Finland and education export: IKEA of schools?

The Finnish Ministry of Education just released an education export strategy document with the title “From Interest to Demand and Products” (see also the News Paper articles: Tuition fees suggested for some types of higher education and Education – latest Finnish export product).

The main message of the strategy document seems to be, that:

  • In future Finland will be one of the world leading economies that is based on quality of education and educational system, and
  • Education sector’s share of the total export will grow significantly by 2015.

I love when people set objectives that 1) are already reached, or 2) are so vague that one can not measure were they ever reached or not.

Finland definitely is an economy that is based on quality education. Keeping this state of affairs in the future, too, is of course a good thing and actually not that obvious, nevertheless.

In do not have anything against the second objective either, although writing that there should be a “significant growth” leaves a lot of space for people interested in to measure the return of investment. In this particular case the ROI is important because the strategy document is ending with a budget proposal with an investment of 4 million Euros for three years to reach the objectives. In most state budgets — even in Finland — 4 million Euros for three years is of course peanuts, but still I am wondering what we, the tax payers, will get with this.

What I am seriously afraid is that in Finland we just do not have exportable education products and also designing them is very difficult.

I am not sure if we have the know-how to do it. Maybe, spending 4 million Euros to find out this makes sense. At least then we will know.

Anyway, lets try to stay positive and think what kind of education or education related products we could design, produce and export.

If we’ll have a look of the education export “mass market”, dominated by Universities in USA, Australia, UK and New Zealand, their main source of business come from international student expenditure on tuition fees and secondary benefits related to them: such as their spending on goods and services related to living in the country.

For these four English speaking countries the international students really are a “market” — a group of young minds interested in to get a degree, learn to speak English and to build an international, English speaking network.

In Finland, the Universities are basically all ran with the money coming from the tax payers. Universities are independent but the bills are paid by the tax payers. For students — both Finnish and international — there isn’t tuition fees. The great investment from the tax payers makes the University education expensive (also ineffective many ways) but same time by many measurement high quality. I do not have the numbers — I hope someone somewhere does — but the factual cost of an University degree in Finland is probably rather high if compared to cost/unit in other countries.

I am afraid that the “market” of international students, that would pay the tuition fee and the high living costs in Finland, is very small if not totally non-existing.

With the same price, one would pay in Finland, a student could go to country with native English speakers (and probably much better weather and more friendly people, too). It is also a safer investment for the student: if the education is not good, at least she will learn proper English and may build an international English speaking network.

Someone should naturally do a “market study”.

What is my worst case scenario is that we will introduce tuition fees and a stipend system that will not create any value for anyone.

If we will have tuition fees, for Finnish and students coming from ETA countries we, in practice, must arrange governmental stipend system. Then we must also guarantee that anyone — coming from whatever country — who can’t pay the fee, but is selected to the program, is not let down. We need another stipend system.

So, in the end of the day we may have a massive stipend system, or maybe two, that will provide stipends which will cover 95% of the tuition fees. Then we will have a new line of bureaucrats running the system and because of this we will actually have less money to be spend on teaching in the University.

When designing education export on the bases of international students paying tuition fees one should also think, would this change in the system increase or degrees the number of students interested in to come to study in Finland?

This is important, because we as a nation really need international students. We live from export industry and to sell the products we need people who know us and are able to work with us.

Most people educated in Finland will finally pay back their (free) education with real money — whatever they will stay in Finland or not. Most of them will do business with Finnish companies, travel here as tourists and tell their good memories about Finland for their friends.

Those who will stay and will pay taxes in here are worth of millions. Really. Children and young people are those who “spend” most of the tax payers money: as a child in Finland you are very expensive for the tax payers in the “free” kindergarten, free school, free health care and free dentist.

If you’ll get someone to move to Finland at the age of 20-25, is healthy, have basic education and speaks 2-3 languages she will simply jump almost straight to the stage of being “productive” and being only for a little time a “cost” for the nation, when studying in a “free” University.

I am afraid that if we’ll introduce tuition fees for the international students we simply will not have many of them anymore. Same time we may loose the reputation of being a nation with free education from primary education to higher education. This is often one of the few facts people internationally know about Finnish education. Can we afford to loose this?

The people who promote the tuition fees often say that free is dubious and people do not consider something to be valuable when they get it for free. If you ask people on a street in Helsinki, Jyväskylä or Pihtipudas, people will not agree with this. People value the “free education” probably more than anything else in this country. Just the news of having tuition fees, regardless of it having any practical impact to most people, will increase social inequality. People will use this to distinct them from each other. This will create more unstable society with more covetousness and fear and less social cohesion. Can we afford to loose this?

I understand that introducing tuition fees at any level of education, even in continuous education, summer schools and short courses is difficult when there are also University programs that do not collect fees. In a way the Universities are some kind of market disruptors.

I think that we can change this. Let’s make the factual price of the courses and degrees visible, but include in all communication about them a simple note:

“All students in XXX University / program XXX are currently fully funded (tuition/medical insurance and stipend)”.

Now everybody know that education is not free. We pay it. The tax payers pay it.

So, is there anything the Finnish Universities could export?

I think yes. The Universities could provide special degree programs (like MBAs) and continuous education programs that are separated from the “general programs”. These programs could be offered partly online and party in campus. The Finnish Universities could also have branch offices in some countries and start to provide education in there. I am not, however, sure how good business this would be, as I haven’t seen the great American or British Universities doing this.

