Parallels of contrasts: Education in Finland and Nepal

Nepal's public school system has some features similar to that of the Finnish education system. How did Finland become the envy of the world in education? Why is Nepal's public education still a tale of woe?

Left, Finnish children with laptops, right, a Nepali child reading a book. Photo credit: Education Finland/USAID/Nepal

Mahabir Paudyal

  • Read Time 11 min.

Helsinki/Kathmandu: Where most government ministers are well educated young women, where people are happier than anywhere else, where education is free for all in all levels, where politics is about wellbeing of people, where the government is least corrupt, where the learning outcome is the world’s best, where they always rank high in several global indexes.

This is Finland.

Much of what happens in Finland—in terms of accountability, transparency, good governance and service delivery to the people—might sound like a fairytale to most of us in the Global South—where many things have been deliberately left into the mess by those in power.

I returned home with this impression from Helsinki, the Finnish capital, in mid-October. Perhaps  my colleagues from South Africa, South Korea, Chile, Brazil, the Philippines, Ethiopia, Kenya, Columbia, and Mexico–who were on a visit to Finland–returned home with the same impression. From what the university professors, researchers, teachers and government officials said one would not draw a different conclusion.

Poverty to prosperity

Finland was not built in a day: It was poor, unstable and an unhappy country. The Finnish officials do not hide this truth when they talk to you.

Until independence in 1917, it was a poor rural developing country with small family farms and a large number of landless populations. Only five percent of the total population received more than basic education at schools. People perished in famines during the 1800s. Seeking a better life, many Finns immigrated to the New World and, much later, to Sweden, according to the book How Finland Became Finland. The gross domestic product was very low.

Finnish houses today are equipped with power but back in those days, keeping the houses warm during the winter was a major challenge. Having enough food was like an ordeal. “It also used to be critical to gather and store enough food supplies to last nine months of the year–it was a matter of survival,” writes the book. Finland was not a very lucrative destination for foreign investments either.

Finland suffered colonialism, of one or other type, and a civil war. For nearly seven centuries, the country was part of Sweden. Then there was a war between Sweden and Russia and the Russian empire conquered Finland, making Finland a part of the Russian empire for more than 100 years. Soon after independence in 1917, the civil war followed.

During the Second World War, the Soviet Union attacked Finland in 1939 and Finland fought two back-to-back wars against the Soviet Union, says the book. Finland lost parts of its territory and had to pay war reparations.

On the right, Ville Skinnari, Finnish Minister for Development Cooperation and Foreign Trade,  talking with journalists. Photo credit: Media visit to Finland

Finland—a remote, poor and cold place until then—used to receive development loans until the 1970s. “Many people may not know about it but Finland received development aid until 1970,” Ville Skinnari, Minister for Development Cooperation and Foreign Trade, told us.  “During the second world war, we were a poor country. We suffered a lot. But we had a far sighted political leader and decision makers who saw that by investing into education, we could pave the way for a prosperous society.”

It’s the education

How did the country that suffered much for several decades emerge as one of the topmost prosperous and the happiest countries in the world? Ask this to any Finnish—government officials, ministers, professors or the people—and they have a uniform answer: The education.

The love for learning was instilled in people early on. “In the old days, men and women in Finland needed to prove they could read if they wanted to get married. Due to this, by the end of the 19th century, almost 100 percent of the population were able to read,” mentions How Finland Became Finland.

Finland’s education system became the talk of the globe probably for the first time in 2000 when the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) of Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, showed that its education was the best in the world. Ever since, it has been ranking topmost in PISA and there has been no going back.

Years of politicization, coupled with a wilful neglect, in the public education sector continue to remain a stumbling block to education reforms in Nepal. 

The Finnish officials and professors attribute the prosperity miracle and outstanding rankings in global indexes to the education system, for which the state realized the need to invest more during and after the Second World War. They started a school meals program in 1940. In 1943, a law was made to provide meals for all students. In 2004, school meals became part of the national school core curriculum.

So today, in every school in Finland, one sees the children relishing school meals.  The meals served are of the best possible quality in terms of nutrition.

For the Finnish people and in Finnish schools, school meals are not just meals. “School meals are more than feeding the pupils and students. The philosophy behind this program is that hungry children cannot learn,” said Hille Janhonen Abruquash, Professor of Home Economics Pedagogy at the University of Helsinki. “Total of 830,000 students, from kindergarten to university, eat school meals every day.”

According to her, the importance of school meals became stark during the Covid-19 pandemic. “Parents and students missed school meals so much during the Covid-19,” she said. “Because they had to be working from home while at the same time ensuring that the children eat on time.” Though the meals include only lunch, some schools have started to provide breakfast as well, she explained.

