Global success, Suomi-style: Finns take you higher more cheaply and easily

The university sectors of Norway, the Netherlands and Finland are models for the international community when it comes to accessibility and affordability, a new analysis suggests.

November 4, 2010

The Global Higher Education Rankings 2011: Affordability and Accessibility in Comparative Perspective is published by the Canada-based Higher Education Strategy Associates and rates accessibility and affordability in 15 countries' academies.

On affordability, Finland is ranked top, followed by Norway and Germany, while England is ranked 11th and the US 12th. The report says England has the worst ratio of loans to grants of any of the countries assessed bar Japan, which provides no grants at all.

Finnish higher education is also rated as the most accessible, followed by that of the Netherlands, Norway and the US. England comes eighth in this measure.

"If you look at the statistics for educational achievements for students aged 15, Finland tops that, too," said Alex Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy Associates, adding that "something very interesting is going on throughout the Finnish educational system".

He said it had been difficult to measure accessibility on a consistent basis across the countries, especially comparing the make-up of the student body with the population as a whole, because governments monitor such issues differently.

"For instance, the Americans look at race and the French refuse to look at race," Mr Usher said. "There are very few good student surveys."

The report explains that accessibility and affordability are ranked separately because there can be large discrepancies between how countries fare in each.

"There are places such as Germany where I think there is a widespread assumption that because something is free or close to free it must be accessible," Mr Usher said.

In fact, Germany is ranked third for affordability, but 11th in terms of accessibility.

The report also includes some "back of the envelope" calculations on the possible outcomes for England of the recent review of university funding led by Lord Browne of Madingley.

It warns that if the cap on tuition fees is lifted without generous maintenance grants, England could sink to the bottom of the affordability table alongside Japan.

However, this scenario looks unlikely as David Willetts, the universities and science minister, has said that the government is "looking closely at the Browne recommendations for a more generous maintenance grant, supplemented by a more generous loans package".

Mr Usher suggested that such measures were even more important in Western nations because of the different cultural approaches to paying for university education.

"Asian families save a tremendous amount of money for their kids - up to a third of their income. That's a long-term, deeply ingrained cultural practice," he said.

"In North America and the UK, we've had 60-odd years of the welfare state and we don't save, because there is a social safety net. You can't just wish a saving culture into existence; it takes decades."

sarah.cunnane@tsleducation.com.

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