Harvard professor: Free education is Finland’s main asset

The financial impact of incoming international degree students is the best form of education export, claims Pasi Sahlberg, Professor of Education Policy.

Pasi Sahlberg, who recently began work as visiting professor of practice at Harvard Graduate School of Education, believes that the wishes of individual universities and companies should not be allowed to dominate the discussion about education export.

Statistics collected in the world leader of education export can help look at the bigger picture. “In New Zealand, 90% of the profit from education export is generated by the financial impact of incoming international degree students. Only about a third of this is accrued from tuition fees.”

Calculations from Australia and the UK support this claim: most of the profits are generated indirectly.

Consider the economy as a whole

“In my opinion, the data collected in the biggest countries of education export can be interpreted to indicate that Finland should keep its higher education free of cost. Free education attracts international students, particularly since both Denmark and Sweden charge tuition fees from students from outside the EU,” states Sahlberg.

He believes tuition fees could reduce the number of incoming international students so much that the final outcome would be a loss for the economy.

Even though the professor considers immigrating students and free degrees as the most important “education exports” of Finland, he believes other projects should also be supported. For example, Finnish legislation includes sections which hinder marketing degrees abroad or providing on-demand education in Finland. This should change.

Universities, unite!

According to Sahlberg, the universities themselves could take big steps forward in this area. Cities and educational institutions should join forces to really power up export.

“If our dream is to provide higher education outside Finland, we should combine our education offering into a couple of programmes and enlist top teachers from several universities. Clean tech could be a good topic.”

“At the moment, Finnish universities have adopted the attitude of basic education in the Anglo-American world. We expend energy on rankings, awards and penalties. We should look to comprehensive schools for an example of cooperative spirit."

People or labour?

Sahlberg believes that Finnish teacher education has a lot to give internationally. He has spent the past few years lecturing on the topic - in Bangkok, Hawaii, Singapore, Qatar, the United States, Germany, Denmark, Serbia, and so forth. The tour of 52 engagements was named after his 2011 best seller: Finnish Lessons.

“Our greatest success is a humanist view of children and young people. This is a long way from PISA scores, which are like the GNP: they measure growth and profits. From the perspective of the OECD and PISA, education is a way to produce skilled labour. This leaves little room for humanity and morality.

Boosted by the World Bank and the EU

In addition to his international speaking engagements, Sahlberg’s understanding of international education stems from his varied career and research work.

His longest international stints were spent working for the World Bank in Washington and the European Training Foundation in Torino, Italy.  Before heading to Harvard, he was based in Hakaniemi, at the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation CIMO, where Sahlberg served as the director general for four years.

He has accumulated degrees and research experience from the universities of Turku, Helsinki and Jyväskylä. From the University of Helsinki, he holds a subject teacher's degree and a docentship in education.