Is Finland still a civilised state – greetings from SuomiAreena

12.07.2017

SuomiAreena, the summer event for societal discussion and the favourite festival of politics nerds, does not have education as a special theme this time. However, SuomiAreena does feature more discussion panels related to general knowledge, education and science than can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

What sort of picture do they sketch for the future of the higher education field?

Akava’s forebodingly named panel ‘Did general knowledge die out’ dealt with the role of higher education as a distributor of social equality, wealth and general knowledge. Education clearly protects and benefits individuals both now and in the future. Sipilä’s Government’s one degree policy was criticised by Professor of Sociology Juho Saari from the University of Tampere, who emphasised the importance of being able to easily change one’s field of study. Quotas for first-time applicants in student admissions and insufficient student financial aid may create a situation in which incorrect choices made at the age of 18 result in life-long burdens for students.

The panellists had differing opinions on the extent to which so called high-status fields, that is, professions such as medicine and law, run in the same families. Akava’s president, Sture Fjäder, told the audience how he – the son of a carpenter – could have a higher education and a good life because of free education. ‘All talk about having education be subject to charge should be stopped, because it takes us towards the wrong direction’, Fjäder unambiguously declared. Akava has not been known as a supporter of tuition fees even before this, but Fjäder has previously rarely been heard using as strong language as this for free education.

The discussion panel of the University of Helsinki, ‘What good is science’ approached the question posed in its title from many perspectives. Science is present in our everyday life in the form of easily digestible rye bread, for instance. It helps us spot bombs with particle detectors and builds bridges between the parties of conflicts. At the same time, it also reflects on what sort of ethics should be programmed into unmanned combat drones and other machines used in killing people. Research-based teaching also brings up our future experts. It is self-evident that this happens at the University, but one rarely stops to think that Finnish kindergartens and early childhood education are also products of science.

Ideally, basic research benefits everyone, but researchers also have the moral responsibility to consider the practical implications of their research results and to participate in societal discussion on their own field if needed. Researchers and politicians are jointly responsible for the decisions which are made to truly reflect researched information. Politicians’ work begins where researchers’ work ends, as former researcher and current member of parliament Pilvi Torsti aptly put it. Currently, the situation regarding the matter is far from ideal.

If Finland really wants to become the world’s best-educated society, we must not only secure funding for higher education, but also overcome obstacles outside the actual education institution. The panel of Akava Special Branches highlighted some worrisome developments concerning the significance of the library system. Young boys have dropped out from among library users, particularly in sparsely populated areas. At best, libraries can act as paragons of researched information in a world of fake news, and regularly using their services provides good preparation for a future career at the University. For this reason, libraries must find a way to reform themselves, so that they will attract young boys, too – without driving away other genders. Fortunately, the entire picture is not yet all that alarming: Researcher Jukka Relander states that despite smart devices, one-and-a-half times more books are currently read in Finland than in the 1980s.

The format is, of course, not the primary issue – electronic books contain the same information as paper versions. The main thing is that good information is separated from bad. Google offers you 100,000 alternative answers, whereas library desks give you one good one. This is further emphasised in the nature of university libraries as compilers of current information. Talking in Akava’s panel on general knowledge, Secretary General Kaisa Vähähyyppä from the Matriculation Examination Board managed to sum up the relevant issue: ‘Google is not enough, as you must understand what you find.’

The conclusion that might be drawn from all of this is that the rumours of the civilised state’s demise are greatly exaggerated. Work to cut off the wings from rumours continues in the future, too.

Heikki Isotalo
Specialist, educational policy
Heikki and a bunch of others from HYY are spending a week in Pori to attend SuomiAreena.

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