06 September 2006

Higher Education in Finland

Yesterday I delivered my first lecture on North American urban history, which was received by a stony but not overtly hostile silence. I have thus declared victory and am confidently looking forward to lecture #2 tomorrow afternoon.

The North American City is scheduled for Tuesdays and Thursdays from 12:00 noon to 2:00. But there is something called the “academic quarter,” which means that the class actually begins at 12:15 and ends at 1:45. Luckily, this subject was covered during the orientation program at the Fulbright Center last week. Thanks be to God!

With all this experience under my belt, I suppose I am now qualified to pontificate on the status of higher education in Finland.

The Orientation Handbook for American Fulbright Grantees in Finland, 2006-2007, has this to say about universities in Finland: "In relation to population, Finland has one of the most comprehensive university networks in Europe, with twenty university-level institutions: ten multifaculty universities, three universities of technology, three schools of economics and business administration, and four art academies. Geographically, the network covers the whole country. Overall, there are approximately 170,000 students in university education, of whom 21,900 are postgraduate students. The courses of study are rigorous and admission is difficult: only ten percent of each senior secondary graduating class will gain university admission. On the other hand, there are no tuition fees, and students are eligible for government financial aid and some grants. Due to the structure of the Finnish university system, students are relatively free to determine the rate and direction of their courses of study. Many courses may be passed by readings and examinations on prescribed books in lieu of lecture attendance. Moreover, both course and department examinations may be retaken until the student succeeds" (p. 24).

It is my understanding that students do not actually register for courses. They attend lectures and then decide whether they wish to sit for the exam. “Generally, there is not much reading in conjunction with lectures, nor are discussion seminars especially successful except at advanced levels” (p. 25). Reading materials typically are made available at the reserve desk in the library, as students do not buy textbooks—part of the idea that their education will be “free.” Grading scales vary. “Some courses are graded from 1 to 3 (3 being highest) and some simply on a pass/fail basis” (p. 26).

Twenty-three students attended my lecture yesterday. Most of them seem to be geography majors. I didn’t think to ask how many are undergraduates and how many are post-graduates. It will be interesting to see how many return on Thursday.

To the extent that academic achievement (i.e., making the cut at 10%) counts more than aptitude and ambition alone, the Finnish system is somewhat un-American. It also is a system that gets mixed reviews from Americans who have taught here. Some have charged that with their subsidies and the lack of curricular structure, Finnish students are entirely too passive, and these critics are inclined to invoke the stereotype of the reticent Finn in their indictment. The Finnish system, serving as it does only the upper 10%, also has can be seen as anachronistic in an egalitarian society.

Others have had a very different experience, and they are inclined to think that the Finnish system has removed some artificial impediments (daily homework assignments, term papers, grades, etc.) to active, and genuine, learning. These observers see Finnish students exercising real control over what they learn, and how. Some have even had the temerity to defend the stereotype of the taciturn Finn, suggesting that it is not unreasonable for a person to silently think an issue through before venturing an opinion.

As I was educating myself about Finnish higher education last spring, I had lunch with a former Fulbrighter who told me with a heavy sigh that his Finnish students knew more about American history than his students at his home university in the United States. He added, however, that they are not as skilled as American students at recognizing arguments in assigned readings, making an argument themselves, or marshaling evidence in support of a thesis. That seemed to me related to the Orientation Manual’s assertion that “Student questioning of teachers, and vice versa, is comparatively rare” (p. 25). Another former Fulbrighter referred to the ethos as essentially “Germanic.” She encouraged me to try to model a more active and participatory style of teaching and learning.

In both of my courses, I have built some writing assignments into the plan, and I also have devised a scheme to try to encourage some, albeit limited, oral participation. But I have been warned repeatedly not to expect too much. And in truth, I am inclined to “go native” and see where it leads. That will mean, among other things, learning to live with prolonged silences. Fine, though silence is not likely to catch on here in the blogosphere, or over there in Nokialand.

As if things were not complicated enough, Finnish higher education—whatever its virtues and vices—is very much in transition at the moment thanks to reforms introduced by the European Union. These are usually referred to as the Bologna Process: http://www.minedu.fi/minedu/education/bolognaprocess.html. According to the Fulbright Center’s Orientation Handbook, the Bologna Process is a campaign being waged on six different fronts. Its main objectives are1) Easily readable and comparable degrees, 2) Uniform degree structures, 3) Establishment of a system of credits—such as in the ECTS system, 4) Increased mobility, 5) Promotion of European cooperation in quality assurance with a view to developing comparable criteria and methodologies, and 6) Promotion of the European dimension in higher education.

In short, while I try to adapt to an educational system that is very different from the only one I have ever known, major changes are underway that do not necessarily favor convergence. Clearly, I will need to be light on my feet.