Finland is considered to have one of the best education systems in the world. Education is state-run and free to all children and adults, from preschool to university and beyond. Children do not start school until they are age 7 in Finland and education is compulsory up to the age of 16. The system comprises a non-compulsory preschool year from age six followed by a nine year ‘basic education’ between the ages of 7 and 16. Following compulsory education, school-leavers can choose to join the workforce or continue on to general or vocational upper secondary education. Both forms usually take three years and allow eligibility for higher education.
The academic year runs from mid-August to the end of July and is divided into four semesters or ‘teaching periods.’ In schools, the day starts at around 8am to 9am and ends at around 2pm. All children are provided with a free healthy lunch until they are 16.
Finland has a distinguished higher education system consisting of 14 universities and 24 Universities of Applied Sciences (UAP), with the University of Helsinki being the largest and highest-ranked. Admission to university is dependent on upper secondary school examinations known as the abitur and highly transparent, merit-based university entrance examinations. Higher education is regulated by the Ministry of Education and Culture, although Finnish universities enjoy significant autonomy over their finances and are classed as corporations in law. Higher education in Finland is funded by the state but universities are also expected to raise their own funds from external sources.
Tuition is currently free to all Finnish and EU/EEA students, although fees for non-EU/EEA students are to be introduced in 2017, along with a range of generous scholarship options.
Finnish degrees consist of three-year undergraduate courses followed by two-year Master’s degrees. PhDs take around four years to complete and are fully funded - doctoral students are either employed by the institution or receive funding from external sources. Finnish is the main language of tuition, however many courses are now taught almost entirely in English.
Finns believe investment in research to be vital to the country’s economic success. The research system is relatively decentralised, with the majority of activities based in universities, UAPs and 18 government research institutes. Funding is provided via the Finnish Research and Innovation Council and the Strategic Research Council, both branches of the Academy of Finland, a national organisation which provides specific grants and fellowships.
Primary and secondary education
The Finnish state education system is not divided into primary and secondary schools - children receive a nine-year ‘basic education’ which is compulsory from ages 7 to 16. The ‘primary’ part of the basic education lasts to age 12 and the remaining four years consist of ‘secondary’ education. Basic education is followed by voluntary enrolment in upper secondary school, divided into ‘general’ (academic subjects) and ‘vocational schools’ (technology, health, transport, social services etc.).
The success of Finnish education has been attributed to the fact that children start school later than in other countries (at age 7) combined with a focus on learning, rather than testing throughout education. Indeed, Finnish children only take one set of exams (matriculation or ylioppilastukinto) in their school life - at the end of upper secondary school - to gain admission to university. Admission to upper secondary school is decided on a student’s grade point average.
Preschool education in Finland is widely known as one of the best and most heavily subsidised systems in the world. Free universal childcare is available to every child under the age of 7, regardless of family income, in state-run preschools or day care centres. The pre-school or ‘kindergarten’ year (between ages 6 and 7) is not compulsory but over 97% of children are enrolled in the system, which provides four hours of structured play, meals and healthcare five mornings per week.