Is the Finnish education system still an inspiration of good practices?

By Íris Santos & Elias Pekkola

The first OECD PISA survey placed Finnish education in the spotlight for its success and effectiveness, leading Finland to be internationally acclaimed for its education expertise (e.g., Sellar & Lingard, 2013; Sahlberg, 2011).

International organisations, as well as national educators and policymakers worldwide turned their eyes to this small Nordic country to understand the factors that led to such success (e.g., Santos & Centeno, 2021; Dobbins & Martens, 2011; Ringarp & Rothland, 2010). Consequently, these organisations and other countries began to use Finland as a good example of a decentralised system that achieved great performance. Finland quickly became a country that others looked to as a benchmark and for inspiration to improve their national education systems.

Understanding the potential of its new international position, Finland’s government invested in developing a Finnish brand of education and promoting Finnish education export services (e.g., Schatz et al., 2015; Chung, 2017). Educational export became one of the priority areas of Finnish education, trade and development policy (Juusola, 2020). Proud of its achievement, in its 2010 Country Brand Report, Finland states the aim of “becom[ing] one of the world’s leading education-based economies” (MoEC, 2010). Schatz et al. (2015) highlight that this report (Schatz et al., 2015) establishes education as a strategic sector used to brand the Finnish nation.

Almost 21 years have passed since PISA results were made public for the first time, and the flame of the Finnish education expertise is fading. Finland’s position in the survey rankings have been sinking while other countries with more rigid, demanding and unequal education systems, such as China, Japan, Singapore and South Korea, rise in these rankings (Baroutsis & Lingard, 2017; Waldow et al., 2014). Thus, we consider that now might be a good time to ask: Is Finnish education expertise still inspiring education systems and international organisations around the world?

The intent of this post is not to reflect on the Finnish PISA success or decline, but rather to understand Finland’s impact in the global education development cooperation through its participation in international organisations initiatives. As part of our on-going study on The Presence and Influence of Finnish Education Sector Expertise in International Organisations (e.g., Santos et al., 2022), we interviewed 31 Finnish citizens that have recently or are still working as education experts in international organisations – mostly, UN agencies and the World Bank, but also others such as EU and GPE. We aimed to understand their views on a) the roles of international organisations in local education development in the Global South countries, b) whether Finland has a voice in decision-making within the organisations for whom they work(ed), and c) how do these Finnish experts describe their own influence and impact in these organisations’ initiatives.


International organisations and development cooperation: A tool in the support of development or for the perpetuation of colonial relationships North-South?

The Finnish education experts recounted their experiences and understanding about the roles and impacts of international organisations in education development, highlighting the positive and negative, intended and unintended consequences. International organisations are described as relevant in collecting data, bringing awareness, and offering a space for dialogue among governments and other stakeholders about education and its specific challenges. These organisations are also considered important providers of knowledge, human and financial resources, and technical support for countries that are struggling to improve their education systems.

Furthermore, some of the experts noted that in many instances, international organisations are increasingly attempting to reduce the paternalistic attitudes of “we know it all and we are going to teach you how it is done!” and adopting more supportive and collaborative attitudes, by listening, and involving national and local actors instead of bringing pre-made solutions and implementing them despite local interests and priorities. This new approach is more focused on lobbying and influencing than direct imposition. In the views of Finnish education experts working within international organisations, this is a valuable move as they believe that local actors should take the lead of the education sector projects supported by international organisations.

Nonetheless, not all interviews share this positive view of international organisations’ initiatives. While some believe that the local governments have a stronger voice regarding the activities of these organizations, others highlight the fact that, even if unintentional, the initiatives developed by international organisations often replace the government as service providers, which might be unsustainable because in these situations, often governments spend money on other policy areas such as security and defence, leaving education out of or marginalized from government’s budgets.

Thus, the roles and impacts of international organisations in developing education in the Global South are more complex than we expected and there are no straightforward answers regarding the impacts of these organisations’ initiatives in the countries where they intervene, even from professionals employed by these organisations for extended periods of time.

So, it is not surprising that international organisations’ initiatives regarding development cooperation have frequently been the target of questioning and critique by development practitioners and researchers alike. Although some efforts have been made politically to use national/local knowledge, to value the priorities of national/local actors, and to give leadership to these actors, many projects are still designed and led by international organisations without significant input from the local actors. These initiatives are unsustainable and still echo the colonial paternalism, despite the good intentions expressed in the Millennium and Sustainable Development Goals (MDGs and SDGs), as well as other UN documents and the Paris agreement.


Finland’s impact and influence in development cooperation for education: A continued source of inspiration or a success whose time has passed?

Finland has a long history of being involved in development cooperation. However, we wondered: how significant is its participation today? And how able is Finland and its experts to influence international organisations’ agenda on development cooperation initiatives taking place in the Global South? Our interviewees had diverse opinions. Some Finnish experts say that because Finland is still perceived to have an excellent education system, as inferred from the PISA results, people in international contexts are fascinated and want to hear what they have to say. These experts believe that by being Finnish, they already make an impact and have a voice because Finland has a different way of doing things and this Finnish way is frequently perceived internationally as being better.

