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Lifelong Learning to Make Finnish Workforce World’s Most Competent

Lifelong Learning to Make Finnish Workforce World's Most Competent

Nina Lundahl

The discussions at the summer 2019 edition of the public debate forum SuomiAreena focused on innovation and the competences needed by the workforce of the future.

Speakers highlighted future challenges related to competence and education in the context of the labor market, the competitiveness of the Finnish economy, and the demands of changing working environments and new skills.

Many panelists saw the development of the lifelong learning model as a key factor with regard to the need to match the demand for labor with available skills in a flexible manner, and create personal learning paths for each individual learner.

Education policy report to boost stagnating education levels

– The 1970s gave birth to the generation that now looks to go down as the most educated in Finnish history. A country that is known for its education system cannot accept that the rise in education levels ends with today's quadragenarians, said Minister of Education and Chair of the Left Alliance Li Andersson at the event's opening day.

The rise in Finns' education levels has stagnated while job descriptions and the world around us are changing at an ever faster pace. The need to raise competence requirements is centrally important.

– This will change. The government is set to publish its first education policy report in more than a decade, Andersson said.

The aim of reports given to parliament is to facilitate long-term development work and wide-ranging commitment across the party political landscape.

According to Andersson, the education policy report is a key project for the government in the field of culture and education policy. The report will be an agenda-setting document containing proposals seeking to bolster equality in education and lay out concrete measures for implementing the leap in education undertaken by the government.

From a degree-oriented approach towards modularized education

A million Finns need to be trained to face the challenges of the digital age, in all workplaces. Everyone should have the right to basic skills as digital competence becomes increasingly important.

– Finland is one of the world's leading countries when it comes to making futurological predictions and capitalizing on them. The Finnish National Agency for Education is doing groundbreaking work, both quantitative and qualitative, anticipating the educational needs of the future, said Otto Tähkäpää, futurologist and Executive Director at the Futures School.  In his view, Finland is exceptionally well positioned to meet the challenges of the future.

The existing competences of many workers will be applicable to future job descriptions, given the typically gradual nature of change.

According to Tähkäpää, existing expertise and skills can be combined in new ways by splitting them up into smaller slices.

–Everyone's job descriptions are going to evolve, methods are going to change, and some jobs are going to disappear, said Anita Lehikoinen, Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Education and Culture.

– Basic education must provide a firm foundation for building the basic skills on which continuous learning is, in turn, built. Education can become obsolete quickly if it focuses narrowly on a single profession. In the lifelong learning model, the organization of competence development is not limited to public education. A range of other actors are involved, including employers.

Services must be organized such that they are both accessible to everyone and "porous" in how they are usable in relation to skills and background degrees.

"Everyone's job descriptions are going to evolve, methods are going to change, and some jobs are going to disappear."
 

University of Tampere President Mari Walls saw the needs of lifelong learning as challenging the field of education to move away from a rigid degree-oriented perspective towards more modular approaches to competence verification.

– While formal degrees are necessary – especially insofar as they create a broad knowledge base, the basic building blocks of expertise, and methodical skills – specific competences are also needed. A demand-driven model could be introduced by cooperating with businesses in the context of workplace learning, she added.

The need for continuing education as a complement to basic education is equally important. She sees so-called "micro credits" that could be completed in an efficient manner and granted by any university, including institutions abroad, as a flexible tool for complementing existing skills in a targeted way.

An active role for employers in competence development

Finland should be built into a society of lifelong learning, and employers should get involved.

– Learning belongs to everyone, said Google's Finland Country Head Antti Järvinen. In his view, various actors should assume ownership of learning in a more intensive way. Workplaces should also evolve into places of learning, with the education and training they provide becoming increasingly valued as it gains visibility.

 

As far as ensuring equal opportunities in the context of lifelong learning goes, however, the discrepancies in the amount of training provided by large and small organizations present a challenge. And the challenges do not end there:

– Adult education is currently broken with regard to both funding and education providers. It is difficult to discern which knowledge, skills or competences should be upgraded next. Data collection and solutions to the funding issues could help underpin a response to these challenges, said Jarkko Eloranta, President of the Central Organization of Finnish Trade Unions.

Professional life increasingly demanding, putting our digital competence to the test

All increases in productivity and competitiveness arise from innovation and competence.

– A lack of suitably skilled workers, the substantial challenge of digital competence, the challenge of innovation, said Technology Industries of Finland CEO Jaakko Hirvola, listing the main obstacles to growth reported by businesses.  

Technology Industries of Finland's member companies will need to recruit 53,000 new employees over the next four years, he explained, of whom 60% are university-educated and the other 40% hold qualifications from vocational institutions. There is an immediate need for 11,400 professionals in the ICT sector alone.

