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Finland: University students struggle to complete

Finnish higher education students tend to be slow to complete their study programmes, on top of being among the oldest in Europe to start their tertiary studies in the first place. Only 37% reach the benchmark for a reasonable level of achievement set by the Government, according to analysis reported in the Aamulehti newspaper.

To complete their studies in the minimum five year period, (three years for the bachelor's degree, followed by a two years' undergraduate master's degree) they must amass 60 credit points a year. The Ministry of Education has set 45 points as a reasonable annual level of achievement for a full-time student.

However, only 37% achieved this Ministry's benchmark, which represents only three-quarters of a full-time study workload. In fact, it seems likely that only a small minority of students could complete their studies in minimum time, but more data would be needed to work that out more precisely.

The slow rate of completion is not uniform across either universities or disciplines. The study reported in Aamulehti shows that the slower-performing students were enrolled in programmes at Aalto University, Tampere University of Technology and the University of Helsinki. Aalto and Tampere have strong concentrations of engineering and physical sciences. The University of Helsinki does not offer engineering, but has large arts, social sciences and natural and physical sciences faculties.

These larger faculties tend to present more options to students, apparently delaying their progress. Completion times in the more structured programmes offered by the University of Helsinki in areas such as medicine, veterinary medicine and pharmacy are better. It is also said that requirements vary between courses - in some the credit points are easier to achieve than in others.

It is likely that finance holds the key. Even if there are no tertiary tuition fees, most Finnish students leave home and must therefore find rented accommodation. Finnish student welfare is extraordinarily generous compared to most countries, but the amounts available either as grants or loans have not kept pace with inflation, particularly rising rents in the national capital Helsinki. As a result, students work rather than study and, if they then earn 'too much', their student welfare payments will be cut.

With little incentive for students to get through the system any quicker, the solution is elusive. Perhaps student progression rates would be better if incentives were built into the system, such as fees after a certain amount of fee-free tuition. But this would need to be introduced with a fully-indexed student welfare package that allowed students to cover their living costs (including Helsinki rents).

The analysis reported in the Aamulehti newspaper can be read (in Finnish) at www.Aamulehti.fi

* Ian R Dobson is an Australian scholar who spends much of his time in Finland. He is editor of the Australian Universities' Review and the Journal for Higher Education Policy and Management.
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