Section 1. Introduction to the Finnish education system
Aija Elg, University teacher, Aalto University
Noora Helkiö, University teacher, Aalto University
The key question: What are the main principles on which the Finnish education system is built?
Equal and high-quality educational opportunities for all citizens
In Finland, education is considered a fundamental right, enshrined in the Constitution. The aim of education is to provide equal and high-quality educational opportunities for all citizens, where quality, efficiency, equality, and internationalization are key. Education in Finland is free of charge, and learning is considered to continue throughout one’s life. Education also plays a key role in maintaining the competitiveness and well-being of citizens. The Finnish school system aims to enable progress from one level to another. For example, there are many different routes to university.
Learning, not testing, is at the heart of education. In Finnish primary schools, pupils are not tested with national standardized examinations; rather, teachers handle assessment in their own subject. Assessment is based on the learning goals established in the curriculum. The only national test is matriculation examinations, which are held in upper secondary schools. No ranking lists are compiled for schools.
Most education is publicly funded and free of charge at all levels. Although universities currently charge tuition fees for students from outside the European Union, some universities have developed a comprehensive scholarship system that guarantees free tuition for non-EU students. In primary and secondary schools, school materials and meals are also free of charge. Students can also obtain scholarships and low-cost study loans. In addition, financial support is available for full-time students in upper secondary and higher education.
Teachers are experts in their fields
The Finnish school system is based on trust. The political consensus in Finland is that society is responsible for supplying quality education for all and ensuring that students do not drop out. Addressing the needs of diverse learners is the responsibility of the entire school community, not just the teacher. Where appropriate, school psychologists, guidance counsellors, and teachers work in a multi-professional team with parents.
With the exception of early childhood education, where a bachelor's degree is sufficient, teachers are expected to hold at least a master's degree. As the teaching profession has traditionally been one of the most popular occupations in Finland, access to universities’ teacher training programmes is difficult. Those wishing to become teachers must apply through a selection process, and the best candidates are also interviewed. Only around 10 % of applicants are accepted to study to become teachers.
In the Finnish school system, teachers are trusted, which is reflected, for example, in the elevated level of responsibility they hold for formulating local and school-specific curricula and developing teaching. They can have a say on the teaching materials and methods they use. Research shows that Finnish teachers highly value this kind of teacher autonomy.
The Finnish model of education
Certain factors related to learning crosscut the Finnish education system from basic education to higher education. What is applied in the pedagogical planning is constructivist approach to knowledge, according to which learners process and interpret new knowledge based on their old knowledge structures, thus expanding and deepening their knowledge structures.
Students’ initiative and activity are emphasized from the very beginning. This means that students can be, for example, involved in planning their own learning tasks and assessing their own learning and that of their peers. Assessment methods are varied. Project work is favoured to help students learn to work in different teams. Working together is a prerequisite for many things – everyone is respected equally, and cultural diversity is valued. Projects are often cross-curricular and involve teachers from different subjects working together. The drive to master cross-curricular topics and issues reflects the need to understand the world outside the classroom in a broad and diverse way.
Learner agency and the development of thinking skills are emphasized. Creative and critical thinking is encouraged and included throughout the education system. The wide range of activities in schools also includes problem solving individually and with peers. Digital skills and the processing of knowledge are practiced throughout the learning pathway. Building a sustainable future and teaching in line with the principles of sustainable development plays a key role in Finnish schools, regardless of the education level.
The role of higher education in building a sustainable future
Two types of higher education institution exist in Finland: universities and universities of applied sciences. Universities emphasize scientific research, while universities of applied sciences are seen as slightly more practical institutions that are strongly integrated into working life. However, both institutions share a common goal: to train responsible and courageous future-makers and top experts in their fields, who will strive to build a sustainable future.
Finnish universities are based on high-quality, high-impact research and teaching. Their strategies include references to openness, courage, and community. These shared values crosscut the work of Finnish universities, which, through open-mindedness and responsible knowledge construction, are key agents for meeting the challenges of the future. Finnish universities are valued as conversation pioneers and trailblazers in a society that requires research-based knowledge and decisions based on that knowledge. Creating a sustainable future is one of the key challenges to which Finnish higher education is currently seeking answers and innovations in an open, ethical, independent, and interactive way.
Sustainable solutions, radical creativity, and an entrepreneurial mindset are key principles at Aalto University. These principles aim to support new ways of thinking in an ever-changing world. Courage entails curiosity and persistence. For example, Aalto University’s strategy describes the entrepreneurial mindset as follows: “Entrepreneurial capabilities – courage and curiosity to find new ways to create value, taking ownership of your work, having intrinsic motivation, owning up to your mistakes and tenaciously getting back up again – can and should be applied to anything one does.”
Finnish universities are highly international. Appreciation of other cultures comes from understanding and acceptance, which enable diverse interaction and joint problem-solving in a critically changing world. Internationality is one of the cornerstones of Aalto University: the university contains students from over 100 countries and more than 500 partner universities around the world. The number of international staff and students has grown rapidly over the past decade – according to the Times Higher Education University Ranking, Aalto University was the 40th most international university in the world in 2022.
Universities value the well-being of those who work and study there. Hierarchies between students and staff, for example, are quite low. The well-being and success of a community is built on the well-being of individuals. Universities promote inclusion and cooperation with others in many ways. Finnish higher education strives for equality and the opportunity for everyone to participate, but further work is required to encourage young people with an immigrant background, for example, to apply for university studies.
The development of teaching is continuous and research-based to better meet the needs of both students and the future. As such, it recognizes the student as a skilled, critical individual with a strong sense of well-being and encourages continuous learning.
Discover Finland’s Higher Education and wide range of study programmes in English: Frontpage | Study in Finland
Finnish National Agency for Education: Finnish education in a nutshell | Finnish National Agency for Education (oph.fi)
Ministry of Education and Culture: Finnish education system - OKM - Ministry of Education and Culture, Finland
Last modified: Thursday, 6 April 2023, 9:38 AM