The Education Minister, a former Olympic medallist, is determined to surmount any hurdles and give Finland a world-class tertiary sector, he tells Raili Seppänen
Antti Kalliomäki, Finland's Minister for Education, is no stranger to competition. The 59-year-old was a national pole vault champion and the winner of a silver medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. He may have to draw once more on his competitive streak in his efforts to drive through structural and economic reforms in education before the general election in March 2007.
The centre-left Government has outlined a number of key areas for change.
Many of these - such as the structural reform plan, which involves merging several universities and polytechnics into larger higher education institutes - have not been well received by institutions.
Although there has never been any question of merging universities with polytechnics, the general feeling among the institutes is that their reservations have not been heard, even though they acknowledge that some form of closer co-operation, be it at institutional or regional level, is inevitable.
A working group set up by the ministry proposed, among other things, the creation of Helsinki University of Arts, a dedicated arts institution formed by the merger of three arts-related higher education institutes in the city. Although this is generally accepted as a workable concept, there remain strong doubts about merging universities that are not city neighbours.
Kalliomäki argues that mergers are necessary not only to boost productivity and efficiency in higher education but also to improve its international competitiveness. He admits that an institute's size alone is no guarantee of its quality, but he says it is a crucial factor. "It is an advantage in the field of international co-operation as well as when bidding for funding," Kalliomaki says.
Although he does not wish to declare an optimum number of higher education institutes for Finland, he is convinced that there are too many at the moment. There are 20 universities and 29 polytechnics - or one higher education institute for every 100,000 inhabitants.
For the past two decades or so, internationalisation has been a key element of Finland's education policy. The Government aims to raise the number of foreign students (from within Europe and beyond) to 12,000 by 2010, an increase of more than 42 per cent on 2004. However, the number of foreign students and teachers remains very low, as was pointed out in an assessment report on Finland's tertiary education published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in September.
Kalliomäki is well aware of the record. "The fact is that we have not been successful enough in attracting foreign teachers, researchers and students."
The task is made even more difficult because it is hoped - even generally expected - that students and academics who come to Finland will choose to live there and contribute to Finnish society.
In a recent paper on the challenge of globalisation for Europe and Finland, Richard Baldwin of the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva argues that graduates will not be secure from global competition.
Kalliomäki disagrees. Although he acknowledges that competition is a factor that must be considered, he says: "I do not think that the worst-case scenario, where graduates no longer enjoy protection against global competition, will necessitate fundamental changes in Finnish higher education policy."
The best way to meet the challenges of globalisation is to invest in continuing education and training for the entire population, he argues. "Education is our best asset," he states.
Charging tuition fees to students from outside the European Union/European Economic Union remains a contentious issue. The idea is broadly supported by the universities, which believe that the money raised by doing so could help them improve their position in the global market, and by the business sector, which considers it unreasonable to sponsor foreign students through general domestic taxation.
Last year, just before Kalliomäki became minister, a working group presented a report arguing in favour of asking non-EU/EEU students to pay tuition fees. Soon afterwards, a Bill implementing the proposal was presented to parliament. But earlier this year, it was dropped when no agreement could be reached on a scholarship scheme that would guarantee gifted but impoverished foreign students the opportunity to study in Finland.
Kalliomäki is not opposed to tuition fees for foreign students, and he believes that they will be introduced at some point. He is, however, firmly against any suggestion of charging tuition fees for Finnish or other EU students. And he wants to ensure that any change to the legislation is introduced only after a political consensus is reached.