Director of Policy and Foresight for Aalto, Jari Jokinen.

It’s a changing world. Many of us have been exchange students and fought tedium in a math class, but now they are transplanting educational systems and adopting computer games for learning – as Finnish exports.

On 16 August, Finland’s national broadcaster YLE reported that Minister of Education Krista Kiuru is travelling to Asia to meet Cabinet members in three countries, in support of Finnish exports – in the field of education, excitingly enough.

Public support is needed for successful educational exports out of Finland. The Government, with the Ministry of Education and Culture at the helm, has a key role as do other relevant public sector stakeholders including the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation (TEKES) and regional Government agencies.

But what are these exports, exactly? Can Finnish kids start partying, seeing their schools torn to bits and shipped to somewhere like Timbuktu, with the teachers thrown in as bonus? No, it has not been pencilled in quite like that, as you are about to discover below.

Oil money for brain energy

This subheading above perhaps sums up two substantial deals struck by EduCluster Finland Ltd, a Finnish company of educational specialists. Last February the company made a partnership agreement with Wadi Jeddah, a Saudi-Arabian company owned by the King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah; a collaboration concerning development of the local educational system. Prior to this, the company had already reached agreement on provision of services with a somewhat different scope in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.

“In Abu Dhabi, we operate in two schools where we have 50 Finnish people working – these are teachers, principals and other experts,” leading expert Tiina Raatikainen, one of the powerful cylinders in the high-charged engine that is EduCluster Finland, explains about their Arabian operation. With all of their on-site teachers acting in close collaboration with their local counterparts, additionally there are a handful of specially designated representatives involved in two development programmes, provided by the University of Jyväskylä, that have been tailored for female Emirati teachers.

“The goal is a systemic level change,” Raatikainen says. “We work according to their curriculum and obey their rules, but squeeze in the Finnish approach. At the primary level, the Finnish understanding of learning is very much child-centred; instead of looking at teaching, we are looking at learning. Our materials and methods are child-focused and age-appropriate, and we regard every child as an individual.”

A Centre of Excellence for education is being established in Jeddah, along with model schools and resource centres for local educators. Training is also provided for teachers and also for teacher trainers.

“We give the learner a high degree of responsibility quite early – tying your shoelaces, eating your food and hanging your coat is something you can do yourself,” Raatikainen explains. “And the homework has to be such that the child can manage without parental help.”

All this sounds very sensible – to have schools where kids can attend without a Ph.D. in decryption to figure out what the talking head is trying to instil from high up on the lectern, and to have kids learn to take responsibility beginning with life basics.

EduCluster Finland provides educational and system development for clients in Finland and elsewhere. Founded some three years ago, the company has three owners, all of which are educational providers from Central Finland, the main one being the University of Jyväskylä with an 80 per cent stake. From the beginning it was obvious that EduCluster would operate not just in Finland but on international arenas as well.

The connection between the company and the university is a close one. “The University of Jyväskylä is the body that has the actual expertise in the subject matter,” Raatikainen explains, “but it is a different matter to take this to global stages. This is where EduCluster comes in.”

A teacher by formal training, Raatikainen surely embodies many of the virtues of Finnish education provision. She is inspired, very patient (even at the face of erratic interrogation) and highly able to adapt – she dressed up in local fashion while residing in Abu Dhabi or Jeddah due to her work.

Apropos, “adaptation” comes up as the key word in the interview. According to Raatikainen, to export Finnish educational expertise, providers must be ready to adapt their offering in many ways. Additionally, “Scandinavians going to, say, an Arab country must be ready for voluntary adaptation according to the local system, and this can cause difficulties,” she explains.

Context Learning Finland Oy has operated on the international market since 2009

Making waves in South East Asia

The Finnish capital has not been quiet on the export front either. “One example of successful Finnish educational exports is Aalto University’s Executive Education (EE), with some 3,500 alumni globally,” says Jari Jokinen, Director of Policy and Foresight for Aalto. “EE provides two types of degree programmes: MBA and Executive MBA. These degrees have not been part of the Finnish educational system, which has made it possible to commercialise them already in earlier times.”

More than 3,000 MBAs can be taken to mean a lot of brilliance and determination on both sides of the lecture podium. How has this come about?

“The MBA training market is a highly competitive one internationally. Our university and its predecessors have been providing MBA training for some 20 years already, and one of the key countries has been South Korea, where activity has been high.”

So, what is it exactly that the South Koreans have been after?

“Our offering involves executive training, and in South Korea, different companies in the telecommunications sector have been very active participants,” Jokinen points out. “Especially those companies that are undergoing substantial growth show particular interest in arranging training for their executives, and as is known, many telecommunications companies have enjoyed good growth during the past years.”