On the other hand, the need for those whose highest qualification is a secondary school diploma is decreasing as artificial intelligence and automation take over many routine tasks. Competence requirements are evolving and becoming more demanding. In light of such trajectories, Hirvola stresses the importance of investing in education at all levels.

Does this mean that everyone will need to know how to code?

– Perhaps most important is the ability to understand the basic principles of coding and apply them to the tasks at hand. The required percentage of experts focused on deep coding know-how is in fact rather small, estimated Finnish National Agency for Education Director General Olli-Pekka Heinonen.

In the context of future changes, workers' personal resilience and capacity for tolerating uncertainty will gain in importance. It is therefore essential for individuals to anticipate how their existing competences should be developed to match the needs of the future.

Aiming for a flexible learning path

In Heinonen's view, the aim should be to ensure that all Finns are given the opportunity to realize their own potential and learn the things that interest them.

This is also about a comprehensive approach to well-being that takes into account the various circumstances and backgrounds of learners in how flexible learning paths are designed.

According to Heinonen, it is fundamentally important to provide learning support and career guidance services with the data they need to help all learners find a path to further education or the career of their choice.

– Comprehensive well-being also means that we don't fragment a person's identity based on whether or not he or she happens to be a student. The various dimensions of well-being from health to competence and security are all interdependent, and come together to form comprehensive well-being. The challenge to supply people with information they can use is a big opportunity for technology. This will also change our agency-specific approach to supporting people's choices, says Heinonen, outlining his vision of the future possibilities of lifelong learning.

Heinonen's sentiments are echoed by Hilkka Kemppi, Member of Parliament and its Culture and Education Committee, who also stresses the role of data and sees a focus on individuals as a necessity in the context of lifelong learning.

– Data is an integral part of lifelong learning and a person's capacity to learn in general. Without it, building learner-specific learning paths would be difficult. Information must follow the learner, both in the context of schooling as well as more informal learning situations, she said.

 
"Information must follow the learner, both in the context of schooling as well as more informal learning situations."
 

Like Heinonen, Kemppi believes that combining different kinds of data enables us to better influence young people's future prospects, among other things.

– I was part of a project that combined generational data with data collected by the social and health care services in order to give us a clearer, comprehensive idea of the state of young people's well-being. The generated data allowed us to identify factors contributing to the risk of social exclusion, which will help boost efforts to prevent these tragic stories from unfolding in the future.  

In her role as a legislator, she sees it as important to ensure that data is open and moves between silos, facilitating new approaches as a result.

Watch the full interview with Hilkka Kemppi

Shared platforms, foundation of data, and services play an enabling role

– Lifelong learning requires that the data generated in the context of education, training and work is utilized, said CSC Managing Director Kimmo Koski.

In Finland, data on students has been collected for decades, including on the completion of studies, student mobility, and other related factors. This data could serve as a foundation on which improved services could be designed for students and the actors funding education.

In Koski's view, Finland possesses relatively substantial data reserves that can be used to conduct analyses of how to direct studies in the future, how to support students to help them graduate, and how best to facilitate lifelong learning.

The development of digital services is an another factor adding to the flexibility and accessibility of education.

– One example of a digital learning service is EXAM, whose development is supported by CSC. With the service, students can sit exams electronically, anywhere and at any time, and even use the examination facilities of institutions other than their own.

The EXAM examination system saves time spent supervising exams and organizing exam facilities, and also provides students with an easy way to sit exams without having to travel. The service makes use of artificial intelligence and learning support systems to automatically analyze exam answers.

Watch the whole interview with Kimmo Koski

Drawn up by the Ministry of Education and Culture in cooperation with the higher education community and other stakeholders, the Vision for Higher Education and Research in 2030 seeks to create a future that enables the development of a high-quality, effective and internationally competitive higher education system in Finland by the year 2030. One of its central aims is to help ensure that the Finnish workforce is the most competent in the world, forming part of the foundation for Finland's competitiveness and well-being.

Lifelong learning and competence development are possible if we harness the opportunities of digitalization to serve learners and society in general. Lifelong learning services will be developed in the context of new kinds of ecosystems, on a shared foundation of data.

CSC's position on the government program's objectives (in Finnish) calls for the shared national foundation of educational data to be built and utilized in a more extensive way, both to steer the education sector and provide competence mapping and development services to citizens.


This article is based on remarks given by speakers at the SuomiAreena 2019 debate forum and interviews conducted during the event.


Main picture: Adobe Stock, illustration pictures: Nina Lundahl

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