Finns link school meals programs with the wellbeing and health of the citizens. “School catering is part of the national efforts to secure good learning outcomes as well as nutrition and to promote health and welfare. The organization of school catering and the dining environment for food education during school meals follows the national core curriculum,” said Marjaana Manninen, Senior Advisor of Education at Finnish National Agency for Education. “At best, school meals add joy to the working culture at the school, increasing school satisfaction and positive attitudes towards school, and improving the learning results.”

But how did the idea of school meals start? What pushed it?

“Initially, the school meals were introduced to address poverty and malnutrition during the Second World War,” said Ville Skinnari, Minister for Development Cooperation and Foreign Trade. According to him, school meals, apart from feeding the Finnish children, are also supporting the local economy at the moment. “It is supporting local farmers and markets, creating jobs, boosting the local economy and increasing income for farmers, apart from supporting health and wellbeing.”

“Our philosophy is that a hungry child cannot learn. We believe that nothing destroys potential like hunger,” he said.

Children eating school meals at Vikki Teacher Training School in Helsinki. Photo credit: Media visit to Finland

Investment in teachers is another pillar of Finland’s success in education. “We are often asked why Finland has the best education in the world.  The best answer is that we have the best teachers in the world. It’s like in sports. If you have the best coaches your players win,” said the minister.

And the process through which they prepare teachers for schools is rigorous and inspiring. A person aspiring to become a teacher has to have five years’ master’s degree qualification in pedagogical sciences. When they graduate from the universities, universities are responsible for the quality of education the graduates impart.

Teacher education is one of the most attractive training programs at the Finnish universities. For example, at the University of Helsinki only five to 15 percent of the applicants are accepted to the primary teacher education program. Teachers are considered academic professionals and they are paid the best salaries. There are 13 teacher training schools across the country where the student teachers are trained.  The student teachers are mentored by PhD professors and they are involved in educational research.

In Finland, political parties compete to best each other in terms of further improving the education system, to present a better education agenda than others. “All the political parties have agreed that investing in education is a worthwhile investment for the prosperity of the country.  We invest about five percent of GDP in education–one of the highest rates in the world.  From the left to the right they have different kinds of emphasis. Social democrats and left alliance are in favor of raising the compulsory education age. Conservatives and center parties are concerned about ensuring the best study opportunities for all regions of the country.  Higher education and research have been high on the agenda of the conservatives.” said Hille Janhonen Abruquash, Professor of Home Economics Pedagogy at the University of Helsinki. “There is a difference in terms of emphasis but there is a broader consensus on the big goals.”

Can there be a variation in terms of school type? Well, there can be, opined professor Hille. “But not in terms of quality education. Every school is the best possible school in the country.”

In Finland, municipalities enjoy autonomy and they adapt the national curriculum to fit the local contexts and needs. Municipalities also take care of the early childhood education, including pre-primary education after which the children start school from the age of seven. 

To sum up, when a child is born, parents are given as many days as possible as paid paternity and maternity leave. When the child is ready for early education, there are municipalities to take their care at heavily subsidized rates and after that the parents entrust their children’s education—from basic education to the university education including the PhDs for Finnish people—to the state, all free of charge.

So that no child/adolescent will be deprived of basic education, Finland has raised the age of compulsory education to 18 years, spending as much as 7.5 billion Euros for education.

“Finland was one of the poorest countries in Europe after the Second World War. So the country came up with the idea to educate the whole of people to ensure employment to all and to industrialize the country,” said Hille. “What we have achieved now is a miracle. Only in a few centuries we are now one of the most competitive countries globally.”

The Nordic country is now worried about another problem: There are many more educated women and girls than men and boys. “We are very much concerned about it because this is not a good situation. Boys and men are struggling in Finnish society. Life expectancy is lower among men, more accidents are happening to men.  The fact that Finland is an aging society has to do with the fact that those men with poor education and poor employability tend to be left out with family,” she said.

Finland is showcasing its education system to the world as the country’s biggest possible achievement. So journalists, educators, policy makers and ministers from the Global South are invited to the programs to brief them about the Finnish education system. What lesson they learn during such visits, or whether they learn any lesson at all, is a different matter altogether.

Nepal’s irony of education

Nepal does not have a long history of education. It was only after the 1950s that Nepali state began to take responsibility for educating the citizens.  Not able to handle the responsibility, or rather not willing to, in later years the state began to allow the private sectors to come into the education field so that they would complement the government efforts.  After the political change in 1990, the private sector was even more encouraged to come and invest in education.

