Ministers pave way for increased education exports

Minister of Education and Culture Sanni Grahn-Laasonen and Minister of Foreign Trade and Development Lenita Toivakka last week presented a proposal to parliament for removing legal obstacles to the export of Finnish education products and expertise.

“There is an enormous potential for education exports from Finland, but today legal issues are blocking these. We are now taking steps to remove these hindrances,” Grahn-Laasonen said. “The objective is to create more room for selling education abroad and hence improve the resource base for research.”

Several projects have been undertaken in Finland since 2009 to prepare export strategies for Finnish education including working out a definition. It was agreed that the term “export of education expertise” did not adequately cover the Finnish plans, which include consulting services and technological solutions for facilitating learning processes.

Several business areas in Finnish education exports have been developed, for instance further education for public services using multi-mode learning methods including virtual learning; learning games (eg Rovio’s product “Angry Birds"), and the Funzi learning platform “Skills to build your dreams – delivered to your mobile”; and other products of learning, such as Sanako’s language learning products.

Grahn-Laasonen presented a survey from higher education institutions and private companies mapping out the factors that are currently creating obstacles for the expansion of educational exports – such as the present legal blocking of charging tuition fees and the opportunity to have flexible contracts in collaborative arrangements with institutions and organisations, including private companies abroad.

She said that the survey information will be used to “produce a roadmap for removing obstacles and boosting the export of education, not only in higher education but also in professional and vocational training”.

The roadmap is to be finished by January 2016 and the Team Finland Network – whose core members include the ministries of education and culture, employment and the economy, and foreign affairs, as well as public bodies operating under their guidance – will coordinate activities between public actors that will offer educational exports and also supply support services.

“Companies will be encouraged to set up plans for selling education abroad and it is estimated that 560 people will be recruited to this sector in the near future,” Minister Toivakka added.

A growth programme for educational exports “Future Learning Finland” was established this autumn, financed by the ministry for employment and the economy and administered by Finpro.

The plan is being put forward at the same time as the proposal to introduce tuition fees for students not taught in Finnish or Swedish from outside Europe, as reported by University World News last week.

The region of greatest potential interest for education exports is around the Persian Gulf, ministers Grahn-Laasonen and Toivakka said in Helsinki.

Persian Gulf interest

Minister Toivakka led a delegation of nearly 40 business and university and polytechnic representatives on a Team Finland mission to the United Arab Emirates from 31 October to 2 November and to Saudi Arabia from 2 to 4 November. The delegation comprised representatives from healthcare, education and ‘clean tech’ businesses.

Representatives from the University of Helsinki, Lappeenranta University of Technology and several polytechnics (Kajaani University of Applied Sciences, Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences, Helsinki Metropolia University of Applied Sciences and JAMK University of Applied Sciences) were participating.

The visit provided “an excellent opportunity for us to present leading edge Finnish expertise in several sectors in the Persian Gulf region, which is investing heavily in development", Toivakka said.

The education and training sector is one of the fastest growing industries in the world. The market size is estimated globally to be about €3.3 trillion (US$3.6 trillion) with an estimated annual growth rate of 7% expected by 2017. Moreover, the fastest growth is expected in Finland's areas of excellence, that is, learning games (30% growth) and solutions for learning on the Web (23%).

Finnish education expertise has raised great interest internationally, but the overall value of education exports is hard to assess because of inconsistent statistics. However, the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation, or Tekes, estimated the value in 2014 to have been about €268 million in a survey undertaken for business.

A meeting instigated by Tekes this summer attracted a large number of representatives of stakeholders and companies. “Exports worth hundreds of millions are waiting to be discovered at the micro level,” Suvi Sundquist, Tekes’ programme manager, told the meeting.

"Micro-businesses are the most eager to grow. They are also very numerous."

A recent survey commissioned by Tekes reveals that education export start-ups will need €26 million in capital investments in the next two years, and a hundred export experts, Sundquist added. “But is the Finnish education system up to the challenge of becoming the engine of renewal?" she asked.

Losing ground

Göran Melin, lead author of a Technopolis Group report, commissioned by the ministry of education and culture, on the performance of Finnish higher education, said the government’s plans to remove legal barriers towards charging tuition fees for non-European Union students is a move in the right direction, given economic constraints.

“In addition, Finnish higher education is of a high standard and if marketed well and supported by good schemes for looking after foreign students, this could be a business opportunity. Finland potentially has something to sell here,” he told University World News.

He said Finnish higher education and the research system are in need of intensified internationalisation on all levels. But raising tuition fees might not make it easier to attract foreign students.

“Charging tuition fees ought to be an option for the higher education institutions, not a regulated requirement,” he said.

President of Helsinki University, Professor Jukka Kola, told University World News that his university sees a lot of potential in the export of education.

"We are actively seeking new ways to sell our educational and research expertise abroad. We are also looking for new partnerships with international industry.

“We see a lot potential in, for example, education, law, the health sector, as well as forestry and agriculture and climate change. At the same time, such activities offer career opportunities to graduates and post-docs,” he said.

Petri Koikkalainen, chair of the Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers, said selling courses abroad or domestically was not the solution to the massive budget cuts that the government has introduced to universities, nor was the charging of tuition fees to non-European Union students.

“These proposals seem like small fixes to a big problem, and they may be a way towards the commercialisation of our public higher education system,” he said.