Since the 1970s, Finland’s upper secondary vocational schools have been modernized and expanded; they are now such a popular option in Finland that 42 percent of upper secondary students are enrolled in VET programs. Upper secondary programs typically last for three years and are full-time programs of study. Each of the programs requires six months of on-the-job learning in addition to coursework. About 75 percent of the coursework is vocational, in a student’s field of choice, and the remaining 25 percent of coursework is in the core curriculum subjects, which are common to all upper secondary pathways. Students must also complete career counseling and a final project, which can take many forms, including a paper, a set of work assignments, a product or a project. Students are often assessed by performing skills and tasks for an evaluator, and are expected to leave the program with extensive basic skills in their field as well as specialized competence in one area of the field.
Upon completion of an upper secondary vocational program, students have the option of going on to one of Finland’s polytechnic colleges, allowing them to enter the workforce as highly-skilled employees. Polytechnic colleges require three-and-a-half to four-and-a-half-years of student training and education, and students may also go on to study for a polytechnic master’s degree after completing college-level training and working in the field for a minimum of three years.
The Finnish National Board of Education is responsible for developing national VET qualifications including career areas to be covered based on an analysis of the labor market. The model is geared towards anticipating long-term educational needs of industry (about 15 years out) and is regularly updated with new industry forecasts. The career areas cover eight fields and include within them more than 50 vocational qualifications. The fields are Technology and Transport, Business and Administration; Health and Social Services; Tourism; Catering and Home Economics; Culture; Natural Resources; and Physical Education. The qualifications are developed by a broad range of stakeholders, including representatives from the Ministries of Education and Employment and the Economy, unions, industry, and universities. The qualifications support flexible and efficient transition to the labor market as well as occupational development. Lifelong learning skills are emphasized and students can include modules from other vocational qualifications.
Vocational institutions provide up-to-date technology to ensure practical, hands-on teaching. Teachers of vocational subjects are required to have an appropriate Master’s degree or a polytechnic degree (or the highest possible qualification in their occupational field) plus three years of work experience in the field. Vocational teachers are trained in pedagogy and teaching practice at five vocational teacher education colleges and one Swedish-speaking university. This training is provided free of charge for students. Vocational teachers are also required to participate in continuing training each year (usually up to five hours per school year) to keep their classroom competencies up-to-date. Alongside teachers, there are workplace instructors who supervise students during on-the-job learning periods. These are generally experienced foremen and skilled workers who guide students and assess their vocational skills.
For adults who want to further their education or increase their skill levels, programs and classes are available, whether the ultimate goal is learning to read or earning a master’s degree. Adults who did not complete upper secondary school may take courses in order to earn a general education certificate or vocational qualification; they can strengthen their education in certain subject areas, or they may take non-degree or diploma courses. Adult participation in lifelong learning (26.4 percent) in Finland is much higher than the EU average (10.8 percent in 2016). Education for adults is divided into three categories: self-motivated, self-training, and labor market training. Self-motivated learning falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education and Culture, while the other two categories come under the purview of the Ministry of Employment and the Economy.
The Finnish government is implementing a series of reforms in 2018, with the goal of improving the status of VET in Finnish society. The funding system and structure will be reformed while keeping the various existing educational pathways. One goal is to increase learning in more authentic workplace settings. Another is to make it easier to enter vocational education by enabling students to apply throughout the year and begin training at different points in the year. The government will increase its investment in VET in order to ease the administrative and financial burden on employers. VET financing and associated legislation will be streamlined by combining the financing systems of upper secondary VET, continuing VET, apprenticeship training, and labor market courses into a single entity. Furthermore, the number of existing qualifications will be cut from 360 to 150, enabling students and employers to more easily navigate and interpret qualifications and making them more broad-based.