Now, there are two parallel systems running in Nepal: Public education system funded by the state and the private education system–from kindergarten to colleges to universities. The former, which is affordable for a large majority of Nepalis, is riddled with anomalies on multiple fronts, the latter, which claims to be better than the former, is beyond the affordability of the poor.

Photo: Brookings Institution

All the same, Nepal’s public school education system retains some of the features of Finnish education system.

The government runs pre-primary blocks in all schools, which is like the early education system of Finland.  Nepal also has school meal programs in government schools—the program run as a pilot project in some schools in 2012 has now been implemented in nearly all schools.  Some municipalities provide additional budget support to the schools to run the programs. 

At the moment, Nepal’s public schools are facing a crisis of another kind: Serious lack of public trust in them as well as the lack of students.  

Teacher selection process was not so rigorous and systematic in the past. Anybody could become a teacher after graduating from high school (SLC) until recently. But this scenario is also changing gradually. An aspiring teacher is required to take a teacher training course—either they have to have degrees from education faculty or they have to do a one-year BED course—during which at least one and half months of teaching practice is mandatory. Apart from that, a person aspiring to become a teacher in government schools also has to obtain the teacher’s license for which, again, one has to have studied education. The Teacher Service Commission appoints teachers after written exams and interviews.

But years of politicization, coupled with a wilful neglect, in the public education sector continue to remain a stumbling block to reforms. Extreme politicization has left Tribhuvan University–the institution which actually runs formal teacher training programs and provides educational degrees–in such a mess, there is little hope the oldest university will become any better in the days to come (a university teacher declared in 2018 that TU is dead). Student unions affiliated to the ruling party keep the institution padlocked for months on end. Even professors are attacked with iron rods.   Politicization is rife in public schools as well.  Political parties openly employ teachers in their organizations and the teachers happily comply because there is a promise of promotion offers in return. So much so that political leaders encourage teachers to be involved in active politics. And as if  this were not enough—cases of corruption  are reported in school meal programs as well. 

Tribhuvan University, Nepal

By law, the state is bound to provide school education for free to all children. The constitution states that “every citizen shall have the right to get compulsory and free education up to the basic level and free education up to the secondary level from the State.” Likewise,  the Act Relating to Compulsory and Free Education (2018) obligates the state to fulfill this commitment. As such, education should be free up to grade 12 in public schools. But in truth, public schools too charge fees citing inadequate government funding.  The government fails to provide textbooks to the students on time nearly every year, impeding learning opportunities for the large majority of students who attend these schools. 

Granted some of these ailments will be ameliorated one day. But Nepal’s public schools are facing a crisis of another kind: Serious lack of public trust in them as well as the lack of students.  There was a time when government schools were so few and the students too many. Today, we have better-equipped schools but they lack students (few government schools stand out but they are doing so out of their own initiatives). Why this is happening is obvious. First, there is no trust in public schools. Such is the situation that officials working in the Ministry of Education, parliamentarians who make laws about public education and  even the teachers working in government schools educate their children in private schools. Ministers and parliamentarians run some of the most expensive private schools in Kathmandu. When asked why there are no private schools and colleges in Finland, Titta Maja, Director General at the Department of Development Policy in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, said “because there has never been any need for private schools and colleges in Finland.”

Nepal’s political elites do not care much about it because they can afford to send their children to expensive private schools (if they choose to educate their kids in Nepal itself) or send them abroad for tertiary and master’s degree education.  Majority of graduates from private schools leave for higher education abroad. 

Nepal’s education system needs sweeping reforms on multiple fronts. Irony of the matter is that political leaders who are going to the polls on November 20 are not even talking about education reforms in a real concrete sense.  

We have teacher training programs–which actually dates back to 1947. We have the faculty of education in the university with as many as 26 constituent colleges and 560 affiliated colleges, whose aim is to produce competent human resources to teach in different levels of school education but unlike in Finland, this is not the program most Nepalis would like to enroll in. In Nepal, those who fail to secure better grades in high school or do poorly in subjects like math, science and English, but who still wish to pursue higher education, go to join the education faculty. Most students from public schools begin to do the paperwork to leave for the Middle East or the Gulf states as early as they are in high school.

Nepal’s education system needs sweeping reforms on multiple fronts. But another irony of the matter is that political leaders, barring few exceptions like Rabindra Mishra, Milan Pandey and Shisir Khanal, who are going to the polls on November 20 are not even talking about education reforms in a real sense.  And the people do not seem to mind because they know politicians are not going to change the status quo.

As the Finnish officials were telling us their success stories in education, I was thinking about the problems, most of them created by state actors themselves, facing Nepal’s education, silently admonishing them for their irresponsibility on education, and secretly wishing one day Nepal too would be able to talk about the country’s education as glowingly as Finns are doing today.