European Digital Skills Certificate) will be created for all Europeans to indicate their level of digital proficiency. Ms. Vestager described it, in other words, as a certificate very similar to the one we already use for languages, which is recognized by governments, employers and other actors across Europe.
The new plan was released because action is needed now as low-income families have no access to computer. As a matter of fact, a 2018 OECD study found less than 40% of educators felt ready to use digital technologies. The Assistant Director-General for Education at UNESCO, Stefania Giannini expressed her concern about the global community regarding education arguing that “If the crisis fails to convince everyone to invest in stronger and more inclusive education systems, nothing will ever will. This is a time for the global community to rally around inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning, the goal to which every government committed as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to leave no one behind”.
This is the time to change together.
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