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Could Finland become the number one exporter of vocational education and training?

Exporting vocational education and training deserves more attention among public discussions, as it poses a considerable opportunity for Finland.


Tatu Leinonen

Specialist, Nature and the economy


Exporting vocational education and training has not received a lot of attention among public discussions in Finland. But the topic deserves more coverage, as it poses a considerable opportunity for Finland. Although the opportunity for exporting such expertise has been recognised, the lack of co-operation among the interested parties in everyday life means that this chance to boost industry is going begging.

In May, the debate around vocational education and training (VET) was given an extra push in an Open Space meeting that was organised as part of Sitra’s New Education Forum. The meeting gathered representatives from companies, ministries, universities of applied sciences and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Discussions were structured according to topics that were decided by the participants: 1) understanding customer needs; 2) co-operative sales; 3) digital learning and learning through games; and 4) training programme modification.

The meeting demonstrated that Finland certainly has what it takes to succeed in exporting VET. Finnish organisations have knowledge of the target markets as well as customer needs. For instance, Finnish NGOs and universities of applied sciences have extensive networks in the field. Finn Church Aid has decades-long experience in areas that are vulnerable and prone to catastrophes. In addition, the universities of applied sciences are carrying out many international projects in places like Africa.

Finnish organisations are also perceived as trustworthy. Those interested in training often send enquiries to their personal Finnish contacts. For instance, Finland’s Diaconia University of Applied Sciences has received a request for help in organising interpretation training in Tanzania.

Exporting parts of Finnish training programmes instead of complete degrees

In the discussion, one of the current challenges was highlighted: there seems to be some uncertainty regarding what is on offer – what exactly are the training programmes and services that should be sold? The clients are unlikely to be interested in three-year-long training programmes. Instead, training matched to the client’s individual needs – improving engine maintenance skills for example – could offer the desired solution.

Instead of merely selling electronic schoolbooks, could the strength of Finnish experts lie in specialising in entirely new solutions that take into account the different contexts of learning? Could we deliver projects aimed at developing the schooling systems in different countries?

Development aid cannot be replaced by training exports

There is clearly a huge need for development aid and related co-operation in many areas. However, if an area is no longer in crisis and the environment is somewhat more stable, there may be fruitful opportunities for co-operation between the Finnish public and private sectors. At least theoretically, the development aid activities and VET exports could benefit from each other.

In the Open Space meeting, one Finn Church Aid project was discussed. It took place in Liberia and started by identifying the skills that needed to be developed. In that country, the production of eggs had recently plummeted. With the help of the training project local people were able to resume previous levels of production. Now egg production brings employment to a considerable number of locals and is a means for families to earn a living.

Following a project such as that in Liberia, could it be that in some cases Finnish service providers could profitably satisfy other emerging client needs? If so, it might be possible to achieve a true win-win situation, since the positive development brought about by development aid activities could be boosted further while at the same time the demand for Finnish VET exports would grow.

Huge demand for training

Many African countries face increasing youth unemployment, and vocational education and training would enhance the probability of finding a job for many. Currently, however, there are only a few experts offering high-quality training. What is more, although the solution of a Finnish organisation would match very narrowly defined “niche” needs only, the number of potential customers in the global market will be large.

The public sector might often benefit from the type of training that Finnish experts can provide. As an example of this, Jouni Hemberg, executive director of Finn Church Aid, told the Open Space meeting about an encounter with one country’s public servants who would not be able to produce a school curriculum because of a lack of skills.

On the other hand, in some cases a private factory might be interested in providing training for local people, to make sure that potential job seekers will have relevant and suitable knowledge and skills.

When there is a public or private sector organisation that wishes to purchase education or training, the purchasing should be made easy. If Finns do not seize the opportunity, someone else will.

Making purchasing easy with the help of a broker or an operator

The Open Space attendees brought up an idea about an “Edu Broker” that would operate as middleman between the buyer and seller. It would be the job of the broker to listen to the potential customers and identify key elements that satisfy their needs: if the customer talks about improving maths skills the broker would analyse and identify the beneficial elements that complement the purchasing of mathematics books. Then the broker would pass the information on to the training providers.

In addition, the attendees came up with the idea of a joint operator of the Finnish agents that would be responsible for sales. For instance, the joint stock sales company could actively manage client relations, answer prospective client enquiries and promote Finnish education services.

Both the ”Edu Broker” and the joint operator would help create a greater presence in the market that would in turn attract more enquiries and projects. Furthermore, being present locally also helps build an understanding of the customers’ needs as well as sharing information between Finnish organisations and experts.

Understanding customer needs thoroughly and sharing information were identified as key challenges in the Open Space meeting and solutions to these challenges were also figured out. In addition to the “Edu Broker” or the joint operator, analysing and reporting on the existing demand and supply was earmarked as a need. Such an analysis would highlight the client needs that Finnish operators could already be in a position to satisfy.

The attendees agreed that co-operation across organisational boundaries is desperately needed in order to develop the Finnish VET export sector. There was great enthusiasm among those at the meeting for sharing different information and material on target markets. This exchange of information would be a fruitful starting point for future co-operation.

The Vocational Education and Training Open Space was held as part of Sitra’s New Education Forum in Helsinki on May 18, 2015. The picture below summarises the discussions (in Finnish).

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