Finnish folkbildning's new role in immigrant education

A new law, in force since the beginning of 2018, assigns Finnish folkbildning the task of literacy and basic language education for immigrants. The new law creates a model intended to capitalize on the strengths of folkbildning: flexibility and versatility in delivery, methods and course duration. The Finnish folkbildning field delights in the more dependable, long-term resources accompanying the model but worries about the effects of the model on the freedom of folkbildning. This article takes a closer look at these hopes and anticipations and sheds light on the new integration training law and model.

Planting a seed. Immigrant students learn to plant tomatoes on a language course at the Kaukametsä adult education centre in the Northern city of Kajaani. Photo: Anna Huusko. Planting a seed. Immigrant students learn to plant tomatoes on a language course at the Kaukametsä adult education centre in the Northern city of Kajaani. Photo: Anna Huusko.

By Markus Palmén

Much of the know-how in integration training and education for immigrants resides in folkbildning in Finland. The Finnish field of liberal adult education –in this article referred to as folkbildning – consists of adult education centres, folk high schools, study centres, summer universities and sports institutes. Virtually all of these learning institutions house decades of experience offering tuition for immigrants, most of it language and general knowledge education.

The year 2018 ushered in a new era in Finland, as a new law expanded folkbildning's tasks and resources in immigrant education.

Legislation brings new tasks and long-term resources

The new piece of legislation, in a nutshell, establishes a fresh education model for immigrants, carried out by folkbildning. As a result, a fair amount, if not a lion's share, of immigrants' integration training has become a responsibility of folkbildning learning institutions as of January 2018. This comprises both literacy (reading and writing) and basic language education in Finnish (and to a lesser degree Swedish in Swedish-speaking areas) and basic education for adults with a limited or non-existent basic education background.

The law affects the training of all immigrants with an “integration plan”. This includes, but is not limited to refugees who have been granted asylum in Finland. Equally, immigrants who are unemployed, are in employment, are studying or tend to children at home may have an integration plan drafted by their local employment agency and home community.

The political context of the new law is found in the current Finnish centre-right government's flagship initiative of “hastening paths into working life”.

These new tasks for folkbildning come with increased resources in the form of full state subsidies, with options of extra ad hoc funding. These subsidies are longer-term than the uncertain, short-term funding most folkbildning institutions are used to. More dependable resources in turn enable long-term planning and development of educational offers for immigrants.

Meet Arsema and Ferzan:

A typical scenario under the new law could unfold like this. Arsema* arrives from Eritrea with elementary reading and writing skills. She arrives with her small child, and both are granted asylum in Finland and eventually an integration plan is drafted either by the receiving community and the employment agency. Under the new law Arsema could be offered a place on a Finnish language course in an adult education centre where the language is taught using everyday situations possibly with integrated arts and crafts elements, including music. Arsema might for instance learn the Finnish words for weekdays and months through a song. These active, “learning-by-doing” elements are indeed indispensable as there is no common language at the beginning of the studies. The course runs twice a week for two hours and lasts 30 weeks. Childcare is arranged for the duration of the study. She might later be referred to a folk high school to begin a basic education syllabus for adults, running for two semesters.  

Ferzan** has arrived in Finland from Iraqi Kurdistan, has a solid basic education and literacy skills but needs training in using Latin script. The employment agency might send him to a folk high school or summer university on an intensive course running on weekends. In the future this offer might be complemented with a module developed by a study centre together with NGOs geared towards active citizenship. This offer would aid Ferzan in proceeding to other integration training and eventually into vocational education or working life. 

*,**: Arsema and Ferzan are fictitious students taking up integration training in folkbildning according to the new Finnish model.

Outcome of a strong lobby and the refugee crisis

The flexibility and versatile nature of folkbildning should be an excellent fit for integration training with its students of a myriad backgrounds and learning needs – thus the official reasoning for the new law voiced from the Ministry of Education and Culture. But given folkbildning's long track record in immigrant education, what took so long for this model to be introduced in Finland?

Experts in the field testify to a long and ultimately successful lobbying effort from folkbildning institutions. The time seems to have been ripe also politically.

