TEACHERS are highly valued in Finland, with only 10 percent of the applicants accepted into teacher education programmes, explains Henna Knuuttila, who leads Finland’s diplomatic micro-mission in Bratislava, when asked about the top performance of her homeland in international education rankings. She also suggests that Finland’s challenging geographical location has made Finns natural problem solvers. The Slovak Spectator spoke to Knuuttila about education reform, innovation, Finland’s economic challenges as well as the potential of the tourism industry.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Finland’s education system has been making it to the top of international rankings. How has Finland achieved such an exceptional standing in education?
Henna Knuuttila (HK):
This is a very good question and it’s difficult to name one reason only. First of all, education is highly appreciated in Finland at all levels of society, being viewed as a basic value. Accordingly, the teacher’s profession is appreciated and only 10 percent of the applicants are accepted into universities to study in teacher education programmes, making it a very good starting point. Teacher education is high-level and teachers may exercise their professional knowledge widely and freely, and their pedagogical freedom is as wide as possible since we don't have a standardised curriculum. Teachers’ salaries are reasonable, comparable to the salaries of other university-educated people. Early education plays an important role as well, while also preschool teachers are university educated.

Maybe it’s worth mentioning that in Finland preschool starts at the age of six and first grade at the age of seven: we believe that childhood should be as long as possible. The teaching methods applied at schools are another point, as these are actively being developed. I recently attended an event here in Slovakia where Finnish teachers described how they use live role-plays, so-called larps, in teaching, while modern technology like smartphones and tablets are often used as well. In Finland, the pedagogical freedom of the teachers is extensive, while only the framework of the curriculum is given.

TSS: Are education reforms frequent in Finland?
HK:
Smaller reforms are taking place constantly, but we introduced a large-scale reform already in the 1960s and 1970s, and the whole process took 20 years. Experts have noted that over 10 governments were committed to these reforms, with the goal being made very clear.
We are a small society, like yours with 5.5 million people, and we do not have much energy sources or raw materials, thus the main thing we can invest in is people’s education from the pre-school level until life-long learning.

TSS: One of the most frequently mentioned features of the Finnish school system is that children are not burdened by standardised tests. What are other main specifics of the Finnish education system?
HK:
There is only one general test at the end of secondary school, at the age of 18, the so-called matriculation exam. Otherwise there are no general tests for everybody. Of course, during their studies, students do smaller tests, but not general tests. Schools are not ranked, even though some newspapers rank them according to the results of the matriculation exams. Schools and universities are public, while there are no student fees, while at elementary schools and gymnasiums the lunches are free. We do not have school inspections either, which many Slovaks find a bit surprising. We used to have this system, but it was abolished long ago. Parents are very much involved in the education of their children: not only actively communicating with the teachers and other education professionals, but also taking part in the public discussions about education policy.

TSS: The European Commission names Finland as an innovation leader within the EU along with Denmark, Germany and Sweden. What factors have helped Finland to become such an innovator?
HK:
Our challenging location in the northern part of the world has made Finns natural problem-solvers, while “Consider it Solved!” is one of our official mottos, and under tougher natural conditions you have to be innovative in order to survive, in order to develop the society. We are also quite technology-oriented and get excited when, for example, there is a new invention, or a new device or programme is introduced. On 5 June there was the Slovak-Nordic Forum on science parks and support for start-up companies held in Bratislava, featuring three experts from Finland.

They suggested that not only high-quality education, know-how and adequate financial support for innovations and start-ups are behind Finland’s success, but also an encouraging atmosphere and curiosity among people, combined with openness and risk-taking.

People are encouraged to establish a company or a start-up. There are examples of high-volume incubators for start-ups, for example, the Slush event or the Start-up sauna. Slush is a focal point for Eurasian start-ups and technology talent to meet with international investors and media, while in 2013 Slush gathered 7,000 attendees and 1,200 companies from 68 countries. Start-up Sauna helps promising early-stage start-ups to get ready for taking the next step: 109 companies have graduated from this programme since 2010.

According to the World Economic Forum's Europe 2020 Competitiveness Index, which was published on June 10, Finland was ranked as the most competitive economy in Europe. Among the reasons cited were that Finland’s enterprise environment fosters business creation, and the country has a well-functioning labour market as well as strong social inclusion based on low inequality. It was also mentioned that Finland’s economic prowess does not come at the expense of environmentally sustainable practices and outcomes.

