Vision for 2030 commits to investment in HE and R&D

The government has published its vision for higher education and research in 2030, which includes a target of at least 50% of young adults completing a tertiary degree and a commitment to raise spending on research and development to 4% of gross domestic product or GDP.

This compares to 40% of young adults completing a degree today – which compares poorly with South Korea on 70%, and Canada and Japan, both on 60% – and less than 3% of GDP spent on R&D.

The vision was drawn up with broad participation from higher education stakeholders. All parties involved have expressed their satisfaction with the process, bringing together staff and students from both universities and universities of applied sciences.

There was one change to previous public announcements: no proposal to pass a new higher education law – to cover both universities and universities of applied sciences – was included.

This proposal had drawn negative comments and lobbying by many higher education institutions, university student unions and staff associations (including the professors’ and university researchers’ associations).

Another talking point is the quite clear phrasing that in 2030 there will be fewer higher education institutions. Currently there are 14 universities and 23 polytechnics.

Minister of Education and Culture Sanni Grahn-Laasonen, announcing the vision as part of the celebrations of 100 years of Finland’s independence, said: “Global competition for expertise is tightening. Finland has no other strategy for success than being the most capable nation.

“Finland should aim for the best-trained workforce in the world. It requires higher education, open educational provision and continuous learning, international networking, quality, effectiveness and strong inputs into RDI [research, development and innovation] activities.”

The document says changes in the global economy and work, new technology development costs and cross-border competition require the renewal of Finnish higher education and research. Global problems affecting humanity all require better use of science and technology.

Regarding society's ability to innovate, the document says it is worrying that Finland has lost the leading position it held in the 1990s in international education and training sessions.

The document says that in order to meet the knowledge needs of the future, high-quality higher education, research and innovation and a strong linkage to new information produced elsewhere are needed. The vision notes that education, skills, science and technology should work better for society’s benefit.

Universities and universities of applied sciences will have to be “brave reformers and producers of solutions, social and business reformers and builders of success and well-being”, it adds. Universities will be “nationally and internationally networked, valued partners”. Higher education institutions will be “attractive and prosperous working and study communities”.

“This vision is a proposal for a reorientation in Finland,” said Grahn-Laasonen. “It is now time to evaluate. The government will also discuss the vision in the near future. Next, steps are needed for implementation.”

The vision predicts that by 2030, the entire population's knowledge capital will have grown. Higher education will be available to everyone. At least 50% of young adults (25-34 years of age) will be graduates with a tertiary degree.

Flexible and personalised study paths and degrees will enable continuous learning in different situations of life. The educational provision of higher education institutions will be flexible for use by different user groups. There will be fewer and more effective institutions.

In addition, digitalisation and openness will promote education, learning, research and innovation, and higher education, and open up new channels of influence. Finnish colleges will have the best learning in the world and the best learning environments in the world. Training will be developed to match students’ needs.

The aim is that in 2030 there will be strong investment in research and development activities. Public and private investment in R&D will be raised to 4% of GDP. International cooperation between universities and polytechnics in pioneering networks will strengthen the quality of higher education institutions. In Finland, “internationally attractive research and innovation concentrations combining different actors” will be created.

Measures to attain targets

One university leader, who did not wish to be named, told University World News: “The overall idea is to strengthen the knowledge and skills level by increasing the educational attainment. However, this document does not yet include means…. When the measures to attain these targets are published, there will probably be bigger differences in opinion.”

Currently the targets are so general, there is little to disagree on, but this also means it is hard to use the document as leverage to gain a greater share of government funding.

The Ministry of Education and Culture has hinted that the specific measures will be put out for comment within a month.

Leena Wahlfors, executive director of Universities Finland or UNIFI, told University World News that Finnish well-being and international competitiveness are increasingly dependent on high competence and new knowledge.

She said higher education institutions are committed to reform, in cooperation with the ministry, the universities’ management and resource planning procedures, in order to provide more diverse opportunities to solve global problems and create technological and social innovations that benefit society.

“UNIFI stresses the fact that, in line with the vision, higher education institutions form a learning, research and innovation network where polytechnics and universities have an equal position but clear complementary and collaborative profiles.”

Jukka Kola, president of the University of Helsinki, said the vision statement acknowledged the dire need for Finland to invest in higher education and research.

“When it comes to the roadmap with concrete measures, we expect the government to strongly emphasise quality and international benchmarks,” he told University World News.

“National priorities have to take into account individual and local needs, but equally important is to recognise the vital role metropoles and high-end knowledge-intensive regions play globally.

“This requires courage and skill from the government – to invest strongly on internationally competitive research and learning environments and at the same time guarantee broad attainment of higher education.”

But Minna Nieminen, senior adviser at the Akava Special Branches Union, specialising in universities, education and labour policy, said the vision was disappointing. “We are already well aware of the global trends we are facing, as well as of the national challenges that many have long been looking for solutions for,” she said.

Riina Lumme, president of the National Union of University Students in Finland or SYL, said the vision paper is positive because of the clear goal of 50% of the young adults’ age group having a degree in higher education in 2030 and increased flexibility for students in the content of their degree.

But the proposals to cut the number of higher education institutions “with no further argument” was a matter of concern.

“When it comes to implementing this vision, we hope that there will be strict assessment of the consequences before taking any action. For example, during the process there were some suggestions of a united legislation for universities and universities of applied sciences, which encountered a lot of opposition from both the university staff and us students because there were no clear reasons for the need and effect of such major change in legislation,” Lumme said.

Bold decisions needed

Mikael Pentikäinen, chief executive officer of the Federation of Finnish Enterprises, said the vision was good but “bold and tough decisions” were now needed. Unlike the ministry, his organisation had in September published concrete measures to achieve the same objectives, which would be “effective ways to implement the ministry’s vision in practice”, he said.

For example, it has proposed that universities move into a single legal framework that provides the basis for excellence and research. And that “all colleges would be universities in the future, with clear and carefully selected profiles that emphasised research, applied work orientation or a combination of these”.

The idea is to have fewer universities but that they operate in networks that ensure nationwide accessibility.

To improve the quality and penetration of higher education, the Federation of Finnish Enterprises has proposed ‘reasonable’ tuition fees, faster completion of studies and a new type of lifelong learning service.

Currently there is a problem with 60% of student-aged young people starting degrees but many failing to complete them or taking extra years. Around 60% of bachelor degree students take five years to complete a degree and almost half of masters degree students take seven years to complete their degree.

The Federation of Finnish Enterprises also advocates co-operation between universities, research institutes and small and medium-sized enterprises or SMEs, for example, via a system that allows short-term researchers to work in SMEs and the work of entrepreneurs in research projects; and it calls for all students to gain practical experience of entrepreneurship and be involved in a period of internationalisation, either at home or abroad.

Riikka Heikinheimo, director of the Confederation of Finnish Industries, said it is not enough to have an aim of increasing the number of higher education students. “It would be much more important to raise the level of know-how across the board. The best guarantee [of that] is to ensure that basic education provides everyone with better skills in postgraduate studies.

“The vocational training path for postgraduate studies in higher education institutions must be smooth. Collaboration must be intensified, in particular between vocational education and polytechnic education.”