Higher education is undergoing a revolution. Whereas the question at the heart of the university previously was what do you know, the core question in the future is what are your competencies. The curricula of the new degree programmes starting at the University of Helsinki in the 2017 autumn term must include learning outcomes: the content that students master either by completing the course or by having learned the content otherwise. In the future, students will ideally understand what kinds of knowledge and skills they master and how this know-how can help them in research or in working life outside the University.

Competencies are, of course, a built-in component of the pursuit of science: praxis – how and for what purpose theories are used – always goes alongside theory. Competence-based education does not change this principle – it emphasises understanding of competencies in connection to the learning process. Studying becomes more relevant than before, with thematic units being studied for their future use, not only for credits. Understanding of one’s own skills also positively affects self-efficacy beliefs.

Know what you can do

Self-efficacy beliefs (in Finnish) define what students believe they can survive. How many weeks of preparation do you need for an exam worth three credits? How easily can you get a job after graduation? The more realistic the image students have of their own skills, the better. Thus far, there has been the risk of students graduating from the university thinking they have not learned anything of use. Statistically, at least, this is not the case. Graduates of the University of Helsinki continue to get jobs that correspond to their level of education and get placed in positions at the very top of the scientific world.

General education increases competencies

Achieving the learning outcomes obviously requires good basic knowledge in the future too. Doctors can only tend to their patients if they understand the anatomy of the human body, biochemistry and physiology. Political scientists must know the culture, history and power structures of the surrounding society. A foundation of research and theory is a central part of the core idea of the Humboldtian university (in Finnish). Emphasising competencies does not conflict with the ideal of the Humboldtian university. Accumulating general knowledge is also a skill – the ability to conceive phenomena and to act in a complex world.

Learning outcomes should not remain on the pages of the curricula – they should actually be visible in studying every day. Teaching can be developed to suit students’ needs through learning outcomes, as the same outcomes can be reached with several different teaching methods. At the same time, unnecessary work decreases, when skills acquired outside formal education are learned to be recognised better and included in degrees. Achieving all of this does, of course, require pedagogical skills from the teachers.

Heikki Isotalo
Specialist, educational policy
Heikki is able to write a blog text in a single afternoon.