This blog was sparked by an interesting question I received from one of my professors at the University of Helsinki. In general, he asked: “How is the college education system different in the United States?” Naturally, I responded with a sarcastic comment, something along the lines of the prices in Helsinki (figures just released by UBS revealed that Helsinki is among the top 10 most expensive cities in the world to live in!). Being the only native English speaker in a class of about 35 students, was I to be honest, polite, brutally honest? Where do I begin? What exactly did he mean? I had no idea if I was being targeted, or used as a spokeswoman for the US education system – this question began to rankle me the more and more I thought about it. Thus, this blog was born!
While studying at the University of Helsinki, I have been introduced to a very different education system; course schedules, extremely flexible learning, inconsistent class times, four period years, a numbered grading system (5 to 0 rather than A to F), and ‘ECTS’ European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System are just a few of the differences I have had to get used to. The most surprising discovery for me though, has been that education in Finland is free. You read that correctly, FREE – and not just for Finns!
I was amazed to find out that public Finish tuition is either free or a few hundred Euros a year! I was especially intrigued when I passed a poster at UH that stated “tuition-free, equal higher education is the cornerstone of the Finnish welfare state,” and that “free education makes societies prosper.” These posters were protesting Finland introducing tuition fees and/or increasing existing fees, which is now becoming popular all over Europe. I explored further, and found that the FINLAND Union of Students (SYL) and the Union of Students in Finnish Universities of Applied Sciences – SAMOK were involved with these posters. They state that “equal access to higher education is a human right and it should progressively be made free of charge”. (For more interesting information, visit their webpage http://www.maksutonkoulutus.fi/). They have some very engrossing information on the subject of ‘Free Education’. To my knowledge, currently, there are little or no charges for college education in Finland and most other European countries. There are some student fees that cover health insurance, school activities, social events, and give student discounts, but these fees are generally less than 100 Euros per year. Interestingly enough, the neighboring country of Sweden has started a trend this year by charging international and exchange students tuition fees. I believe that Finland is starting to feel pressure to do the same, hence the controversy, backlash, and protesting.
Scheduling courses has been interesting in Finland, as many of the course times overlap. The scheduling system seemed a bit disorganized to me at first, but the professors are wonderfully understanding and creative if you need to skip classes to attend other courses. Another tricky part for me, was determining exactly when class starts or ends; the course rubric may say one thing, but the class will usually tend to start 15 to 20 minutes later and end at different times each class period. In my experience in the United States, the class times are strictly followed to ensure a sufficient amount of time for students to travel between classes amongst other things. It is easy to see who the exchange students are though, because we always show up to class early!
At Michigan Tech, we function on a semester basis; this means that there are two semesters in an academic school year (Fall and Spring). In Finland, they function on a period system, with four periods in a year: Periods 1 and 2 in the Fall, and Periods 3 and 4 in the Spring. Thus, the courses in Finland run for shorter periods of time, but are in larger blocks. For example, a class may only meet 8 times during a period, but the class periods are 4 to 5 hours long.
The grading system in Finland is number based, with 5 equaling an A, and so on, with a zero failing the course completely. The credit system here is not like US college credits; most European countries use ECTS, or European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System. It has been determined by the ATLANTIS program that 3.3 ECTS in the EU University will be equal to 1 US credit; therefore, the typical US graduate credit load of 9 credits per semester equates to 30 ECTS. This can seem terrifying at first glance, and makes transferring fractions of courses back to MTU very interesting indeed! When I continue my education in Sweden this Spring, I will change back to a letter-based grading scale, though it is still different than what I am used to. The figure to the right does a wonderful job contrasting the grading systems of Michigan Tech, the University of Helsinki, and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU).
The most common questions I have been asked while studying abroad have been about US education, second only to US politics. I hope you learned something new from this more informational style blog; I was unaware of most of these systems and topics before I came to Finland. Being a student abroad is a life-changing experience, and I think it is especially important to remember that while we are students, we are also teachers.