Particularly, the new law is perceived by many to be a triumph for folk high schools and their advocacy organization. Here the events of the year 2015 and its refugee influx play a part. Folk high schools managed to accommodate some 3000 underage refugees into folk high schools on a short notice and start their basic education and integration training. This tour de force may have convinced some in the upper echelons of government of folkbildning's prowess in integration education.

The speed with which the new legislation came into force is also remarkable: many in the field are still learning the ropes of the new model, and glitches in the system are bound to be fixed on the go.

Long courses is a strength of folk high schools

Petri Pullinen helms the Lahti Folk High School in the city of Lahti, some 100 kilometres north of the capital Helsinki. The school, particularly known for its theatre and film programmes, looks out onto the surrounding city from the top of a hill – an urban institution in contrast with the many rural folk high schools.

The principal already draws a nuanced balance sheet of the new law’s practical effects on the daily work of his institution:

– We can drop tuition fees for students in integration training thanks to the full state subsidy. This already sends an empowering message for our immigrant students. I should hope that our tuition fee-paying students do not feel discriminated against, Petri Pullinen explains.

In Pullinen's estimate the general feeling among folk high schools is positive about the new legislation. Folk high schools are playing to their strengths in immigrant education. This strength, according to Pullinen, is the long-syllabus courses. 

– A typical duration of our offers in immigrant training is about nine months and even this seems insufficient to achieve solid learning results. This leads me to being quite skeptical of short courses, Pullinen says.

The Finnish Adult Education Centre sees short courses as a kickstart

The Finnish Adult Education Centre in Helsinki is one of the biggest folkbildning institutions in the country, with some 80 000 participants yearly. Some 10 percent of the Centre's offers are already directed at immigrant students but basic literacy tuition is still a relatively new area for the Centre.

– We felt we needed to be a part of this new model even if it meant cutting back a bit on our other offers, mostly from Finnish language tuition. It was a value-based decision for us to take up some of these important integration tasks, says principal Taina Saarinen.

Saarinen's institution was awarded some 1000 instruction hours under the new model, which, in the principal's words blends into the Centre's huge portfolio of offers rather easily. What will change, however, is that educators will need to devote more thought and time to guidance of the students.

– Taking part in mapping out a personal study path for immigrant students before, during and after our courses is an added responsibility for our teachers in this new model. 

Short courses find a staunch defender in Saarinen.

– If we think of a typical offer of some 100 tuition hours, it is clear that we cannot work miracles. But we can get people on the path of learning, on the right track. And when we integrate active elements from, say, our arts and crafts courses into the teaching, I am sure we will see results.  

The new model sends ripples outside urban centres

The new law is making itself felt even outside big cities. The Kaukametsä adult education centre is located in the town of Kajaani in Northern Finland, far from the bustle of the urban centres of the South. The town and its region are typically a place of transit for immigrants, with few of them settling down. Kajaani houses a refugee reception center, the inhabitants of which study basic language courses at the adult education centre.

Local networking and synergy! Principal Aune Kariluoto is quick to describe the effects of the new law on Kaukametsä. The new model requires deeper cooperation and coordination between the employment and community authorities and the adult education centre for an efficient referral of immigrants into language studies.  

– This is an excellent nudge towards increased local networking, across sectors and silos so to say, Kariluoto rejoices.

Integrating arts and crafts into language education

The new model boosts internal networking as well. The increased subsidy enables sharing of responsibility for language courses among several language teachers, and elements from other courses offered at the centre are integrated into immigrant language education. All this leads to increased collegial cooperation but, importantly, also to meetings between immigrants and the native population.

– We've had a local gardener come in and teach tomato cultivation on the language course. In January we had a student come in with absolutely no common language between us. We soon realized that he was aching to try a guitar he'd seen on the wall of a classroom. So we started language training through guitar lessons and music, Kariluoto explains.

Versatility of folkbildning: still misunderstood? 

