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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Least Bad is the Enemy of the Good - Thoughts on Education in Finland

By Aapo Markkanen: Tampere

Finnish education system has often been subject to considerable praise, in large part because of its ability to deliver decent results for relatively modest investments. Finland normally, for example, is found to shine in the OECD's PISA surveys, even though educational expenditure per capita is pretty much around the OECD average. I don't deny this; the country has after all moved up the value ladder rather painlessly, and has thus faced globalisation without too much angst and frustration. The title of PISA 2003, Learning for the Tomorrow's World, says it all -so when it comes to harnessing skill and talent, the Finnish way has certainly got at least some things right. But do not fool yourself into think that everything's perfect. The PISA studies have in fact focused on school pupils at the age of 16, but in what follows I'm to try to explain just how the system starts to fail from that point onwards.

Finnish kids go to school when they're six, though the first year, the pre-school one, is voluntary and it is left up to the parents to decide for themselves. Compulsory education starts when you're seven, and lasts until the end of the primary school -at the age of sixteen, that is. This can be extended by one additional year, and if you're past the tenth grade and you still don't have the primary diploma (as is the case for about one per cent of each cohort) then you're free to quit. Schools are run by municipalities and are largely autonomous; the ministry drafts the curricular framework but gives free hands otherwise -all the way down to the individual teachers, who are quite independent in their work. To some extent, the same idea goes for pupils too, as the subjects that are learnt in the upper classes contain a high degree of optionality.

After the universal primary level the system branches into two secondary ones: upper secondary school, historically considered as the door to university, and vocational training, after which you are usually supposed to start working. About 55% of young people go to the former, 35% to the latter, and the rest don't go anywhere or go somewhere a year or two later -so at the end of the day there are only about 6% that actually quit school completely after the compulsory level, and if you count those who drop out from the next one you have almost twenty per cent of each cohort who don't obtain any secondary diploma.

The tertiary level is divided in two as well: universities are responsible for academic education, whereas the so called "universities of applied sciences" try to provide something more practical and more based on the needs of employers. Here the data on who goes where gets to be a bit blurred - since many students can't make up their mind, or get the place they want, right after the secondary graduation - but the data I did manage to dig out has it that the former host some 174.000 and the latter approx 130.000 students. Both are free, and are supposed to take five (the academic) and four (the applied) years; the EU's Bologna Process (3+2) has, however, brought some changes, and for example the academic unis now require you to finish the Bachelor degree before starting your Master.

Applied unis are more school-like institutions, with narrower structures and curricula, whereas the students within the academic branch of higher education tend to enjoy much wider freedom over what courses to pick and how many years to study -as there are virtually no time limits for graduation, or even for the number of degrees you can complete. Taking into account also the generous student benefits, covering six years as a minimum, and the fact that in Finland you're seven times more likely (according to this OECD PDF, for instance) to be pursuing an academic degree if either of your parents have one than if they have none, your contributor's own perception is that Finnish university-goers are benefiting from a pretty dubious and heritable upper and middle class privileges. Just don't except them to admit it.

It's nevertheless the troubled secondary level to which I'd like to highlight, as I believe that the worst failures -regarding both the allocation of human capital and equality of opportunities - can be found there.

The problem - somewhat ironically, since it is in fact the most indispensable of our national assets - is that Finns overvalue education. Or, in fact, that their image of education is alarmingly elitist and narrow-minded. Our economy and working lives have surely changed but it's the people's attitudes that are still stuck in the past. Finns love to brag about their egalitarian society and the ideal of lifelong learning, but refuse to acknowledge what those mean in practice. Ask them about education and the information society, and it's most likely mobile phones, R&D and, of all things, those free universities that they'll mention. Good education, however, is about so much more than that.

It's about being able to do things better, and differently, when your premises and resources change. When cars get more complex and sophisticated, a car mechanic must learn how to deal with such challenges; as must a metalworks that wants to buy new machinery - and if it's to reap all the productivity gains possible it must be able to count on the employees' ability, and willingness, to use that machinery. The same logic, that the best kind of management today is self-management, applies basically in every field you examine. This means naturally that the best things that education systems can deliver are adaptability and flexibility; and since you shouldn't define your skills for good when you learn them, you shouldn't be made to define where you learn them either.

The root of the problem is a tradition that values academic education too highly and questions its intrinsic value far too rarely; Finnish universities are islands of complacency and self-justification, having always granted themselves the right to define their place in society without paying attention to the demands of the other subjects, and thus the whole education system has been built according to their own demands. The unis have tended to argue that the education they provide needs to be all-round educative, and as a consequence the rest of the system must focus on that objective and ensure that all tertiary candidates get such a basis. Simple semantics tell it well: ylioppilas means both the upper secondary graduate and the university-goer, and derives from the word yliopisto -university, or "higher institute". As well, when the other branch, formerly known as polytechnics in English, changed their names to universities of applied sciences, just guess which institutes (and which students) were kicking the biggest fuss?

The road to both of the tertiary branches is open also after vocational training, yet this possibility is insufficiently put to use. And by the same token, there are far too many upper secondary graduates who don't study further and try to get jobs instead, with their overly theoretic education -thus ending up in some training program, or vocational school, for the next couple of years. This leads to skill wastage and bottlenecks within the labour market, as youngsters spend too much time trying to decide what to do with their lives.

But, besides globalisation, this where the demographic imperative will step in. As age groups turn smaller, it'll become harder and harder for schools to arrange their teaching in a way that meets the standards of both quality and cost-effectiveness. Finnish authorities have always played with the idea of the "youth school", or nuorisokoulu, that would lump the whole secondary level into one and teach not only theoretic subjects but practical ones too. Although different lobbies have so far managed to continually shoot this idea down, I believe that labour shortages and the new constraints on public finances will soon make this a reality. And recognition should go where it belongs, for this is the reform mainly promoted by the blue-collar trade unions.

It won't be a silver bullet, but might well cure many of the biggest problems. Personally I would, by no means make everybody study everything, but rather leave it for the parents and the students themselves to decide, possibly assisted by teachers and student advisors -this could work as a kind of buffet table, and naturally include lots of variety for different kinds of learners. In this way, if you feel after the first year that you've made the wrong choice you could still correct this. Fewer teens would pass their 19th birthday with neither professional training nor plans of studying further, and the lane taking you to tertiary level would finally get to widen enough. Schools that are still perceived as "the loser's choice" by many would disappear, which would result in better motivation and fewer drop-outs. To cut it short, youth school would smoothen our labour market and create more social mobility. And, at the very end of the day, perhaps, images and attitudes concerning concepts such as education, expertise and knowledge could change as well.

It is not only socially questionable to force young people to choose their path so early, but in a time of flux and great change it is also very stupid. Good schools must be places where you learn good basic skills for your future; when you need to specialise and learn more, you'll do it in the next level -and through your life.