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The Finnish Case: Reviewing Adult Students’ Higher Education Needs

Adult students have particular and varying needs, which can be difficult for institutions to define. One way to ensure programming is meeting market demand is by engaging your stakeholders in a survey. Photo by Yoel Ben-Avraham.

Interesting career opportunities and satisfying tasks are typically more available to professionals who update their professional competence on a continuous basis. However, the hectic pace of working life sets limits to the possibilities to participate in continuing education. This is why many professionals in Finland opt for non-formal learning such as work-based learning, networking and reading instead of formal learning. Finding time to study is especially difficult for entrepreneurs. These barriers call for changes in the availability, methods and financing of adult higher education programs.

We started to find a solution to this situation couple of years ago in collaboration with all key stakeholders: industry, policymakers and us as education providers. The result of this collaboration was that higher educational institutes should develop continuing education programs, which take into consideration work-based learning, recognize prior learning and accredit those as a part of the program. Many interesting questions were raised; such as arrangements, financing and accreditation. After all the planning, I am happy to say that we are finally introducing new kinds of programs, including Professional Diploma degrees, a 30 ECTS credit unit program consisting of formal studies, and non-formal learning. This means approximately 1.5 years of studying while working at the same time. Curricula of these programs are based on the demand of skills and competences needed in working life.

As a part of this exercise Aalto University took part of a survey about what some of our stakeholder companies consider to be important in adult higher education. One thing that was somewhat surprising was that these organizations prefer degrees instead of short-time professional development courses. I consider this to be a win-win situation for the employer organization and for the individual.

From the individual’s point of view, these programs can be used as professional or personal development in four different kinds of career situations.

The first situation is where a Professional Diploma (PD) program is supporting a promotion from junior to senior level. When a graduate professional in the early stage of their career is promoted to a more demanding position, they need to learn from his senior colleagues and update their competencies by engaging in formal education.

The second situation is when updating one’s competence is needed after an extended absence from work, such as parental leave, unemployment, sick leave or other reasons.

The third situation where Professional Diploma is needed is when a professional is aiming for a new career. It is very common to change the direction of one’s career into a new field. This transition can also be non-voluntary due to structural changes in both the economy and business. A PD degree with on-the-job-learning and formal training is extremely efficient in these situations.

This need can also be organization-based. For example, in Finland right now we have a significant need for new professionals in the mining industry. This need for professionals exists now, so we have designed a program which combines working and studying. The companies employ prominent candidates already in the beginning of the degree program, and they start to work and study at the same time.

The fourth example is an everyday situation, where updating one’s competencies helps them maintain job satisfaction and career opportunities. Professional Diploma used for combining on-the-job-learning, recognition of previously gained knowledge and theoretical studies. Informal learning is recognised and combined with theoretical studies, a new way to form a curriculum.

Although I have talked about some new kinds of programs, all the above mentioned elements are also important for the more traditional programs as well. The traditional way to look at education is to see it as an interaction between the student and the instructor. If the aim is that further education is strongly based on work-based learning, then the employer should be given an active role as well in the planning stage.

All three parties, the individual, his/her employer and the education provider should commit to the objectives of the program. It is crucial that we as providers do our best in finding the right kind of pedagogical solutions which support the leaner and enhance lifelong learning, facilitate the learning process and provide comprehensive study counselling.

In Finland studying in Bachelor- or Master Programs is basically tuition free for the student. Those programs are not meant for part-time studying, they require a student’s full focus and attention. All other programs offered must be self-sustaining. This is why we have Continuing Education Units in universities like ours offering adult education programs. Luckily the employer organizations of many of Aalto PRO’s customers are also willing to financially support the individual studying in CE programs.

For some customer groups, for example artists and some new entrepreneurs, it is difficult to finance their studies. In these situations, we do our best with groups like professional organizations, for example, to help find solutions. Going forward, the state will hopefully support studies of unemployed professionals and also help those at risk of losing their jobs.

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