01 - Finland - Historical overview

University Education

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) on 1.8.2005.

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 training.

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.

Eurydice - the information network on education in Europe

Date: 2009
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