The participation rate in adult learning is the fourth highest in Finland. In 2012, approximately half of the population aged between 18 and 64, participated in adult education in 2012. The participation rate is habitually 10% higher for women since the 1980s.
What kind of adult education system can secure these high participation rates? The answer could be simple - a system that addresses comprehensively the different learning needs of adult learners. The key strengths of the Finnish adult learning system can be summarized as follows:
1.Individualised competence-based qualifications
Employment or career related qualifications have gained increasing popularity in recent years. In 2012, 54% of people participated in work-related adult learning. This share has been increasingly consistently over the past ten years. Again the use individual study plans and recognition of prior learning and experience have proven to be critical in ensuring that each individual learner’s needs are responded to effectively. The key principles of competence-based qualification system include: tripartite cooperation of employees, employers and teachers, independence of qualification from training, demonstrating skills in competence tests and personalization of the testing, e.g. completion of just one module rather than the full qualification. Employers have been found to respond particularly to this approach, for instance, by offering salary increases and other incentives to their staff to complete such career-based qualifications. However, there does remain a challenge in developing greater cooperation between the adult learning sector and the labour market to ensure all forms of informal and non-formal learning are also recognised as part of the system.
2. Highly flexible learning arrangements
Key features supporting adult learning leading to qualifications, whether career related or otherwise, include blended learning (through e-learning, for example) and the active use of individual learning plans and peer networks. After completing a qualification, there are different opportunities for adults to progress either horizontally to a higher level of education, but also vertically to other sectors and fields of learning within the national qualifications framework, according to the individual or professional need, interest and motivation. Recognition of prior learning is a key facet supporting this approach.
3.Opportunity for learners to pursue their own interests
In addition to employment related education leading to qualifications, the “liberal” education has managed to sustain its position as informal, non-vocational form of adult training. This type of training, for example arts and music classes, is often available in the evenings and over weekends, has been consistently popular in Finland. In 2012, about a sixth of the population aged 18–64 participated in this form of hobby or leisure related education, of which women accounted for as much as 70%. Such popularity demonstrates the value of adult education which allows adult learners to develop their self-expression skills freely without the restrictions of qualifications and working life demands.
4.Competitive adult learning sector
It should be noted that adult learning market is highly competitive in Finland. Given that government subsidies have been reduced in recent years, adult learning organisations have been compelled to find new ways of working, for example, by seeking cooperation with other education organizations and enterprises and finding new adult learner segments to secure the continuation for their operations. I would therefore expect more and more synergies across the different types of adult education providers alongside a greater diversification of adult learning provision. Cooperation between key stakeholders in adult learning and increasing the choice for individual learners will therefore become even more important over the next decade.
Dr. Eila Heikkilä has a Doctor in Education Degree from the Faculty of Policy and Society, Institute of Education, University of London. She is a Senior Expert with professional experience of more than 25 years in Education and Training, and 15 years in European Programmes of Education and International Education Development. Dr Heikkilä lectures on Adult Education at the University of Helsinki.