on January 21, 2013 by Irena Smith in Uncategorized, Comments (0)

Finnish Masters

Hello again, fellow comrades in learning. I’ve heard it feels like – 41 in Saskatoon today. When I tell my new friends here in Finland, they don’t believe me! Stay warm, friends.

In this post I’d like to discuss the prevalence of Masters degrees here in Finland. One of the frequently cited facts backing Finland’s claim to the best education system in the world is the large number of students that attain Masters degrees. Indeed, according to one of my professors (so this is an “unofficial” statistic), its nearly 100%. According to the OECD, in 2008 around 62% of Finns had a University-level education. So if we combine these two statistics, it can be safe to say that over half of the population has a Masters degree.

If you know a little bit more about the Finnish education system, this isn’t as surprising as it sounds. Bachelor and Masters degrees are actually integrated here – so you enter into a Bachelors program with your Masters program already in mind. You are supposed to complete your Bachelors degree in three years and your Masters in two years – so five years in total, though most students take up to six to complete it. The integrated approach means that in your third year of your Bachelors degree, you can begin taking Masters courses, or in the first year of your Masters degree you can still be finishing up Bachelors courses. For example, I myself am taking a Food and Development course that is designed for Masters students, but due to my upper-year standing in a Development Studies program I was able to enroll without any hassle or override forms.

The fact that so many students get a Masters degree sounds impressive, but I was curious, what does this really mean for the student in the classroom? Unfortunately, the overriding consensus I’ve heard from students is not as rosy as you might think. Most students are happy for the opportunity to take more upper-level and challenging courses, but it makes their futures simultaneously more concrete and more uncertain. What do I mean by this? Their future is more concrete in that they decide their five-year (or often six-year) path right after graduating from high school. One complaint I heard in this regard is that it is all but impossible to get your Masters and Bachelors degrees from different institutions. The Finnish University system is highly networked, so it’s possible to take courses from other Finnish universities, but if you want to get a Masters degree abroad, you basically have to get a second one. Finnish student’s futures are more uncertain in that, in terms of setting yourself apart, Masters degrees achieve little. Just as I’ve heard that Bachelors are being degraded to the level of a high school diploma in Canada, Masters are the new Bachelors degrees in Finland. This means that to really set yourself apart as an “expert,” you have to commit to a PhD, which is another 4-5 years of highly intensive research. Luckily for Finns, the unemployment rate is quite low, and the highly functioning and developed state means that most University grads don’t have much trouble finding a job. Indeed, according to Statistics Finland, the unemployment rate amongst University grads is only 3.7%. But what it really boils down to for most Finnish students is that writing “M.Sc” behind your name doesn’t count for much.

So all of this left me wondering – am I happy that I get to choose whether or not I do a Masters degree? Am I happy I can choose a completely different institution if I wish to? What is a Masters degree worth in Canada, and will it really set me apart if I choose to pursue one? Do these choices really make a difference, and are Finnish students just complaining because “the grass is always greener?” And thinking even bigger – what does this do for society, to have over half the population that are highly educated in a specific field? We shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming that because Masters degrees are common, the programs are of lower quality. Masters students in Finland work just as hard as students in Canada, and come out with an equal depth of knowledge. But is an educated society worth the price of my currently wide-open future? I’m beginning to see that this is really the crux of the social-democratic state – it is completely reasonable to ask people to sacrifice some of their personal freedom and mobility, if it is for the betterment of society as a whole.

I’m curious what your initial response to this system is! Are you planning on getting a Masters degree? Are you going to stay at the U of S to do so? Do you think having highly educated citizens improves a society, or does it just mean a few extra pieces of high-quality parchment floating around? ‘Til next time!