Across the Finnish line

October 20, 1995

This week will see the state visit to Britain of the Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari and his wife Eeva. The ripples from this four-day event should encourage the expanding academic traffic between the two countries. It is the first such encounter between the British and Finnish heads of state since President Kekkonen came in 1969.

The Finnish attitude to higher education is typified by an advertisement in last month's Finnish Business Report promoting Jyvaskyla (situated in the heart of Finland) as a "modern centre for industry and learning". It says that the university is the "driving force in the area".

When the network of new universities was set up in the 1960s, regional development was a prime motive. Jyvaskyla is involved in student exchange with 150 universities worldwide, and in 450 research partnerships at 250 universities. British and other students at Jyvaskyla also know that the campus is a place of great natural and architectural beauty, and that it is comprehensively "on line". Through education, a rural country has become a world-class modern industrialised welfare state in a lifetime. It is no accident that both Nokia and Esa-Pekka Salonen are two of Finland's best known exports.

So Finland's minister of education, belonging to an even younger generation than Tony Blair, would have no quarrel with Blair's identification in his Brighton conference speech of education with economic development.

Olli-Pekka Heinonen, who was born in 1964, is in fact a Conservative (the Conservatives are the second largest party in the Finnish government, in which four others are represented, the Social Democrats being the largest). Mr Heinonen goes beyond what has for him been a traditional cross-party consensus on education's importance: "We have been talking of money, money, money. I strongly believe that the atmosphere is changing . . . The present time values benefit, cost-effectiveness and efficiency, not least because of the economic recession, (but), everything cannot be measured in money . . . Ethical and aesthetic aspects have an inherent value."

Mr Heinonen has the energy and the presence to help that change in atmosphere. On recent visits to Finland, I have heard little but enthusiastic praise for him and the minister of culture, Claes Anderson of the Left Alliance party.

There is a closer relationship between universities and the head of state in Finland than in Britain. When the president was installed last year, the rectors of all 21 universities were presented to him, along with heads of the military, the church and representatives of foreign governments. He formally confirms all professorial appointments. Mr Ahtisaari (like his prime minister, a Social Democrat) is the first president to be directly elected by the people. He was close run, after a vigorous contest, by Elisabeth Rehn, from the Swedish People's party. His lead over her may have come from his international experience - formerly a senior official at the United Nations, where he played a major role in Namibia's route to independence.

"Internationalisation" is as key a term in academic as in commercial circles. Given his background, it matters that Mr Ahtisaari chose to visit the Finnish Institute in London specifically for talks focusing on international exchange. He met a research academic and administrative representatives of old and new universities, a Finnish postgraduate student at the London School of Economics and a British student just back from the University of Helsinki. Finland has taken an active part in Erasmus, Comett and Tempus programmes, even before joining the European Union, and intends to be active through the new Socrates and Leonardo programmes.

In 1981 there were 650 international degree students in Finland; today there are more than 2,300. In 1992/93, Finland sent 400 students to Community countries, but now there are over 4,000 (1,140 of them in Britain, with Germany as the second most popular destination). Most popular areas of study are engineering, medicine, social sciences, languages, business studies and fine arts.

As yet, Britain receives more students than it sends. British students know less about Finland than Finns do about Britain. Finns are more flexible because their degrees take on average five years and their grants are portable, but opportunities for British students are increasing in number and accessibility as more courses are taught in English.

Two years ago there were 85 such degree programmes. Now more than 130 are conducted in English, at 21 universities and 22 (newly created) polytechnics, all listed in the latest guidebook of the Finnish Centre for International Mobility (known as CIMO).

Dual degrees and double qualifications are being developed, as pioneered by the University of Huddersfield and Vantaa Polytechnic. The Finnish Institute is keen to make the traffic more equal. Finnish universities, like ours, are now preoccupied with quality control and accountability, but against a different background. They have quite recently acquired more autonomy than they have ever had before. Only a few years ago parliament itself decided much of the detail of their business.

With so many institutions of higher education and such a small population (five million), they are now having to determine, without too much state interference, which universities should concentrate on which areas of research, playing on to their strengths to maintain and develop international standing. "Profilisation" is a common piece of jargon.

Although the recession has led to frozen higher education budgets overall, the ministry of education has managed to find more money for university centres of adult and continuing education. These centres have achieved a wide range of effective mechanisms for making university knowledge available to individuals, enterprises and communities. There is much in this sector for the two countries to learn from one another.

One of Finland's most internationally distinguished academics, Erik Allardt, chancellor of the Swedish-language University bo Akademmi in Turku, distances himself from politics, believing that universities are powerful institutions, stronger than the nation state. "Nation states come and go, but universities prevail." His short-term position is suggested by the title of one of his recent books, daring for a sociologist - Att ha, att alska, att vara (To have, to love, to be). "We should cultivate these qualitative dimensions more."

It is remarkable that the Conservative minister himself speaks in such similar terms. "In the Finnish educational debate, humanistic and scientific thinking are often seen to be mutually exclusive.

"I hope that the new rise of humanism will convince people that we need both . . . together with their mutually enriching interaction. Mere scientific and technological innovations are no longer enough. We also need social, ecological and aesthetic innovations and innovations in growth and learning. This challenge opens up a breathtaking view."

It is said that when the medieval Finnish students first attended the Sorbonne, there was a problem about where to place them. A solution was found. They clearly belonged in la maison anglaise. It is good that through the European Union we are once again in the same house.

Brian Groombridge, professor emeritus of adult education at the University of London, is joint vice chairman of the Finnish Institute in London.

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