Shanghai surprises and other digital coups

On 10 September, YLE reported on a new venture to condense Finnish educational success into a game product, based on a concept that allows children to experience learning in a fun way. The Finnish game developer Rovio (of “furious fowls” fame, so to say) partners with a company in the Chinese market in this, setting up the first such learning facility in Shanghai. The “so-1980s” adage “Jack, first the homework, then the first-person shooter” will soon be just another torn-out leaf in dull-boy history, as kids may defend their doctoral dissertations on PlayStation in future – is that mind-boggling or what?

Another byte-grinding example is provided by the company Context Learning Finland Oy. “We have come up with tools and a process for very efficient production of interactive multimedia content for digital learning, and we also develop different technological solutions that our clients can use in producing digital learning content and monitoring their students’ progress,” says Founding Partner Teemu Patala.

Context has operated on the international market since 2009. “Our international focus areas include research, development and innovation projects as well as personnel training of large multinational corporations. Our solutions have been localised into over 20 languages and are applied in over 90 countries,” Patala states. 90 countries, that is impressive, wouldn’t you say? How many could you, dear reader, name in a Sporcle geography quiz?

Patala is also occupied with teaching information technology at HAAGA-HELIA University of Applied Sciences. “My teaching experience helps me develop a more profound understanding of the possibilities of utilising digital learning solutions in the context of higher education,” he explains. “In the educational environment, every new course has something individually unique and personal in its implementation, particularly in the area where I teach, focusing on innovation methods in the development of digital services.”

Solutions from Context Learning Finland Oy have been localised into over 20 languages and are applied in over 90 countries.

Success factors

If we, based on the above examples, can say that there are avenues for successfully exporting Finnish educational expertise, it would seem logical to try and determine why this is so. Our interviewees bring up some valid points.

“One has to understand that international interest towards Finnish education in general was not created by us Finns but by others elsewhere,” Raatikainen says. “We here did not create educational solutions for the rest of the world but for ourselves. We have been building up our educational system since the 1970s, or actually much earlier already, and the export aspect is an added value, resulting from the fact that other nations have been interested in our system, asking how we have fared so well in international tests and how we have been able to accomplish this, and it has been necessary for us to respond to this interest. Regional players in our area have been involved in some sort of educational exports for a long time already, but the difference between those attempts and our current work is the adaptation that we provide; we adapt Finnish educational expertise to every local context where we operate.”

Jokinen sees local educational providers supporting the creation of positive ideas about Finland.

“One warranty of quality comes in the form of accreditation; the Aalto University Business School has three of those,” he explains. “To have certain special expertise in given matters wrapped up in an interesting package is somewhat of a prerequisite for success in these markets. Our university has a very definite strength in the fact that we can offer studies relating to business, technology and design all at Aalto.”

“The success of Finland in PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) comparisons has had a positive effect on our educational exporting opportunities, but to exploit these opportunities is another matter,” Patala observes. “Provision of higher education is currently undergoing a digital revolution, which gives us enormous opportunities to create highly scalable educational products to global markets. We cannot clone our world-class teachers, but we can utilise their expertise and educational know-how via these digital supports and enablers.”

It is good to remember that not every Finnish education provider has to wear shades because of a too-bright outlook. On 6 August this year, the business daily Kauppalehti told us that the Management Institute of Finland (provider of development and training that has offices in many sites in Finland and in St. Petersburg, Russia) was provided 3 million euros of added capital, owing to business losses it had sustained.

The success in international education business is not a given – it is a result of a lot of goal-oriented work. “On the Jeddah deal, the negotiations lasted about 12 months. My colleagues had to go to Saudi-Arabia several times to discuss in detail what the client needs and how it can be done,” EduCluster Finland’s Raatikainen points out.

The evolution of education

Higher education is a growth industry. “In 2000, the total number of students in higher education globally was around 100 million, and ten years later the corresponding figure was almost 180 million,” Jokinen reels off. So the potential exists – another question is who gets to reap it.

If we think about the evolution of education in Finland, export efforts may well provide a key competitive edge for those educational providers that are active internationally. It takes time to make inroads in a foreign country, but once you do, many times you may experience the snowball effect: one good job for a foreign client is a great reference to another one, and so forth.

The other side of it is that those universities that fail to do this to any substantial degree may even lose appeal domestically – young generations in Finland rightfully demand international settings for their education.

At any rate, isn’t it nice to hear good and promising news from the Finnish export front – the sounds of “forward march” on the bugle!

Mika Oksanen