University league tables and ranking lists are in vogue, and even with the country’s outstanding education system there have been reforms – and further calls for reforms – in the universities of Finland. There are concerns that not many Finnish universities are featured in these top-100s, and the rector of the University of Helsinki remarked last year that “[g]enuine structural reforms must be made, not only in the name of the universities themselves, but in the name of the Finnish economy, competitiveness, and education”.
The most recent reforms in Finland came in 2010, when it was deemed that the higher education landscape – with two parallel sectors of the polytechnics and the universities – was too scattered. There were mergers, and consequently the existing and new universities also became more autonomous. After the new Universities Act was passed in 2009 the institutions became independent legal entities, the government relinquished the ownership of university buildings, and there were new governance arrangements on university boards.
With greater independence it was hoped that the universities will be more entrepreneurial.
Aalto University, my exchange university for instance, was established in 2010 with the merger of the Helsinki School of Economics, the Helsinki University of Technology, as well as the University of Art and Design Helsinki. Such a multidisciplinary university could then generate innovation and creativity. After four months in the School of Business however, I thought it was not too different from my business education experience in Singapore.
Vision 2020 furthers the aforementioned changes with continued emphasis on research, education, and innovation. Lifelong and all-round learning are valued. The education system – especially the graduates – should be in line with the demands of Finland’s economy. With cooperation across the schools and business sectors students should be encouraged to set up their own enterprises. In my conversations with Finnish undergraduates the theme of entrepreneurship was a common one, and many have chosen to stay in school for a maximum of seven years to manage their own businesses or get valuable work experience.
The fact that a university education is free is perhaps good motivation too.
Whether these university tables and lists are good measures of the institution’s quality is contestable. Yet when perceived as an indicator the rankings can provide insights, and Finland has adopted a constructive approach. When it was found that Finnish students had under-performed in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) the press release from the Ministry of Education and Culture read plainly, “PISA 2012: Proficiency of Finnish youth declining”. An imperfect PISA can still provide insights.
With the ubiquity of web-based learning platforms, as well as growing databases of knowledge, a university graduate does not enjoy the same head-start as before. Rising tuition fees is another deterrent around the world, though the Finnish constitution guarantees tuition-free degree education for all students. As such there is – and there should be – greater emphasis on the quality of teaching, so that students can get more from the classroom.
Core funding allocation might be a solution to that. A committee appointed by the Ministry of Education and Culture proposed a model “that a total of 75 per cent of the core funding would be allocated on the basis of a formula for education and research, of which 41 per cent would be based on educational factors and 34 per cent on research factors. The remaining 25 per cent of the core funding would be based on education and science policy objectives”. More specific details would determine the evaluation of “education factors” and “research factors”, but some students I have spoken to have highlighted the possibility of using student feedback to gauge the former. And it would be reasonable to do so, since students themselves are in the best position to assess the value of pedagogies.
The Aalto experiment continues, and the search for more changes will always be on. Amidst these the national discourse will continue, and perspectives from all will be sought.
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