What else we could export? Education management consulting, teachers, architecture, software, technology?

Probably yes, but if there is a demand for these services, why I do not see Finnish companies offering almost any of these products?

Maybe using 4 million Euros to help potential companies to develop these products and to start to export them is a good strategy.

Picture by by uzzran.

In January Risto E.J. Penttilä, the director of the Finnish Business and Policy Forum EVA – policy and pro-market think-tank financed by the Finnish business community – was promoting the ideato spread the benefits of the Finnish primary school system across the globe”.

Penttilä’s idea is to start-up a network of Finnish International Schools around the world that would loosely follow the Finnish school curriculum (an alternative to the IB system). The teachers would be mainly Finnish but the language of teaching would be English. According to Penttilä the Finnish International Schools would be like “IKEA of schools” with unified design, functionality and curriculum and run by a foundation of private social enterprise.

Penttilä calls for action and someone to conduct a feasibility study. That is a great idea.

Results from my small survey among friends in Bogota and Bangalore gave promising results. People — most of them with children — considered the idea feasible. However, people were concern could they actually afford the school with teachers who are paid Finnish salaries. A relevant question.

Picture by by jpellgen

Two disclaimers: 1) What it comes to immigration to Finland, I think we should carry our responsibility of the global refugee problem as a wealthy nation, and provide more refuges and new place to live. We should welcome to Finland more people in need of help. We should be like the other Nordic countries. 2) I do not consider students in the University community to be primary customers, but understand that in some situations it doesn’t harm if they are considered and treated as customers. In most situations and context in a daily life at the University one should not treat students as customers, but as colleagues (members of the University community) and hmm… students. Unfortunately the ability to recognize the different contexts is rare. This is also why it is important that the management of the University is in the hands of the Academics — in hands of those who get it.

Update: check the comment for a 3rd disclaimer.

7 replies on “Finland and education export: IKEA of schools?”

Third disclaimers: I do not believe in private schools, because in most countries schools that are consider to be “private schools” are not really private, but get part of their funding from the tax payers and only part form the tuition fees. This is wrong.

For me someone starting a truly private school with all the costs covered by the parents is fine, as long as they follow the national curriculum. For some reason I do not see this happening very much in any place.


I edited the following comment and removed some information from it, to make it non-functional as an advertisement. This is, however, an interesting example of education business in 2010. – Teemu

Established in 1997, XXX Edu-Guidance is a leading education consultancy services providing exemplary service to students all over India. We deal in Admissions to all major professional courses in Premier Institutes across India. We are your one step solution for all career related needs, it may be MD, MBBS BE, BTech (ALL BRANCHES), , MDS, BDS, BPharm, BArch, MBA, MTech, MS, , PhD or any other courses. We provide personalized career solutions on an individual basis keeping in mind the aspirations of our client as well as the affordability factor.
XXX Edu-Guidance,
XXX – P O,


Lots of good points here from this anonymous writer. I agree with his views on keeping education free in Finland.

I don’t see how Finns could sell international schools abroad though using Finnish teachers – the Finnish system could be used, but only if the teachers don’t speak Finglish, and if it’s marketed very cleverly. Also, Finland could design, sell good online courses abroad if they paid native speakers of XXX language as tutors. I wouldn’t advise it as a way to make money though, having coordinated the International Writing Exchange (IWE) since 1993. It worked well when it was free and I had groups of active students myself, but it was never a viable business product.


I agree this anonymous writer, with small invests one gets small results.
On the other hand, there is a reason why Big US and other universities are opening filials in China, India etc.

If the funds don’t support content creation, there aren’t any good for sale.

Sonera is still our own trademark, I don’t know anybody else who is going to buy air…


As some one who often thinks of Finland, 3 things come to mind:

Free education
A friend

I would very much like to see a concise ROI done for Finnish free education. A method that I could take and adjust for the Australian situation. I hope by using this tool, I might be able to show a positive ROI for a free education system in Australia.. such a thing would give a little weight to preserving free education in Finland – if Australian’s are reconsidering their export business model…


Sorry about the “anonymity” – it was unintentional. It looks that in the single permalink page of the blog we are missing the authors name.

Ruth: I think there are many opportunities in online language learning. For instance, have you tried Busuu (it is not from Finland, but from Spain):

I think it is a great service and actually I actually considered to pay their monthly fee (7.99 €/month) to improve my Spanish. I felt that even that I have free access to one of the world best language courses in the my University (Aalto University) the price of Busuu was reasonable because it provides me freedom from time and space to study. A sad this is that just when I was becoming a paying customer they screw up: post, probably by mistake, some of my written work publicly online without my permission and never replied me when I asked about it.

Petri: What are the top US/UK Universities building and opening campuses in China or India? I haven’t seen a single one. If I am wrong, let me know.

I think trying to get to the international educational market with “content” (as it is commonly understood) would be a huge mistake. Content is still the king, the content is just today different.

We need “content” that is well-designed products, concepts, services etc. – something like a clever and affordable ICT devices for schools and universities ( or hmm… Busuu.

Leigh: I think the Finnish Government should hire you to run the “Education Export project”. Free hint for the Ministry of Education.


Teemu, thank you for telling me about
I’d not heard of this site before. It does look good as a language teaching site – and has very reputable companies supporting it. It was clearly irresponsible of them to publish some of your writing without permission though, and unacceptable not to apologise and promise to remove your text from the Internet.

Let’s keep in touch:-)


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