The big VET reform in Finland

The 2018 VET reform is the most extensive education reform in decades in the country.

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Author: Anni Karttunen 

Working life evolves rapidly, so the world of education must respond to the demand. The aim of the VET (vocational education and training) reform is to better accommodate the needs of working life - a task that is not always easy to carry out.

Arch of development

The planning started already in 2015 and the reform was enforced on the 1st of January 2018 along with a new, streamlined VET legislation.

Previously, there were two separate Acts for vocational education and training: one for adults and one for the young people, but now there is a single Act for VET.

Also, the VET administration has been simplified requiring the VET provider have one license to provide education and two statutory plans (competence assessment plan and personal competence development plan) instead of multiple licenses, plans and agreements. There will be significantly fewer qualifications (164 instead of 351) with more optional studies and specialization within the qualifications.

There are still three types of qualifications: Vocational Qualifications (for individuals with little or no experience of the field, or individuals with no previous vocational qualification), Further Vocational Qualifications and Specialist Vocational Qualifications that are aimed at a part of a population that has relatively extensive experience of their occupational field. The Finnish VET system has been competence-based for almost a quarter of a century.

Validation of non-formal and informal learning has been in the centre of the qualification system for adults and over the past few years increasingly also for the youth. In the new VET the competence-based approach is emphasised even further, meaning that everyone – whether young or adult - will have their personal competence development plan depending on their needs, experience and prior learning. 

The whole path to a qualification (or a part qualification) is based on individual competences – not time. There are no credit points, but competence points that are accumulated by demonstrating one’s competences, not sitting in the classroom for a certain number of hours. Just showing up does not count any more.

Money matters

The funding system in the new VET aims at preventing discontinuations of studies and it encourages validation of prior learning: 35% of the total government funding is allocated to VET providers on completion of qualifications or parts of qualifications. 15% of the funds are allocated based on either employment or further studies and the rest, 50% is basic funding to ensure education and training in all fields and to all students. This is a simplified model as the funding now comes from a single source instead of various trickles depending on the target group.

What about the students?

The students will have more flexibility in terms of studying; there will be no time restrictions, but a personal approach to studies along with guidance, i.e. the students are guided to learn only the competences they are missing; there will be more versatile learning environments with more focus on work-based learning and virtual learning; and there will be flexible admissions throughout the year.

The students’ will demonstrate their competences in practical work situations mainly in an authentic working environment, without having to sit through written tests or other forms of assessment. The assessment will be carried out by their teachers and employees together. 

The concerns to all this flexibility are well founded: will there be enough time and support for those young students, who are not clear on their aims and who are not self-directing? Will there be enough class room time for student, who really need more teacher-led tuition?

And teachers?

The teachers’ role changes quite a lot from traditional class room activities towards more couching and liaising between working life and the training organiser. As a bulk of the learning and the assessments take place at the workplaces, it requires ever closer co-operation between the teachers and the working life representatives.

Additionally, assessing prior learning and the existing competences may be slightly challenging for those teachers, who have not been working with the adult VET system (in which assessing individuals’ prior learning was a central feature even before the reform). It is quite a different practice to assess a learning process instead of existing competences. 

In the reform process some integral good practices were trashed: Specialist for Competence-based Qualifications -training programme was compulsory for at least one of the assessors in the old adult VET system. It was a very important quality assurance mechanism, whereas the new VET has not addressed systematic competence development at all.

How is it all implemented?    

A change of that calibre does not happen overnight in terms of practice. There are multiple government funded development projects, carried out by the VET providers, going on that aim at smoother transition, competence development of practitioners, quality assurance systems, networking with working life and so forth. However, there have been quite dire concerns stemming from the field, that it is not that easy to suddenly get working life to take on tens of thousands of young people in their organisations.

Also, there are not enough teachers trained with appropriate competences to assess and validate prior learning. Neither are there enough processes which would ensure smooth, high-quality working life co-operation. 

Different VET providers seem to be in different positions with the reform: some have started to plan the changes in their organisations years ago – and have been ready for the reform – whereas some are trying to cope with the reform as it was enforced. Some experts see that the reform is an opportunity to start doing things differently, some doom it as an utter failure.

Finnish culture of education – high quality education – is old and strong. The teaching staff is highly educated and innovative. Systems – even after a major reform - can and must be tweaked. There will be some victims of chaos in the beginning of the reform, but as the critical points are pinpointed, the good practices will iron out the worst wrinkles of the system.

See video (EN) of the Finnish VET reform here