The main topic of the conference was the results of the Estonian - Finnish collaboration project "FINEST Learning Bridge" 2007. All the presentations in the conference affirmed that the project has contributed a great deal to Estonian - Finnish collaboration and has been beneficial to all partners.
The advantages of international collaboration
Virpi Veskoniemi, director of Inari Folk High School gave a particularly memorable presentation. He described in vivid detail how international collaboration has affected the region of Inari.
Inari Folk High School has numerous national and international connections and partner schools. Currently they are looking for contacts in China. The international connections can be supported if the partner-town inhabits up to 7000 but in China the problem with China has so far been that in such small towns there is no-one who can speak English. But they continue searching.
Thanks to the great number of international connections the local people of Inari have got a feeling that their town in Lapland is in a sense a big metropolis where many different nationalities are represented.
Virpi Veskoniemi admitted that creating and maintaining international connections is not an easy task but that it definitely pays off because it gives new ideas and energy to all the participants, and besides that it makes Europe a more homely place for everyone. Virpi's talk was very convincing and full of colourful details.
Ilkka Virta from Turku Folk High School talked about their collaboration with Estonian Folk High Schools (mainly the Folk High School of Tartu) - and her talk was just as interesting. From the Estonian side the same topics were viewed by Maire Breede, director of Tartu Folk High School and Heli Kaldas, director of Swedish Folk High School in Estonia.
Maire Breede noted that a lot depends on the people that are involved. She brought the example of their successful projects with Turu Folk High School which happened mainly thanks to their very good and active friend in Turku - Reino Lemmetyinen - who has as his motto "one doesn't have to be crazy, but it can be helpful".
The message of all the speakers in the conference was: "Make international connections! There will be more energy!"
The advantages of collaboration between universities and folk high schools
Antti Karlin from the Centre for Extension Studies of Turku University, who is also the head of the project "FINEST Learning Bridge" gave a more detailed overview of the collaborations of Turku University and folk high schools both near and far. Turu University is helping these folk high schools to realize trainings and courses, accrediting many of those as part of their university curriculum.
Antti Karlin claimed that in Estonia there is still no active collaboration between universities and folk high schools. He might be right with this statement in general but not one hundred per cent. A good example to prove the opposite would be the collaboration between the Haapsalu College of Tallinn University and the Swedish Folk High School in Estonia. These two schools operate in same building and many of the professors work both at the university college and in the folk high school.
But other universities in Estonia have not yet developed collaborations with non-formal education institutions. Competition is unfortunately still more important than collaboration. For example Estonian universities are offering courses in Saaremaa, even though there already exists a strong non-formal education centre Osilia where one can complete courses even up to the MA level. Why do so few universities collaborate with Osilia?
Non formal education is increasing educational hierarchies
Especially unfortunate in Estonia is the fact that both open universities and folk high schools are aiming at the same target group - mainly well-earning women who have completed higher education. But at the same time another target group - men with lower income and lower level of education are not considered as potential adult learners.
Thus a situation appears where those already educated have the opportunity to continue learning while those that have not completed higher education have the less chances to continue. Quite paradoxical but non-formal education has increased educational hierarchies in Estonia although the initial idea of non-formal education was quite the opposite - to help those that cannot learn in formal education and to decrease educational hierarchies.
And the problem is not that people with elementary and basic education do not want to learn further. They do. When new courses for people with elementary and basic education were offered in Paide Vocational School there were plenty of interested learners. The main hindrance has not been the lack of will but of money.
State supported programs next to the liberal market
Terje Haidak, the management director of adult education of the Estonian Education and Science Ministry also gave a talk at the "FINEST Learning Bridge" conference. She noted that in order to improve the situation in Estonia during the upcoming years the main support funds from European Social Fund will be invested into state programs that help those that have not participated in life-long learning so far: people with basic education and lower income. Time has shown that liberal market economy will not pay attention to these target groups. And if the state programmes do not pay attention to them, probably nobody will.
The state program of ESF will invest into adult education for people with basic and primary education: approximately 9 million euros will go for vocational education, about 4 million euros for folk high schools and the remaining 3 million euros for funding life-long learning project applications.
In addition to this the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications of Estonia will support companies to train employees, and the Ministry for Social affairs will fund educational projects for the unemployed.
This is the strategy for raising the competitiveness of the Estonian people in general. It was also put under question whether non-formal education should have such a strong emphasis on work-related learning. Eeva-Inkeri Sirelius, secretary general of the Finnish Non-Formal Education Union said the trends are similar in Finland - work-related learning is considered most important even though the principle idea of non-formal education has been first of all the humanistic development of people, finding the sense and meaning of one's life through free learning.
Ivo Eesmaa, head of the board of directors of Estonian Non-formal Education Union, gave a good explanation about what non-formal education can offer to a society. He claimed that Estonia got its independence in 1918 mainly thanks to the great amount of active and self-organized societies, organizations and unions, all of which were busy with learning. This could well have been the necessary basis to the founding of an independent country.
The Baltic Sea - a collaboration bridge of a learning region
Antti Karlin presented ideas that could raise the competitiveness of the Nordic-Baltic region as a whole. He said that the University of Turku and the Finnish Folk High Schools can launch much bigger collaborative projects in the future. And even bigger projects could be realizable which would involve South-Finnish, West-Estonian and East-Swedish local municipalities, folk high schools and universities, so that the Baltic sea would literally become a collaboration bridge connecting the learning in the surrounding countries.
The idea of the so-called new Mediterranean sea got positive responses at the conference. But among the participants there were also people that considered smaller plans and projects better than bigger ones. Their motto was: "Small is beautiful". The debate over the advantages of big and small was one of the most intriguing parts of the conference.
The European Union supports international grass-root level collaboration
Hannu Takkula, member of the European Parliament gave a talk at the conference. Being a rather emotional politician, he described in vivid detail how liberal economy has turned several areas of our lives lifeless. But in conclusion he was never-the-less optimistic because the European Union places a strong emphasis on supporting projects that strengthen contacts and collaboration between citizens of the members of the Union. He gave an overview of the opportunities the European Union offers during the next few years. The goal is that on the European level the collaborations do not take place only between directors, presidents and principals but also on the so called grass-root level. In other words - in the future collaborations will flourish not only between "the big" but also between "the small".