01 - Finland - Historical overview
Finland’s first university was founded in Turku in 1640. At the beginning of the 19th century, it was
moved to Helsinki and it remained Finland’s only institution of higher education until 1908, when the
present Helsinki University of Technology was founded. Between 1910 and 1920, a Finnish-language
and a Swedish-language university were both established in Turku. The new needs of business and
industry were answered in the 1950’s and 1960s with the creation of institutions specialising in the
fields of economics and technology. At that time, the scope of the higher education system was fairly
narrow and, in geographical terms, it was mainly concentrated in Southern Finland.
The 1960s and 1970s witnessed rapid growth and regional expansion of the higher education system.
The pressure to expand educational opportunities was fuelled by rapid economic growth, an increase
in the number of people with general upper secondary education, high demand for academically
educated labour in working life as well as demand for educational equality. The aim was to offer
university education to one fifth of each age group. The university network also expanded to Eastern
and Northern Finland. Other important educational decisions were also being made: all teacher training
was incorporated into universities and education in the arts was introduced at university level.
In the mid-1960s, Parliament passed the first Higher Education Development Act for the years 1966 to
1981. The act’s validity was later extended through until 1986. The purpose of the Act was to ensure
the steady growth of resources for higher education (i.e. universities), to increase the number of study
places, in particular in technology, natural sciences and medicine, as well as to increase regional
equality and ensure the international compatibility of the system. The new Higher Education
Development Act came into force at the beginning of 1987. On the basis of the Act, the first
Government Resolution on the Development of the Higher Education System was drawn up for
1986–91; it guaranteed universities a significant increase in resources during this period. The
legislation and the development plan also prepared the ground for internal reform of the higher
education system, and there was a clear shift in the universities’ steering from steering through
legislation to steering by results.
The first centres for continuing education were established in universities in the 1970s; in the 1980s, all
Finnish universities had one. These centres organise open instruction according to the universities’ own degree
requirements and provide professional continuing education for those with academic degrees.
In the 1990s, the starting point for developing the university system has been to improve the quality of
all activities. The most recent structural changes include the Academy of Fine Arts gaining university
status in 1993 and the College of Veterinary Medicine, previously an independent university, being
annexed as a faculty of the University of Helsinki in 1995.
A two-tier degree structure was introduced in August 2005. It divided the former Master’s level
undergraduate degree programmes into separate Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees.
Previously Bachelor-level degrees were not compulsory, and the majority of students went directly to
Master’s courses. National credit allocation and accumulation systems in universities were replaced by
a system based on the principles of the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS)
Professionally Oriented Higher Education
The concept of higher education was defined in very narrow terms in Finland up until the 1990s: the
university system based on the combination of science and instruction was synonymous with the
higher education system. Vocational post-secondary education and training was provided in colleges.
As universities only offered a place to one in five members of each age group and one in three of those
eligible for higher education, this led to pressure to increase the proportion of vocational education and
The early 1990s saw the launch of the development of a professionally oriented higher education
sector into the Finnish education system. The goals included raising the level of education and
upgrading vocational post-secondary education into higher education degrees. In 1992, the first 22
temporary polytechnics (institutions of vocational higher education) were established by combining 85
educational institutions, which had previously provided vocational post-secondary education, and by
upgrading their education to meet the standards of higher education. By virtue of legislation issued in
1995, however, the system was made permanent and the Government granted a permanent operating
licence to the first nine polytechnics. Since then, permanent operating licences have been granted
each year. Since 1 August 2000, all polytechnics have operated on a permanent basis.
The polytechnics act (351/2003) approved in 2003 clarified the status and functions of polytechnics.
The role of the polytechnics in the education system is now defined so that the polytechnics, jointly
with universities, form the institutions of higher education. The functions of polytechnics are specified
by legislation as teaching, research, development and local area role. Adult education is also
emphasised in the new Act: by investing more extensively in adult education, the polytechnics take
part in developing the rapidly changing world of work and will thus be able to respond to the changing
requirements and needs for development in professional skills.
The issue of the necessity for postgraduate polytechnic degrees first emerged in 1997 and a related
proposal was submitted to the Minister of Education in early 1998. The decision on the postgraduate
degrees was taken two years later, at the beginning of 2000. The Act on the Trials of Polytechnic
Postgraduate Degrees (645/2001) was approved on 13 July 2001 and it came to force on 1 January
2002. The Ministry of Education granted permission to 20 polytechnics to begin trial degree
programmes at the beginning of 2002. More polytechnics were included during 2003. Since 1 August
2005, after the trial period was successfully completed, all polytechnics have started to offer
polytechnic Master's degrees in Finland.
Polytechnic Master's degrees are intended for people who have completed a polytechnic degree or
another applicable Bachelor's level degree and have obtained at least three years of work experience
in their field after the completion of the degree. These degrees are determined on the basis of working
life needs and implemented in line with the objectives of adult education.
Credit allocation and accumulation systems in polytechnics were replaced by a system compatible with
the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) on 1.8.2005.
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