Speech by Director General for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, Ms Themis Christophidou
EU-Pakistan SME Business Forum
8 September 2021, online
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is an honour to be here for the launch of this first EU-Pakistan SME Forum.
This is an excellent initiative. I think we all believe in bringing people together to find new solutions, to discuss how we can improve based on our shared experience.
I certainly believe in it.
I see the fruits of this approach, based on people-to-people cooperation, every day, as Director-General for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport.
It’s what we promote across Europe and beyond, for example under the Erasmus+ programme.
Erasmus+ projects so often aim to empower people on the ground to work across borders and innovate in education. They promote new skills and new ways of acquiring them.
Indeed, the Erasmus+ programme also supports EU-Pakistan cooperation.
I believe cooperation in the field of education is very relevant for SMEs.
That is what I will talk about today.
Now, of course, I am not here to tell you that education is the answer to all your challenges.
Sometimes companies need more immediate solutions. Access to capital. New markets to enter. Better networking.
Still, when the challenges you face are more long term, when we speak of real transformation in society, education starts taking centre-stage as a solution.
Education is not just about learning. Everyone learns, one way or another.
Two people can be in the woods. One eats a poisonous berry and dies. The other learns: maybe they shouldn’t follow.
Education is about more than that.
It is about passing knowledge and skills down to the new generation before they need it.
So that, when they are tested, they can thrive. So that nobody eats the poisonous berry.
This hinges on foresight, knowing what challenges lie ahead.
It hinges on what we, as a society, as an economy, need to prepare for the future.
A future where the challenges we face are shared. A future where the skills we need in our workforces change faster and faster.
Of course, some of this change, and some of this speed, is imposed by our innovators. It is imposed by those among you that are pushing the boundaries of the possible, introducing new concepts, products and services.
But sometimes we are all caught by surprise.
Take Covid-19, for example. The pandemic has caused an unprecedented disruption to our societies. One that we were not able to prevent.
Then there is climate change. The green transition has become an absolute priority, and every business must adapt.
This requires new skills, new ways of doing business, and changes to the products we sell.
And then there is the digital transition. The pandemic showed how digital technology changed the way we work. But with artificial intelligence, or automation, work itself is likely to change.
All these challenges demand new skills. And the degree to which we are successful will depend on how much we work together – across and beyond European borders.
In Europe, we are working on an ambitious new plan to set up a European Education Area by 2025.
This will pave the way for high quality, accessible and inclusive education for all learners across Europe.
This initiative poses an opportunity.
If we are finding new ways of working together, we can also re-think the role of institutions like the university.
How it reaches the local economy.
How its international strategy plays out.
And how education, research, and innovation are interlinked, in service to society.
This is not just an inward-looking effort. Europe sees education as a channel for better links, better exchange and cooperation with countries worldwide.
This is where the Erasmus+ programme comes in.
As I told you at the start of my speech, the strengths of our flagship programme for education, training, youth and sport lie in bringing people together, from the bottom-up.
On the one hand, our projects see real practitioners working with peers across borders on real, practical challenges that they face.
On the other hand, the programme provides scholarships for student and staff mobility, bringing countries together in and outside the EU.
Erasmus+ has had a strong international dimension for some years now.
It focuses on the role that higher education can play in preparing academics, students and practitioners to learn new skills and put them to work.
These international opportunities will continue in a new phase of the programme that we have launched this year.
But what does this mean in practice? How can your companies benefit from our work, and participate in it, concretely?
Well, this comes with a tripartite answer.
First, Erasmus+ can fund collaborative projects involving partners in Europe and Pakistan.
Second, the results of our past projects are available – and you can use them to innovate your companies.
And third, there are mobility opportunities.
First, let us start with projects.
We know how much businesses rely on skilled work.
At the same time, universities benefit from the practical input of companies on the ground.
This is an essential component if we are to build capacity in higher education: we need to know in which direction to work.
In fact, Erasmus+ funds projects to do just that: to build capacity in higher education institutions.
They are meant to help develop new ways of teaching, helping learners and staff acquire new skills, and strengthening the bonds between universities and society.
Take, for example, SMARTEX, a project developing new curricula in the area of textile engineering and technology.
SMARTEX is bringing European universities together with universities from Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia.
In the case of Pakistan, we are talking about NED University of Engineering & Technology, in Karachi, and Bahauddin Zakariya University, in Multan.
They are working with partners in Greece, Belgium, and Spain.
The idea is to put together a whole range of activities, boosting skills in learners and teachers alike.
I am talking about producing learning materials, building the human capital of staff, buying equipment, or supporting exchanges as well as internships.
This example is quite sector specific.
Here’s a more general example: the TAKE-UP project.
This project links up four Pakistani universities with German and Greek universities under the leadership of Saarland University, in Germany.
It focuses on developing an entrepreneurial culture in universities, through self-assessment, training trainers, and setting up specific business incubators within faculties.
The four Pakistani partners – Government College University Lahore, COMSATS University, University of Gujrat and Lahore University of Management Sciences – can then become role models for other universities across the country.
I can only encourage you all to leverage your links to your local universities, as well as with faculty leading in academic areas linked to your businesses.
Indeed, I hope you will consider discussing these opportunities – and whether you would like to put a project together with your partner universities.
And why not make this a topic of your discussions with your European SME partners?
Second, learning from results.
Even if you do not take part in a project, your company can benefit from the insights of other projects.
All Erasmus+ project coordinators publish the results of their work at the end of their activities.
From curriculum development to university-business cooperation, or training materials.
You can consult these results on the Erasmus+ Project Results Platform.
For example, there are multiple projects focused on ICT that may have insights to help you specialise, or adapt to the digital transformation.
The project ICT-INOV has just kicked-off, involving Pakistan’s National University of Computer and Emerging Sciences as part of an eight-country partnership which is creating an ICT learning framework for design thinking.
This enables designers to better understand the needs of users. And when this project is up, their results will be useful to so many companies, in the EU and in Pakistan!
This multiplier factor is very important. It is a huge reason justifying our investment in the programme.
Every year, the EU funds scholarships for master’s students from all over the world. These students come to Europe to study in one of around 150 Erasmus Mundus joint master degree programmes.
These joint programmes are delivered by consortia of top universities.
One of the advantages is that students can study in at least two different countries during their two-year degree course.
Erasmus Mundus joint programmes combine the know-how found in ecosystems in different countries, boosted by the expertise of different faculties.
They provide graduates with a complete skill-set to pursue a career as an entrepreneur, a decision-maker, or a researcher in a given field.
And these programmes are open to both freshly graduated bachelors and people with some work experience under their belts, coming back to university to specialise.
In 2021, Pakistan received the third-highest country total of scholarships, maintaining its annual position in the top three.
In September 2021, 141 Pakistani students will start their masters’ studies in a range of subjects.
Many will match the priorities of Pakistan’s SME sector: from textile engineering, through cloud computing and vaccinology, to the circular economy and adult education.
Since 2004, this takes the total of Pakistani scholarship-winners to the nice figure of 999.
This in addition to international bilateral university partnerships, under which we also support short-term, two-way exchanges of students and staff.
When you next speak to your partners, why not ask if they are involved in these initiatives, and which academic fields they are covering?
Ladies and gentlemen,
I hope I have given you something of a feeling for the way that the EU supports you through our investments in education.
There are great synergies to be explored with the EU’s bilateral support for Pakistan too, which has a strong component for job creation and the role of vocational training.
I hope that you will consider linking up with universities in Pakistan and in Europe. I am sure this will be fertile ground for cooperation.