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An outside look at education in Nordic countries

An outside look at education in Nordic countries

For a long time, the « Nordic model » was presented as an ideal western countries should strive for, particularly in the field of education.

Today, that notion is more nuanced, partly because we have taken a more realistic look at these societies, and partly because Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark - to name only the four largest Nordic countries - are far from being one uniform whole.

However, despite their national differences, these countries share a few salient characteristics with regards to education which, though they should not be overrated, are worth taking a look at.

Education as a common good

Historically, education was seen as a common good within the welfare state, which has long been the main trait of Northern countries. Traces of that legacy can still be seen today despite the economic liberalism which has helped society grow.

First, education - including higher education - is close to or completely free. All citizens must have access to education: such is the principle of equality, in which Nordic culture is deeply rooted.

To illustrate its importance: until recently, even foreign students were exempt from tuition fees. While Denmark and Sweden changed this - in 2006 and 2011, respectively - Norway refused to implement such a reform in 2015.

It may not prevent social differences from widening the gap, but the idea that education is a public good lives on, which implies significant expenses for the State and favours a high rate of access to higher education.

The autonomy of institutions

Nordic institutions may be funded by the government, but they are quite autonomous, particularly in higher education.

The framework is defined at the national level, as are the universities’ overall missions: in addition to education and research, they must also contribute to the country’s socio-economic development - and have had to do so for a long time. On the other hand, their organisation and management is under their control.

A system centered around the student

In Nordic culture, confidence and self-esteem are considered essential values which should be nurtured from early childhood, both at home and at school.

At school, this means teachers will have a less formal relationship with their students. They will be more approachable and the hierarchy will be less strict than in other Western countries.

Furthermore, active learning methods may be gaining ground across the world, encouraging students to speak and participate is a well-established practice in Northern countries. The focus is on students and the skills they must acquire to grow and find a job.

Lifelong learning

It is more common to resume one’s studies in Nordic countries than in other parts of Europe, where lifelong learning isn’t as developed. This is not a mere financial or administrative matter: it represents a state of mind.

Education is a continuum, not a straight path towards acquiring a diploma. According to the latest available data from Cedefop (European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training), 25% of Swedish, Finnish, and Danish adults were continuing education in 2016, whereas the same can be said of only 10,8% of all European adults.

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