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Photograph: Photo by elmimmo, used under CC BY

The European Union is slowly increasing the number of educated people, but at a price of inequalities between social categories and member states, a European Commission report shows.

Nearly 38 percent of young Europeans completed tertiary education in 2014, as against 34.8 percent in 2011. On the other hand, 11.1 percent left school early, compared with 13.4 percent in 2011, the Education and Training Monitor 2015 shows.

"Youth unemployment, poverty and marginalisation remain high," the report warns, noting that one in four adults in Europe is caught in a low-skills trap. "The persisting determinants of underachievement are, inter alia, socio-economic status, immigrant background and gender. But structural and institutional characteristics also play their part, with access to quality education and ability grouping still penalising under-represented groups disproportionately."

The report, published on Thursday, reveals that education in Europe is one of the victims of the economic crisis and budget cuts, with possible consequences in the long term.

"Europe is not moving in the right direction fast enough. Educational poverty remains stubbornly embedded, with far too many disadvantaged students, and government investment – crucial to quality education – reveals worrying signs of spending cuts."

None of the member states has managed to reduce the number of 15-year-olds who underachieve in reading, maths and science to below 15 per cent.

"Sadly, one of the first steps in budget consolidation were cuts in education budgets," EU Education Commissioner Tibor Navracsics told a press conference in Brussels, as quoted by the EUobserver.

While average spending on education in the EU is around 5.3 percent of the EU's GDP, it is at 6 percent or more in other parts of the world, especially Asia.

"The EU is lagging behind in investing in education,” Navracsics said. "That could cause a problem because investment in today's education is also investment in tomorrow's competitiveness."

The Education and Training Monitor is published each year since the EU launched the Europe 2020 programme for jobs and growth to assess member states' education and training systems.

The report aims at being an "EU Pisa", a commission source said, referring to the Programme for international student achievement, a yearly ranking of education systems published by the OECD.

Education targets in the Europe 2020 programme include a reduction of the number of early leavers from education and training to less than 10 percent, a 95 percent rate for early childhood education and care, a 40 percent rate for tertiary education attainment, an 82 percent employment rate of recent graduates and a reduction to 15 percent of the rate of underachievement in reading, mathematics and science.

In the section on Croatia, the Commission says that the main strengths of Croatia's education and training system are a low early school leaving rate (2.7 percent in 2014) and a high proportion of secondary vocational school graduates continuing into higher education. 

"Positive developments in the country include the adoption of a comprehensive strategy for education, science and technology, which will be the main driver of reform in the coming years."

The Commission notes that education in Croatia pays off given that, according to data for 2014, 72.2 per cent of recent tertiary graduates managed to find employment, as against 47.3 percent of recent upper secondary graduates. The European average for recent tertiary graduates is 80.5 percent and for recent upper secondary graduates it is 70.8 percent.

The tertiary education attainment rate in Croatia is 32.2 percent, compared with the EU average of 37.9 percent.

"On the other hand, the Croatian education and training system faces a significant number of challenges, including improving education outcomes in mathematics in primary and secondary schools, modernising initial VET curricula in line with the needs of the labour market, and increasing access and completion rates in higher education. There are relatively low participation rates in both ECEC and adult learning. Croatia faces significant structural problems in the form of stretched capacities in pre-school centres and an under-regulated and underfunded system of adult learning," the report says.

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