Monday, 18 April 2016

Comparing Finnish universities: A new tool for students

Very occasionally, hidden government bureaucracy makes new and interesting information accessible to service users. It’s not widely known, but this is now the case for Finnish universities.

In the United Kingdom, a large and public industry exists for comparing and ranking universities. Overall rankings and subject-specific ranking lists – like the Sunday Times Good University Guide or the Guardian University Guide – are standard tools for British universities, and they are now joined by a large number of other measures, from the WhatUni? Student Choice Awards[1] (where rankings are determined by asking students to score the university) to the University Free Speech Rankings[2] (where universities are scored based on their attitudes to controversial speakers or unpopular newspapers). These lists are usually intended to help students choose universities, and help universities differentiate themselves on their particular priority areas.

Finnish universities and polytechnics are less experienced at differentiating themselves. Traditionally, a Finnish university has attracted applicants mainly by its location, or perhaps by offering a degree in an unusual subject. However, it now seems that a comparison tool is on the horizon for those prospective students who want to know if the university cares about the student experience. Finnish universities and polytechnics are beginning to use sophisticated methods of Quality Assurance[3], and clever students will use the public quality audit reports to examine their options.

Of course, the demand for information has been a response to the “consumerisation” of higher education. Tuition fees were introduced in England in 1998, and increased in 2006 and 2012, to their current level of £9,000 pounds (€11,500) per academic year. Now, 18 years after the introduction of tuition fees, and 4 years after the last major increase in the fee level, it is clear that students are demanding value for money.

British students, when choosing which universities to apply to, are intimately aware of the university’s academic ranking and its prestige in the eyes of employers, but also increasingly the quality of the student experience. Crucially, the attention of students does not focus only on simple pleasures, such as sports facilities and local nightlife, but also on serious things, such as the quality of careers advice, or whether the university in fact listens to the student voice and makes changes in response.

Finnish applicants are now starting to have similar information at their disposal[4]. All Finnish universities and polytechnics underwent a quality assurance audit between 2005 and 2012. The current, second, round of audits is underway, to conclude by 2018. An institution, on passing the audit, is given a quality label that is valid for 6 years, and a detailed report is issued about its efforts.

In Finland, like it did in the UK, quality concerns coincide with the introduction of tuition fees. From 2016, overseas students at Finnish universities will be required to pay a minimum of €1,500 (£1,173) per academic year. Both universities and polytechnics are increasingly aware that they are in competition for both good students and good staff. Priorities are being quietly set as we speak, through extremely dull and bureaucratic, but rather powerful, quality assurance processes.

Current Quality Assurance in Finnish higher education largely resembles that of the British Quality Assurance Agency (QAA): continuous, systematic, and evidence-based periodic reviews, done by independent experts who work in the higher education sector.

However, there is one major difference between the two systems. In the UK, Quality Assurance is almost exclusively focused on the quality of the student experience. Staff recruitment or career progression are not part of the process. Neither is the potential for the institution to export its good practice to other countries, or indeed its contributions to wider society.

In Finland, Quality Assurance processes cover a far wider range of topics. Each audit must address how well the university or polytechnic carries out all the statutory duties of a Finnish higher education institution:

1. University-level degree education;
2. Research, development and innovation activities (RDI), as well as artistic activities;
3. Societal impact and regional development work.

In addition, each Finnish university or polytechnic may choose an optional target, which gives interesting information about the institution’s priorities. The self-selected targets – which are set for six years at a time, an eternity in the fast-changing world of education – speak volumes about each university’s long-run priorities.

To date, 8 Finnish universities and 10 polytechnics have declared their chosen targets for 2014-2021. Polytechnics (ammattikorkeakoulut) are clearly prioritising student professional development and entrepreneurial skills. Universities (yliopistot) split their priorities evenly between staff recruitment and career development on the one hand, and the student experience on the other. Of the Finnish universities that have already declared their priority area, only one – Jyväskylä – has chosen to focus on the employability of its students.

On the contrary, in the UK, the Quality Assurance Agency sets the themes nationally. For example, in 2015, every UK Higher Education institution was required to give a detailed report of its efforts on either Student Employability or Digital Literacy. In other words, it is impossible to study in a British university in 2016 without receiving some training in either professional or digital skills.

Today’s students, in Finland and elsewhere, are competing with a global labour force. Graduates from other countries will not only be trained in academic theories and technical problem-solving, but also in professional skills and highly employable behaviours. Finnish universities have not traditionally marketed themselves as preparing students for the real world. It is right that students have access to comparative information about the commitment of universities and polytechnics to student success.

The new procedures of Quality Assurance are, I hope, only the first step in Finnish universities’ strategic transparency. The existence of open, committed, and honest long-term priorities is a direct improvement in the student experience. The first step has been taken. I would welcome more.

Dr Marianna Koli is Senior Lecturer and Head of the Faculty of Economics at New College of the Humanities, London. She has previously taught at the University of Manchester and the University of Birmingham.