on February 25, 2013 by Irena Smith in Uncategorized, Comments (0)

Free for All?

Hello again from Finland! I hope everyone has survived their midterms. They don’t have midterms in Finland… not to rub it in or anything.

Beyond testing practices, one of the most obvious differences between the Canadian and Finnish education systems is that higher education is free. Indeed, peoples’ eyes go wide when I tell them about my yearly tuition fees and ever-growing debt (gulp). Their concern for my financial situation goes beyond just pity. What is truly interesting to me is the way that Finnish people defend free education as an integral part of their culture.

I’ve been following Finnish news since I arrived, and it’s an interesting time for someone keen on observing education systems. The Finnish system is undergoing a bit of a shift right now, as the political spectrum moves right in the wake of the global financial crisis. While education remains free and open for Finnish students, there are many Members of Parliament questioning whether this privilege should be extended to foreigners. They have proposed a bill that would see non-EU students charged tuition fees. Further, Finland has stopped holding matriculation exams in many developing countries, citing that students recruited in those countries cannot afford to support themselves and contribute to Finnish society. The divisiveness of these issues cannot be understated. Yle, a Finnish news website, listed the end of matriculation exams as their most read news story in 2012, and, due to interest in the event, my University’s debate club organized three separate nights to publicly discuss the introduction of tuition fees. These changes to the education system are on the forefront of Finnish people’s mind.

From what I can tell, the debate around the education system is part of a wider pattern of national soul-searching. Finland is deciding what kind of country it wants to be in the context of an austere Europe and a globalized world. Immigration is a fairly new phenomenon here – Finland only really opened its borders as late as the 1970s, and Finns are constantly struggling over how to best handle it. But despite these changes and political difficulties, there are many who assert that achieving equality through education is part of the Finnish national identity, and has to be preserved for anyone who enters the country. Another strong argument opposing the changes is that educated people better a society, and it shouldn’t matter where they are from.

Beyond all else, I find it really inspiring to be in a country where education policy is the number one news story. And though economic considerations factor heavily in the debate, very nuanced and philosophical discussions about the right to education are also prominent. Regardless of what happens in Parliament, could this be the key to Finland’s “best education system”? Finns take education very, very seriously – not just as a means to better ones’ self and get a job, but as a cornerstone of society. Would similar changes to Canada’s education policy foster such interesting debates? The U of S’s current financial situation grabbed CBC headlines for a few weeks – but that was about money, not about the theoretical benefits of supporting higher education. Does the average Canadian value education in the same way as the average Finn? And, does this societal attitude actually have the potential to better their education system in tangible ways?

Once again, no answers, but I’d be curious to hear your thoughts, especially on the Canadian perspective! I know it can be too easy to criticize the familiar.

Until next time, comrades in learning!