FINLAND: Quality - Finnish style
Its audits began in the second half of 2005 and it is hoped that all 20 universities and 26 polytechnics will have been audited by the end of 2011.
FINHEEC, as it is known, is described as "an independent expert body assisting universities, polytechnics, and the Ministry of Education in matters relating to evaluation". Review panels comprise national and international experts, with secretarial and other support coming from the council's permanent staff.
The council's aim is to improve Finnish higher education institutions and their international competitiveness through evaluations. It supports quality work, provides benchmarking data and improvement recommendations, and disseminates information on best practice. It produces national data enabling the international comparison of higher education institutions by policy-makers and students.
From the universities' point of view, the most important of the council's activities are evaluations of higher education institutions' quality assurance systems: the methods, processes and mechanisms that institutions use to maintain and improve the quality of their education and other activities. These audits commenced in the second half of 2005 and it is hoped that all 20 universities and 26 polytechnics will have been audited by the end of 2011.
Institutions win the council's seal of approval for six years, provided their quality assurance system as a whole and the quality assurance related to their basic mission (education, research, interaction with and impact on society and regional development) are adjudged to be adequate.
Not all universities get through their audits successfully and those that don't are required to saddle up for another round of evaluation the following year. Of the 10 university audits conducted so far, two universities failed to make the grade.
The University of Tampere, home to about 14,500 students 170 kilometres to the north of Helsinki, was one such university. It could perhaps feel a little unlucky: the evaluation group recommended a 'pass' but, based on the detail in the review panel's report, the council decided it should fail. Now Tampere must prepare for round 2 in 2010.
The other one to miss the mark was the 14,300 student Helsinki University of Technology (HUT), which is also required to face the judges again next year. This result must have caused one or two red faces, because HUT is the major player in a three-way merger to create Aalto University - the one the government hopes will become a 'world-class university'.
In its report, the review panel noted significant gaps in HUT's quality assurance system and so failed the university. Fortunately, one of the other mergees, the Helsinki School of Economics, came through its audit with flying colours while the third party to the creation of Aalto University, the University of Art and Design, is yet to have its evaluation.
Because the overriding purpose of all evaluations is to help institutions improve their activities, the council also supports them in designing their own quality assurance systems. For example, the University of Helsinki received a 'pass' but decided to put itself through a private evaluation of the management and leadership of its education in 2008.
This will be via a 12-member international panel chaired by Professor Eva Åkesson, Vice-Rector of Lund University in Sweden. The evaluation noted a number of institutional strengths and good practices but not everything was perfect. The panel produced 43 recommendations for university-level improvements and found it had too many vague targets, too many key performance indicators and too many working groups with unclear roles.
As a response, Helsinki is reviewing its decision-making structures at all levels. As University World News reported last year, radical higher education reforms are to be considered by the Finnish parliament. If the proposed University Act is passed, universities will become separate legal entities and matters to do with funding, staffing, buildings and governance will cease to be as tightly regulated as they are now.
Helsinki has decided to take this opportunity to examine a revision of its administrative structures.
More information on the Finnish Higher Education Evaluation Council can be found at www.finheec.fi. Several documents explaining the process in Finnish, Swedish or English can be downloaded.
* Dr Ian Dobson is Helsinki correspondent for University World News. 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