A dynamic polytechnic sector with a status on a par with universities attracts many students and prepares them to succeed in the knowledge economy, says John Pratt
It is hard not to be impressed by education in Finland. Its students are among the best in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), and the higher education participation rate approaches 70 per cent.
One reason for this success is the policy of education for a knowledge society that the country adopted in the early 1990s. Finland's economy was in decline, and unemployment reached 17 per cent in 1994. The Government's response involved improving labour productivity - it introduced a high-wage strategy to increase output - and promoting knowledge-intensive business.
It also developed a dual system of higher education and a large polytechnic sector. The Government set out to double participation in higher education and to transform its output by expanding and upgrading vocational and professional education. It experimented with amalgamating vocational colleges to create 22 polytechnics ( Ammattikorkeakoulut ) alongside the 20 traditional universities. By 2000, the experiment was made permanent. There were 29 AMKs enrolling 58 per cent of all new higher education students. This was a substantial achievement by any standards.
The polytechnics focus on more vocational education and the training of "high-quality experts in working life". The four-year AMK courses lead to a bachelors-level degree, as opposed to the five-year masters offered at universities. They aid regional development as many AMKs are owned by municipalities and there is co-operation with small and medium-sized enterprises.
According to a 2003 review by the OECD, the policy was "remarkably successful". AMKs offer about 150 degree programmes in seven broad sectors of study.
Assessments by the Finnish Higher Education Evaluation Council frequently use the term "dynamic" to characterise the polytechnics' experience. Staff qualifications have been improved. International comparability - always a concern for a small country on the edge of Europe - is also better than it was, as demonstrated by the attraction of students from other countries.
Building on this success, the Government has permitted AMKs to develop postgraduate programmes. After much controversy, these now lead to masters degrees. Finland appears to have sustained a genuinely differentiated higher education system with two distinctive and complementary sectors.
For all its success, the policy is not without its problems. As in Britain, universities were at first loath to recognise an alternative form of higher education. They have been reluctant to give adequate recognition to AMK graduates on university masters programmes.
Employers are anxious about an oversupply of graduates, and they and others claim that some aspects of technical and vocational education are neglected. The relationship with the municipalities and regions is not always smooth, and there is a high dropout rate.
Maintaining a dual system in Finland has been made more difficult by the success of the policy and of the Bologna Process. When AMKs were established, they were the only institutions that offered bachelors degrees; since Bologna, most Finnish universities do. AMKs now also offer masters programmes, although they are mostly part-time schemes for mature students. But some universities are also entering this market. The dual system is thus challenged by "vocational drift". The challenge for the polytechnics - and for the Government - is to maintain the distinction between the broad aims of the two sectors while recognising that a difference of purpose does not necessarily imply a difference of status.
John Pratt is emeritus professor of institutional studies at the University of East London. He chaired the OECD Policy Review of the Finnish Polytechnics (2003) and the International Evaluation of the AMKs' postgraduates programmes (2004).