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The educational expansion in Finland

Nordic countries have a tradition of state control of higher education, and participation has been free of charge due to the view of higher education as a social good. Finland has performed very well in school achievements: in 2000, 2003 and 2006 the country was ranked first in the PISA assessments in reading literacy, mathematics and science, respectively. This set-up motivates the analysis of the Finnish education system.

Although basic education had become compulsory for everyone in the 1920s, the exceptions allowed for the municipalities in providing education services and the economic harshness during the 1930s had made educational levels still low in Finland in the inter-war period. Since the 1960s, the supply of education increased rapidly on all levels. In the 1970s nine years of compulsory primary education were introduced, which is usually also seen as the beginning of a truly egalitarian schooling system and the laying of the basis for a knowledge-society. After that, youngsters could go on to the secondary level, either to an institute of vocational training or continue in secondary school, after which they could continue at the tertiary level. This has also been the aim of educational policies since then, supported by student grants and student loans.

In the 1960s around 90 per cent of the population still had no further education, but only some sort of primary education. By 1970, already 20 per cent of the population had completed some vocational training, and among the younger age groups the level of education started to rise very rapidly. Intergenerational comparisons show this rapid growth: in 1980, already 54 per cent of the youngster cohort (25-29) had completed some further vocational or higher education, but only 13 per cent of those exceeding 65.

This late, but extremely rapid expansion was a result of growing belief among politicians and authorities of the importance of human capital investment as a source of growth. Such ideas were also influenced by the policies during the Golden Age, when human capital and growth theories evolved. Some authors argue that the driving forces behind Finnish universal mass higher education were, on the one hand, changes in the structure of society, and on the other hand, individual demand for education and increased need for skills in production processes. Nevertheless, the actual location of universities in the era of expansion was a function of local political actors who were able to have an influence on ruling political parties, thus, regionalism played a crucial role. The idea of equal opportunities in education also became more pronounced, as a consequence of policies to reduce inequality. This has meant that education on all levels has been publicly funded, and free of charge, becoming an important route for social mobility of individuals.

The publicly funded educational investments were of great significance with respect to the development of the business sector: technical education on all levels, in vocational schools, in technical institutes and technical universities, was regarded as particularly important. The proportion of degrees in technical and natural science in relation to all degrees has for a long time been higher in Finland than in other OECD countries (in 2010, 24 percent of the students were graduated in engineering, the highest value among the EU-27). Since the 1960s, business schools and business colleges expanded at a rapid pace.

In sum, the great belief in education as a source of growth has also been an argument for making education of all types, including higher education primarily intended for business life, publicly funded.


Fellman, S., Jes Iversen, M., Sjögren, H., Thue, L. Creating Nordic Capitalism: the Business History of a Competitive Periphery

Fellman and Lindholm (1996) Statistical Yearbook

International Institute for Educational Planning:

Saarivirta, T. Finnish Higher Education Expansion and Regional Policy, Article first published online: 9 APR 2010

Nuno Lourenço, 85

Author: studentnovasbe

Master student in Nova Sbe

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