Learning from Finland: lessons for Australia’s vocational higher education future


16 July 2019

By 2023 Australia will need more workers qualified with a trade certificates than university degrees, yet still the government won’t commit to funding TAFE.

Andrew Scott - Professor of Politics and Policy at Deakin University

The Finnish approach to education recognises that many young people have vocational aptitudes that are not best fostered in a standard academic environment. Those young people’s attentions are engaged, and their enthusiasm aroused, by teaching methods different from those drawn from a tradition of book learning. Very many of those young people are highly intelligent in questioning the nature of practical mechanical and electronic phenomena: such as how car motors work. Their curiosity to find the answers to those questions can lead them on a journey of discovery, during which they come to acquire general skills and to understand abstract mathematical principles.

Australia can learn from Finland’s attainment of excellence with equity in its post- school educational institutions. This is in addition to the equitable and respected vocational learning opportunities provided in Finland’s secondary schools.5 The World Economic Forum’s report on ‘human capital’ and preparation of people for the future of work ranks Finland at number 2 in the world, behind only Norway, whereas

Australia is at number 20, as shown in Figure 1 below:

The same source shows that both countries have a high ‘tertiary education enrolment rate’: 87.3% in Finland and 90.3% in Australia; but whereas Finland’s ‘vocational enrolment rate’ is 71.3% (number 6 in the world), Australia’s ‘vocational enrolment rate’ is only 50.5% (number 22 in the world). Finland also spends 7.2% of GDP on education, compared with 5.2% in Australia.

There needs to be more affordable access in 21st century Australia to a range of quality higher education experiences which best suit the talents and interests of young

people. We do not, at present, properly recognise and resource vocational pathways. We need to achieve a better balance between ‘vocational’ – and ‘academic’ – learning. We have still to break free from the prejudice in many English-speaking countries against ‘vocational’ education as being somehow culturally inferior to ‘academic’ learning. The current costs of higher education in Australia are also prohibitive for many young people from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds. More support, including through careers advice, needs to be provided for young people who are suited to work in a skilled trade to pursue that pathway. Practical, incremental steps can be taken to provide that support which are informed by relevant overseas experience. Crucial first steps include restoring proper public funding of TAFE institutes in Australia.

Rebuilding public TAFEs

TAFE institutes need now to be placed on a more equal footing with universities to create a more coherent, less fragmented post-school education sector. While these two types of institutions should continue to play different roles – i.e. TAFEs to specialise in skills, and universities in research – there needs to be less status divisions, and greater co-operation, between them. TAFE institutes are the places in Australia in which mature-age workers can develop new skills after they leave one type of job to enter a different type of job. Those transitions range from retraining former retail workers to fill skill shortages of midwives, to adding to plumbers’ expertise so that they can take up expanding job opportunities in renewable energy.

The hybrid status of the ‘dual sector’ Australian universities complicates comparisons between Finland’s universities and polytechnics on the one hand, and Australia’s universities and TAFE institutes on the other hand. Nevertheless, the broad trends are very clear. Since the 1990s there has been a publicly funded further expansion of Finland’s polytechnics, now known as universities of applied science (UAS). By contrast, their closest equivalents in Australia – the TAFE institutes – have, in the same period, had their funding and enrolments reduced, and their programs undermined, by the rise of poor-quality privatised providers. It is startling to read how in Australia “in 1996, 98 per cent of students receiving publicly funded VET [Vocational Education and Training] were in TAFE (83 per cent) or not-for-profit community education providers (15 per cent), but by 2016 this had fallen to 49 per cent and 6 per cent respectively”.6

Another startling fact is that, since 2008, which was the year in which the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) decided to give private providers greater access to public funding, “publicly funded training hours in vocational education…in Australia…declined by almost 26% for TAFE…while they rose by 199% in private providers”.7 Experts who have advised governments on both sides of Australian politics, meanwhile, warn that “VET participation levels…[have undergone] a significant decline since 2012”, particularly among 15 to 24-year-olds. They argue that there is now an “urgent priority” for “governments…to act quickly and decisively to arrest the continuing decline in public investment in VET…and associated cost shifting to students”.8

An over-emphasis in Australia on academic university courses as the only desirable post-secondary education option has contributed to the downgrading of TAFE. It has also pushed many young people away from learning the vocational skills to which they are best suited. These trends run contrary to Federal government departmental projections of employment growth for the five years to 2023 which indicate that more jobs in that year will require Certificates II, III or IV, particularly the Certificate III awarded by TAFE institutes to tradespeople, than will require a bachelor degree or higher university qualification.9

Different but equal

Finland’s post-school education system is different to Australia’s, as illustrated in the diagram below. Finnish researchers say the country has 14 universities concentrating on basic research and education and 23 Universities of Applied Sciences focused on higher vocational learning and ‘R&D’ or applied research. There is a continuing binary diversity “between the university sector and the universities of applied sciences…the former polytechnics” in Finland, but in a less competitive and stratified way than other

countries which also have high participation in post-school learning.10

Further, “in…higher education, the role of trust…apparent in Nordic ideas of evaluation, especially in Finland…[can be seen in the] aim to use evaluation as an instrument of enhancement rather than an instrument of control and differentiation through the use of league tables”. This approach to evaluation is well-known in Finnish secondary schools and it is similarly important in post-secondary education. “Finnish governments emphasize the specific missions of each sector, steering horizontal differentiation (diversity) between them, rather than a status hierarchy…the key to [this]…is the low intensity of competition between higher education institutions…[and] emphases placed on cooperation…and parity of esteem between institutions.”11

Further, “the state follows the principle of ‘equal but different’ by producing both a skilled vocational labour force and a high-quality academic labour force. Together with the policy principle of life-long learning this is seen to serve better the needs of knowledge-based society than a single system of higher education based on vertical stratification of institutions”. The “potential for the ‘academic drift’ of polytechnics and the ‘vocational drift’ of universities was discussed in the 1990s when the UAS sector was established…However, during the 20 years of the existence of the UAS the dividing line between universities and UAS has remained clear and accepted by both sectors”.

