In with the new?

17 December 2010 | Letter from the Editors

Abckiria (‘ABC book’, 1543): the first Finnish book, a primer by the Reformation bishop Mikael Agricola, pioneer of Finnish language and literature

In August 2010 the American Newsweek magazine declared Finland (out of a hundred countries) the best place to live, taking into account education, health, quality of life, economic dynamism and political environment.

Wow.

In the OECD’s exams in science and reading, known as PISA tests, Finnish schoolchildren scored high in 2006 – and as early as 2000 they had been best at reading, and second at maths in 2003.

Wow.

We Finns had hardly recovered from these highly gratifying pieces of intelligence when, this December, we got the news that in 2009 Finnish kids were just third best in reading and sixth in maths (although 65 countries took part in the study now, whereas  in 2000 it had been just 32; the overall winner in 2009 was Shanghai, which was taking part for the first time.)

And what’s perhaps worse, since 2006 the number of weak readers had grown, and the number of excellent ones gone down.

All in all, though, the Finnish educational system has a good reputation. A recent article in the British Guardian newspaper claims that freedom and flexibility flourish in Finland: ‘every Finnish child gets a free school meal, and a free education, which extends to university level’.

It is worrying, though, to follow the news reporting of the 2010 university law. It separated the universities from the state, introducing a demand that universities raise their own funds: in addition to state funding, universities are now charged with raising private funds for capital investment whose profits they are free to use as they wish.

But, as it happens, until now fundraising appears to have favoured universities of technology and commerce. Simultaneously, courses in the humanities are disappearing all over the country as faculties are reorganised. The teaching of philosophy, for example, has ceased in eastern Finland. University employees have expressed doubts that monies raised from business won’t be distributed evenly;  as it happens, the majority of university board members come from outside academia.

In its visions of what the country should be doing in the future, a brand new report by Finland’s Country Brand Delegation, published this month and  entitled Consider it solved!, has lots to say about the positive effects of education of the past: ‘High-quality education based on equal opportunity has played a key role in the success story of Finnish society. Education has created prosperity, safeguarded democracy and evened out differences between regions and social classes.

‘Finnish basic [primary and secondary]  education is the best in the world. The next major objective is to get universities and higher education institutions up to that level – among the best in the world – where basic education already is.  – – Free higher education has in practice enabled students to change the selections they have made as well as change sector.’

But academic freedom and the choice of subjects has already now become more limited – for humanists in particular. On top of that, tuition fees are also coming to Finland: goodbye to free education, then?

Culture is based on education: if education narrows, so does culture.

As for the best place to live, according to a new report by Finland’s National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL), the quality of life in Finland is relatively high – but socio-economic differences have grown rapidly. The risk groups for the weakest quality of life are the unemployed between 18 and 25 years of age and old people over 80, who together make up 29 per cent – almost a third of the population. And now, in 2010, the number of children living below the poverty line is approximately the same as at the beginning of the 1970s. Unemployment is high among the young – more than 21 per cent, and growing.

What will happen in the future to the differences between social classes, formerly ‘evened out’ by Finland’s ‘high-quality education based on equal opportunity’? The danger is that the humanities will be defined as ‘unprofitable’. In that case, what will happen to those PISA results (the apple of the eye of so many Finnish politicians)? For not only culture, but of course the whole of primary and secondary education, depends on the humanities.

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*) You can download the whole report or parts of it, in English, Finnish or Swedish, by clicking the site address at the end of the Foreign Ministry page here.

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