TSS: Earlier this year Finland slipped into another recession, the third, in six years, in a time when the government has been trying to tame public finances with a number of austerity measures. What are the main challenges that Finland’s economy currently faces?
HK:
True, our current economic situation is not the brightest: the estimated GDP growth for this year is only at 0.2 percent. In addition to the economic downturn of the euro area, our economy has gone through major structural changes in the last years: the wood and paper industry and the ICT sector that used to be backbones of the Finnish industry don’t form such a big share of the economy anymore. Unfortunately there have been a lot of layoffs in these sectors. Many people prefer tablets over print newspapers and thus less paper is needed. On the other hand, people shop more over the internet and the goods come back packed in cartons, thus, this specific part of the sector is doing fine.

At the same time we face the aging of the population and growing expenses for pensions and health care. The current government has made some hard decisions to tackle the situation, while these include, for example, reducing the community tax in order to give incentives to the economy to encourage hiring new people, cuts in public expenditure and cuts in social benefits. The state will also cut support for day care: every child is entitled to day care and the state support for this entitlement depends on the financial situation of the parents. But cuts pertain to all fields, including the foreign service. We now have at our embassy what we call a micro-mission: only me and two people. I would say we have a tiny but very effective team, so it is manageable.

Nevertheless, there are also success stories with Finnish industry, especially in the field of game industries and clean-tech. For example, the game industry is growing fast: 125 new companies were established in the last three years and the sector grows over 40 percent per year. Finland is one of the global leaders in the field of clean technologies and we hope that after ICT, this sector will lead the way to new economic growth. Finland has become a hotbed for environmental technology partly because of our harsh climate and lack of fossil fuel resources. A propos, here in Bratislava our embassy shares the office premises with one Finnish-Slovak clean-tech company called Solved.

TSS: Has the potential for Finnish-Slovak cooperation been fully tapped? Where do you see room for further ties? What are some examples of successful Slovak-Finnish business cooperation, if you could name a few?
HK:
Team Finland Slovakia [a group in charge of building business links between the countries] has two priorities: education and clean-tech, while in both fields there is potential for further cooperation. In the field of education our minister of education and culture, Ms Krista Kiuru, visited Slovakia in late January and her Slovak counterpart went to Finland last year. The exchange of experts has been vivid before and after these visits. One such example is an international conference, “Innovations in Adult Education”, organised by the Slovak Life-Long learning Centre held in Bratislava on June 3. Finnish keynote speakers of the conference were Petri Haltia from the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture and Markku Kokkonen from the Finnish National Board of Education, while the Slovak Ministry of Education has committed to developing legislation pertaining to life-long learning and increasing the participation of Slovaks in adult education. As far as clean-tech is concerned, I would mention the district heating conference held in Bratislava in February. We have here, in Slovakia, approximately 30 Finnish companies.

TSS: Back in 2010, Finland had the world’s third highest newspaper consumption and it maintains a high rate of news readership. What are the factors behind Finland being such a news-hungry nation?
HK:
What made Finns a newspaper reading country is their general curiosity, but also the network of public libraries, which offer newspapers as well. We Finns are the most active library-users in the world, while the public libraries are free of charge with an average Finn visiting a public library once a month. Also, in the schools students are encouraged to find information on their own, not only from textbooks, but from libraries and the internet. Students do a lot of news-related projects.

TSS: Where do you see the greatest potential for the tourism industry in terms of attracting Finnish tourists to Slovakia? Do you think Finnish people know enough about Slovakia, and vice versa?
HK:
I think that many people in Finland do not know enough about the beautiful hiking places, skiing facilities and spas that you have here. Many people know Hungary for its spas, and I wonder why they do not know those in Slovakia? I discovered thermal healing waters only after I came here. That’s why many Finns travel to this part of the world: to visit these spas. Approximately 9,000 Finns visit Slovakia every year. It is quite a small number given the fact that you can fly to Vienna’s airport and travel half an hour from there.

Slovak tourists were visible in Finland during the ice hockey championships last year. Unfortunately, the prices in Finland are relatively higher than in Slovakia, which still might be a factor which prevents more Slovaks from visiting the country.

TSS: If you are able to recall, what came as the biggest surprise after your arrival in Slovakia - something you had not expected?
HK:
The biggest surprise was of course how quickly we adapted to the life here in Slovakia after three years in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. We liked it there as well, but here maybe because of the climate, the people and the nature, my family felt almost immediately at home at here. Also, the Slovak mentality is a little bit similar to the Finnish one: people are work-oriented, maybe somewhat serious. I lived in this region back in 1998 when I was an exchange student in Budapest, Hungary. Then I visited Slovakia a few times.