Higher Education in Finland: The quest to leave no one behind

30 October 2020

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Aerial view of the brand new Aalto university campus, in Espoo, Finland.
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Aerial view of the brand new Aalto university campus, in Espoo, Finland.

A new report, published by the Finnish Education Evaluation Centre, gives a complete picture of how students can get in, get through, and get out of higher education with greater ease and options. As part of IIEP-UNESCO’s global research project – SDG4: Planning for Flexible Learning Pathways in Higher Education – the report offers evidence-based policy recommendations for the Ministry of Education and Culture and higher education institutions to improve the learning experience for all students and close equity gaps. 

Leaving no one behind is at the heart of Finland’s higher education system. With 13 public universities and 22 universities of applied science – among other institutions – its tertiary education strives to give equal educational opportunities to all citizens, regardless of gender, socio-economic background, or geographical location. To sustain this commitment –and enhance equity – flexible learning pathways have emerged as a key policy direction for the sector. 

We talked with Sirpa Moitus, one of the report’s authors, and Counsellor of Evaluation at the Finnish Education Evaluation Centre, about the myriad of benefits for institutions and students alike. 

Getting in

Every year, some 150,000 applicants vie for 50,000 higher education spots, which is free to all Finnish students and citizens of the European Union and European Economic Area. While there should be enough spaces for all first time, college-bound applicants, they also compete with those pursuing a second degree or many-time applicants, especially in competitive fields such as medicine and law. As a result, this leaves two-thirds of all applicants without a study place each year. While this is a complex challenge, flexible learning pathways are starting to open new doors onto the world of higher education. 

“Because of my low grades in upper secondary school, I was thinking that I was not good enough to study in the university. But, when I started the open university courses, I was working hard, and I can do it. And, now I’m a PhD student, it’s opened a whole new world. It’s changed my world.” - An Open University alumna quoted during a focus group for the report.

One alternative entry point is the open studies pathway, which admitted 2,000 students in 2019. Open to everyone, students can pursue courses at any higher education institution on all days, evenings, or online. “This can serve as a kind of second chance for applicants that did not manage to get in via the normal admission procedure or for adults wishing to enter higher education at a later stage in their life,” says Moitus. While the open studies pathway does not lead to a degree – on its own – a certain number of open studies credits (between 15 and 60) can contribute to matriculation. For some students, this pathway can be “empowering” and “life-changing.” 

Further developing transfer pathways could also help ease the demand for study places says the study – as those who want to switch faculties could do so without competing with first-time applicants. Lastly, the proliferation of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) is another pathway, and can help give new edge to applicants as it can count as relevant prior experience. 

Getting through

Flexible learning pathways are fostering greater choice in how – and what – students can study. In addition to more possibilities to pursue elective courses, or minors, students in Finland can benefit from agreements between higher education institutions: they can take courses in other disciplines or on other campuses. “This means that degrees are becoming increasingly multidisciplinary and less narrow, and students can gain more from different fields, increasing their skills and competencies,” says Moitus. Mode of study is also more flexible than in years past, with the growth of online learning. “E-learning is the name of the game right now, and it is a very good thing that there had been so many projects in this area already, before COVID-19,” says Moitus. 

“In our curricula, there is a lot of flexibility in how students can put together their studies…We encourage our students to take courses from other faculties, based on their personal study plan. We consider it important for the students to build their own pathway to graduation.” - A university faculty dean quoted in an interview for the report. 

Recognition of prior learning is another major advantage of flexible learning pathways. This is especially important for students of immigrant backgrounds, a minority group that is currently not benefiting from flexible learning pathways as much as other student groups. According to the report, one fourth of immigrant applicants already had a degree, but many of them faced difficulties in having this fully recognized. “Flexible learning pathways and specific targeted support for students, throughout their studies, touches very close to the equity perspective and this is partly why we propose that flexibility and equity could be considered together,” says Moitus. 

Getting out

Combining work and study is high in demand. “The idea of incorporating work-based learning into higher education is really taking ground, and it can improve career prospects and employment possibilities,” says Moitus. Since 2017, Finnish institutions have been developing a new model – studification of work – that helps students gain credits towards their degree for their relevant work experience. Fostering links between those inside higher education and the world of work can also offer a support line to underrepresented students, including those with immigrant backgrounds, and help foster a sense of inclusion. 

“In my university, we carried out a skills’ needs mapping exercise in 2–3 fields, to figure out which skills and competences are needed… If there are some immediate skills needs, we can modify our continuous learning offering based on that.” - University management, interview from the report.  

Flexible learning pathways: “A moving target” 

Flexible learning pathways are reshaping how, where, and when students study. In Finland, this has gained traction over the past decade. But its roots go much further, says the report, as it resonates deeply with the country’s commitment to equality for all. To further address pressing issues around equity – and accessibility for minority students, especially – it suggests a number of important recommendations for flexible of learning pathways. From setting a national definition of what are flexible learning pathways, cementing the links between flexible learning and equity policies, to encouraging more guidance at the institutional level for students to help them define the pathway that best suits their interests, this is a course to watch in Finland’s higher education sector. 

“Finland is an excellent example of how the higher education funding model can support flexible learning pathways. Multiple government projects have financed higher education institutions to collaborate in joint e-learning initiatives, cross-study, open studies and working and study pathways. Rather than competing with each other, institutions were incited to collaborate.” Michaela Martin, IIEP-UNESCO programme specialist.

As for next steps, Moitus says the report has been submitted to the government as a resource for current policy discussions on equity, including the drafting of the 2020 National Accessibility Plan of Higher Education, as well as for policy discussions on higher education and for the drafting of the 2020 Government Education Policy Report to Parliament. The report will also contribute to global dialogue on the evolution of flexible learning pathways as the IIEP-UNESCO project includes research from the Chile, United Kingdom, India, Jamaica, Malaysia, Morocco, and South Africa. 

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