New government plans to strengthen higher education

The appointment of a centre-left coalition government in Finland on 6 June has been welcomed by Finnish universities. They are pleased with its commitment to increased funding for universities and universities of applied science.

An extension of the minimum school-leaving age from 15 years up to 18, making secondary education completely free, has also been announced.

It took five weeks from the 14 April general election for Antti Rinne of the Social Democrats – who won by a razor-thin margin with 17.7% of the vote – to negotiate a new coalition government, making him the first left-wing prime minister since 2003.

The Social Democrats will have seven ministers, the Centre Party five, the Greens three, and both the Left Alliance and the Swedish People’s Party of Finland will have two, with the Left Alliance providing the education minister, Li Andersson.

The nationalist Eurosceptic True Finns, with 17.5% of the votes and 39 representatives in parliament, will not be represented in government.

The incoming government will put an end to eight years of austerity, adding €1.2 billion (US$1.4 million) to government spending, which will be offset by higher tobacco, alcohol and fuel taxes.

Among the reforms already announced are the extension of compulsory education to 18 years of age and the strengthening of vocational training and increased budgets for universities and universities of applied science.

Easing transition to tertiary education

The extension of the school leaving age is a response to an OECD report of May 2019 stating that Finland’s highly selective universities must start easing their admission requirements because too many young people are being left behind.

The OECD report found that the teens have an increasingly difficult time stepping up from secondary education into tertiary education.

In 2017 Finland had an unemployment rate of 53.3% for people aged 15-29, which is above the OECD average, and one in three young people between the ages of 15 to 24 received some form of unemployment support, the second highest in the OECD.

Those who failed to complete upper secondary education accounted for nearly half of all youth who are not in employment, education or training (the so-called NEETs).

The report advised Finland to ease the transition from upper secondary school to higher education or vocational training by simplifying student financial support and making changes to its tertiary admission practices, Yle reported.

Higher investment in higher education and research

Under the new government, universities and universities of applied science will receive €40 million and €20 million respectively in budgetary increases. The higher education index covering the raises in salaries and costs will be introduced according to the proposed law for the next four years. In addition, €150 million will be allocated to Business Finland for three years to boost research and development.

Higher education and research and development are now not only seen as costs but as investments and the new government wants to invest in education at all levels.

The new money and the index raises will compensate only partially for the cuts over the past eight years. However, the election represents a political watershed for higher education, as the Social Democrats and Greens have notably been underlining the need for rehabilitation of research and education.

The index was supposed to be compensating for the rise in prices and salaries when the universities became autonomous from the state in 2010. Even though this rise was included in the legislation (when enacting the law), universities have received the index raise for only the first 1.5 years and not for the past 8.5 years.

The university reforms under the university act passed by the government of Matti Vanhanen a decade ago and the law vis-a-vis internal autonomy will be re-evaluated – for the fourth time.

Impact on universities

A major change is already taking place regarding university entrance exams. Universities are currently increasing the quota admitted each year from senior high schools based on the matriculation examination. The problem is that currently only a minority of high school graduates enter university after leaving secondary school.

Raising the age limit for compulsory education will not have a direct impact on university recruitment. But there is a goal to increase the number of students entering higher education – sending more students from secondary schools to universities and more students from vocational schools to universities of applied science. The ambition is to raise the share of the age cohort obtaining a degree from 42% to 50% by 2030.

Currently around 50% of secondary age children (age 15-18) go to gymnasiums or senior high schools, around 35% go to secondary-level vocational schools and 15% do not got to secondary school at all.

The government is particularly concerned about the latter group and is set to provide books free of charge and ban school fees at this level.

Special role for science

For the first time in more than three decades, in addition to a minister for education, a minister for science and culture – Annika Saarikko of the Centre Party – has been appointed. Science will get a special role. It is not yet clear, however, whether the science minister will also be responsible for universities or if the research and innovation funding will be pooled from several ministries.

Leena Wahlfors, executive director of Universities Finland or UNIFI, the Finnish rectors’ conference, told University World News: “We are happy to see an increase in the core funding since one of our main goals has been to have university funding developed in a more stable direction with an emphasis on long-term financing.

“Clearly, our message has been heard and the new government appreciates the importance of higher education and research for the whole of society’s well-being and a sustainable future.

“However, because the details are yet to be published, we must still wait until we see how the government programme affects the universities in practice.”

The rector of the University of Helsinki, Jari Niemelä, told University World News that the university is “delighted to see a turn in the policy”.

“Universities are now seen as an investment for the future,” he said. “The governmental policy programme contains many positive and promising goals regarding higher education and research – for instance, investments in research environments and infrastructure, innovation and business collaboration.”

He said that although the funding changes do not compensate for earlier cuts, there is a “promise of a brighter future”.

‘Much longed-for shift’

Göran Melin of the Technopolis Group in Stockholm, who has worked as a higher education expert for the Finnish ministry of education, told University World News he welcomed a “much longed-for shift in Finnish research and higher education policy, after many years of severe austerity in terms of government funding”.

He said one should remember, however, that even if the past year’s budget cuts to higher education institutions have often been painful, the reformation of the system that has taken place in parallel was “well justified”.

“Indeed, it has been tough to develop and improve with fewer resources. With increased budgets, efforts to improve the performance should continue – increased internationalisation, and closer links between universities and universities of applied sciences, for example.”

He said the university transformation in Tampere, where the University of Tampere and the Tampere University of Technology merged on 1 January this year to become Finland’s second-largest higher education institution, is promising.

“With regard to the new division of labour between two ministers, it is too early to say what it means – hopefully, it is a sign of an ambition to strengthen both higher education and research in Finland,” Melin said.