Folk high schools typically –though not exclusively - offer longer courses with the students often living on campus, while adult education centres and summer universities normally specialize in shorter offers. It is this versatility in offers that the official wordings of the Ministry praise in folkbildning: single mothers with children, for instance, or employed immigrants can more easily commit to a short-duration evening course.

Yet there is talk in the field of the need for a long overdue paradigm change in how the state and employment agencies view immigrant training. Opinions are voiced that there is still little true understanding of the multi-faceted nature of folkbildning and its different offers of varying length and methods. The dominant paradigm still favours long school-like courses. Consequently there has been concerns in the field that all institution types might not get their share of the new resources. 

That being said, the new legislation and model does not directly mean an absolute increase in resources. Adult education institutions with little previous immigrant education may have to invest in new staff or materials should they wish to apply for resources under the new law. This was the case at Kaukametsä centre. Many centres and schools are now quickly doing the math on what kind of courses it would be wise to organize to get a share of the pie. An increase in courses designed exclusively for immigrants’s basic language education may mean diminished number of other, “mainstream” courses, as was the situation at the Finnish Adult Education Centre.

Freedom of folkbildning must be safeguarded

In sum, then, the field of folkbildning seems to be living in a period of excited anticipation regarding the new law and the model created through its implementation. Despite, at the time of this writing, the law having been in force for only some months, its effects are already felt in institutions around the country, also outside densely populated centres. Adult educators delight in long-term, dependable resources, cooperation synergies and the important task itself, but worry about whether the versatility of folkbildning is properly understood.

An additional concern is voiced by principal Pullinen, of Lahti Folk High School. It concerns the cross-sector recommendations for content published by the Finnish National Agency for Education. These recommendations offer a framework on for example the aims and fields of study of education under the new model, on the basis of which providers should draft their own syllabus plans.   

– Increasing our resources should not be a way for the state to smuggle quantifiable performance criteria into folkbildning. Neither should they influence our syllabi, Petri Pullinen says.

– Folkbildning's traditional freedom in defining its own goals and methods is among our greatest strengths!

Lessons from Sweden

During the so-called refugee crisis of 2015 Sweden faced the highest number of first-time asylum applicants in the Nordic countries – over 160 000. Folkbildning in Sweden stepped up to the huge task of providing education for the masses waiting for months, even up to several years for their pending asylum decisions. This new responsibility brought with it increased resources for Swedish folkbildning – a clear comparison point with the new role of folkbildning in Finland. 

Mats Bernerstedt is an Uppsala-based consultant for NGOs and author of a recent report into folkbildning's role in integration education. He remembers the enthusiasm in the field at the beginning of the work in offering adult education for the asylum seekers.

– The aim of all education was to make the waiting time meaningful for the asylum seekers – to offer tuition in everyday Swedish language, and also general studies. The need for teachers was so big: many volunteers as well as recruited teachers helped, Bernerstedt recalls.

Study associations with their study circles shouldered the bulk of the responsibility offering short language courses of 30 to 50 hours. 

Bernerstedt describes the effort as energizing but understandably not without its problems. Reaching and getting female students on the courses was difficult, and possible synergy with “mainstream” folkbildning courses remained untapped as groups were not allowed to mix.

Nevertheless, the effort left its mark on Swedish folkbildning.

– The government apparently regarded folkbildning's role a success as folkbildning's funding has not been cut for 2017 and 2018, contrary to expectations, Bernerstedt explains.  

The Swedish experience has parallels with the Finnish folkbildning's new increased role, even though in Finland the new law is not formally limited to asylum seekers. What lessons would Mats Bernerstedt draw from Sweden's case to his colleagues across the gulf?

His message is clear and concrete. Decision makers should trust the characteristic flexibility of folkbildning in fulfilling the new role in integration education.

- Wherever possible, immigrants should study alongside native citizens. It is an ambition to introduce more mixed groups in Sweden, also. More importantly the funders should not interfere with the educational content, length and methods – therein lies the freedom and flexibility of folkbildning. 

Sources and further reading (in Finnish language):


The Ministry of Education and Culture: "Working group memo on folkbildning's new task in immigrant education".

The Finnish National Agency for Education: "Syllabus recommendation for immigrants' literacy training".