Finland’s universities of applied science closely cooperate with workplaces and as part of regional development policies. They operate “very much like the Fachhochschule in Germany”. Also, “in Finland…distinctions are not so clearly connected to institutional status because unlike the situation in the United States where graduation from an Ivy League university is in itself a sufficient passport to the elite echelons of the labour market, in Finland differential jobs and salaries derive not from institutional reputation but mostly from the differences between disciplines and professions…[hence] institutional ‘brand’ plays a comparatively limited role in shaping socially stratified outcomes”.12

Does Australia want to be more Nordic or more American?

Australian expert Simon Marginson argues that the developed world can now choose between one of two approaches to higher education: one is Nordic, the other is American. “One is primarily social and egalitarian, the other primarily individual and meritocratic.” He shows that the American approach “works…well…for the minority who are successful, but…it works less well than does the Nordic…[approach] for the majority of people”. Marginson explains how “the Nordic countries in Europe are the most developed example” of countries which “have configured their higher education systems on a common good basis”. Public institutions are central to this. The question for Australia is “what is the prevailing balance” between the American and Nordic approaches – and “in which direction [is] that balance…moving”. He argues that “the way forward is…to lift the quality of…higher education, as in the Nordic world, so that inherited privilege becomes less socially decisive in education itself”.13

Marginson highlights how “in Nordic societies, unlike the United States or the United Kingdom,…higher education tend[s] to enhance social equality and mobility”. He compares “the odds of enrolling in higher education for two groups of 20-34-year- olds…those with at least one parent who attended tertiary education, and those neither of whose parents attended. On this measure, intergenerational mobility is…high in the Nordic world and low in the United States”, with “Americans from tertiary-educated families…6.8 times as likely to enter tertiary education compared to those from non-tertiary families, similar to the figure for England (6.3)”.14

The data on which Marginson draws shows that, in Australia, meanwhile, people with a tertiary-educated parent or parents are 4.3 times as likely to enter tertiary education than are people without a tertiary-educated parent. In Finland, by contrast, they are only 1.4 times as likely.15 Finland has thus achieved remarkable upward educational mobility for people from less privileged family backgrounds. Australia can clearly learn from this to further realise the full talents of our people on a basis of ability – rather than on a basis of inherited advantage. To reclaim “the way to higher education as common good” which “Anglo-American society has lost”, Australia, according to Marginson, needs to reduce its “steep hierarchy” of higher education institutions so that all qualifications are valued, as they are in Nordic nations. While, in Nordic countries, “there are mission distinctions between research-oriented universities and universities of applied sciences,… differences in resources are slight and status differentials are moderate”. Therefore “the Nordic countries show…that it is possible to sustain both…high-quality, research-intensive” universities and other effective institutions.16 This should now be our goal in Australia.

This is an extract from a briefing note ‘Degrees North – Vocational and University Education in Australia and Nordic countries which was published by the Australia Institute and circulated ahead of The Nordic Policy Centre’s roundtable discussion on building an equitable vocational pathway in Australia. AEU Federal President Correna Haythorpe and the new Federal TAFE Secretary Maxine Sharkey attended the roundtable.

5 See Pasi Sahlberg, Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?, Teachers College Press, Columbia University, New York, 2011, pp. 27-30; and Stephen Lamb, ‘Successful Provision of VET in Schools: Overseas Approaches, VOCAL: The Australian Journal of Vocational Education and Training in School, Vol. 7, 2008-2009, pp. 117-121.

6 Phillip Toner, ‘A Tale of Mandarins and Lemons: Creating the Market for Vocational Education and Training’, in Damien Cahill and Phillip Toner (eds), Wrong Way: How Privatisation and Economic Reform Backfired, La Trobe University Press in conjunction with Black Inc., Melbourne, 2018, p. 63.

7 Lisa Wheelahan, A Policy Framework to Support a New Social Settlement in TAFE, John Cain Foundation, Melbourne, 2019, p. 7.

8 Peter Noonan and Sarah Pilcher, Participation in Tertiary Education in Australia: Modelling and Scenario Analysis, Mitchell Institute, Melbourne, April 2018, pp. 5, 13, 10.

9 Computed from Australian Government Department of Jobs and Small Business data at: http://lmip.gov.au/default.aspx?LMIP/EmploymentProjections

10 Jussi Välimaa and Reetta Muhonen, ‘Reproducing Social Equality across the Generations: The Nordic Model of High Participation Higher Education in Finland’, in Brendan Cantwell, Simon Marginson and Anna Smolentseva (eds), High Participation Systems of Higher Education, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2018, passim and pp. 359, 358.

11 Ibid., pp. 369, 370, 365, 380, 368-369.

12 Ibid., pp. 381, 369, 379, 381, 369, 379, 380.

13 Simon Marginson, Higher Education and the Common Good, Melbourne University Publishing, Melbourne, 2016, pp. 15, 51, 267, 272.

14 Ibid., pp. 15, 72.

15 Source: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Education at a Glance 2014, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Paris, 2014, p. 93.

This article appeared in The Australian TAFE Teacher Winter 2019.