FINLAND: Polytechnics that call themselves universities

They might be polytechnics as far as Finland's universities are concerned but the nation's technical institutions have caused intense irritation by calling themselves 'universities of applied sciences' – though in English, not Finnish. Whereas the mission of universities is to undertake scholarly research and provide instruction and postgraduate education based on it, polytechnics were established to train professionals for the workforce and to promote regional development. While they also undertake a small amount of 'applied and practical' research and development, they now want to be known as universities as well.

Finland's binary higher education system comprises 20 universities and 28 polytechnics called ammattiakorkeakoulut in Finnish, and shortened to AMKs. Polytechnics were set up during the 1990s to create a non-university higher education sector. They were founded through mergers of institutions that had previously provided higher vocational training and, in contrast to the government-funded and controlled university sector, AMKs are municipal or private institutions authorised by the government.

The government and local authorities share the cost of running the polytechnics, with the government allocating resources via its Ministry of Education in the form of core funding (based on unit costs per student), project funding and performance-based funding. But polytechnics also have external sources of income.

The Ministry of Education, polytechnics and their maintaining organisations negotiate three-year performance agreements. Under these, polytechnics agree on targets and their monitoring, and on major national development projects, while intakes and project funding are determined annually.

As with the university sector, students at polytechnics do not pay fees. A typical student takes three-and-a-half to four-and-a-half years to complete an AMK degree, including six months of on-the-job training. Nearly 120,000 students were enrolled last year and about 20% were of mature age.

More than 20,000 students graduate from polytechnics every year but in recent times there have been concerns about an over-supply relative to the capacity of the labour force to absorb them. AMK degrees have not traditionally been stepping stones to postgraduate university study and graduates wishing to continue are usually required to enrol in university-enabling courses.

Polytechnics began to describe themselves in English as universities of applied sciences two years ago (although this expression does not appear on the Ministry of Education's website). The Finnish academic world has interpreted this as an attempt by AMKs to portray themselves as 'real' universities with a focus on research, rather than as predominantly teaching-based organisations.

In a 2006 letter to the Ministry of Education from Finland's Council of University Rectors, Chairman Ilkka Niiniluoto said that: " Finland's two official languages [Finnish and Swedish] the terminology describing the two groups is unequivocal, ('universities' = yliopistot (Fin.) or universitet (Sw.); 'polytechnics' = ammattikorkeakoulut (Fin.) or yrkeshögskolor (Sw.) so there is no reason or precedent for blurring this distinction in English..." But Niiniluoto also noted that there was no legislation to control the translation of Finnish terms into other languages.

In a subsequent letter to the ministry, the council said: "[Use of the term] 'university of applied sciences' is causing misunderstandings about the two halves of Finland's binary higher education system...the Ministry of Education has proposed on several occasions that when describing themselves in English, the AMKs should use the term 'polytechnic'."

So far the rectors' protests have not stopped the polytechnics from continuing to call themselves universities – at least in English.

*Dr Ian Dobson is an Australian scholar currently based in Finland. He is editor of the Australian Universities Review and an honorary researcher with Monash University's centre for population and urban research in Melbourne.