Finland is also described as having successfully branded itself for the past 15 years and, in these experts’ opinions, this work should continue. Nevertheless, the experts argue that it is important to understand that being an expert in Finnish education does not mean one is an expert elsewhere. A humble attitude from education experts working outside of Finland is considered a pre-requisite to becoming impactful and influential. Listening to other people’s ideas and being open to learn from them is necessary, independently of the context in which one is placed. In both, country contexts and in international organisations’ headquarters, some initial modesty, good communication skills, and a pro-active effort to get involved and collaborate with others are features that every international development professional must possess. The lack of these features are discussed by the interviewees as obstacles that hinder the impact and influence of Finnish experts working on education development cooperation in the sector of education in international organisations. Finns are often described as being shy and passive, characteristics that tend to lead to a quick adaptation of these experts to the dynamics, values and agendas of host organisations. Experts emphasised that to cope with these difficulties, the selection of people with the right knowledge and personality together with adequate training on the characteristics and dynamics of international organisations and about the features of the context where the experts are deployed are important. In addition, Finnish education experts should be strategically placed in positions where they can wield power to influence international agendas.

Furthermore, although it seems evident that people placed in large international contexts need to have an assertive attitude in order to be heard in the big tables of decision-making, interestingly, almost all interviewees ignored the direct relation between the efficient adaptation to one’s organisation’s features and dynamics as a pre-requisite to become able to influence and push to the agenda specific ideas and policies.

Some experts also say that despite Finland being described as a country with a successful education system, it is also a country that missed the opportunity to become an important contributor to international education policymaking, and that if other countries had obtained the same positive PISA results, they would have branded and explored their expertise much more efficiently in the international arena. One interviewee shared:

“I often say that what happened to Finland in PISA study, [if it] would have happened to Sweden, just can you imagine that? That they would… Sweden would have opened this blue and yellow big buildings, offices around the world like IKEA of Education, you know selling the Swedish products and expertise, but Finns were, you know still 2010 we were like… it was very difficult to enter into these conversations and convince people that [they] have expertise that [they] can share, what [they] can use, [to say] I can help your organization to do something different.”

In addition, it appears that even though international organisations have available positions that countries can use to deploy their citizens (e.g., Junior Professional Officer Program by UN agencies, and others at more senior positions), few Finns work in international organisations and even fewer in positions where they are able to influence decision-making significantly. Moreover, Finnish education experts working within international organisations have no guidance or support to fulfil the Finnish development cooperation policy aims. Thus, the interviewees argue, Finnish people working in these organisations need pre-departure and continuous training as well as receiving support and guidance from the Finnish government to be able to influence the agenda, especially when they are placed in organisations’ headquarters or in other political positions in the country or region offices. Other countries, the interviewees say, like France or Japan, have a much more aggressive mode of pushing their agenda. They maintain a closer relationship with nationals deployed in international organisations by meeting regularly and having an active network that connects these experts, which supports the development of a sense of belonging, and intensifies their focus on shared goals.

Some of the experts argued that despite the good results in PISA and other international large-scale assessments, Finland remains a small player, and that ultimately, it all boils down to money. The country funds little, thus influences little. Generally, it struggles to get a seat at the negotiating tables where agendas are discussed and where bigger investors wield influence. Even on occasions when this seat is granted, the international spotlight of education quality and efficiency earned through PISA results is not necessarily enough to enable Finland to push Finnish ideas and values internationally.

Undeniably, more funds and human resources are needed if Finland aims to influence the international organisations where it decides to invest, otherwise the country has no chance to spread its education ideals through these organisations compared with big funders such as Japan, France, the US and other Nordic countries, which don’t have education expertise backed up by high positions in international large-scale assessments, but still manage to wield power to get their education ideas reflected in international educational development agendas. After all, ideas need money to be implemented, so ideas of stronger financiers are more likely to make it to these organisations’ agendas. More than knowledge, evidence and international admiration, influence clearly derives from the availability of a healthy budget.


*Note: This blog is inspired in the project report recently published (Santos et al., 2022) and in on-going work for two publications expected to 2023.

Baroutsis, A., & Lingard, B. (2017). Counting and comparing school performance: An analysis of media coverage of PISA in Australia, 2000–2014. Journal of Education Policy, 32(4), 432–449. DOI: 10.1080/02680939.2016.1252856

Chung, J. (2017). Exporting Finnish teacher education: Transnational pressures on national models. Nordic Journal of Comparative and International Education, 1(1), 36-52.

Dobbins, M., & Martens, K. (2011). Towards an education approach à la finlandaise? French education policy after PISA. Journal of Education Policy. DOI:10.1080/02680939.2011.622413

Juusula, H. (2020). Perspectives on Quality of Higher Education in the Context of Finnish Education Exports [Doctoral dissertation]. University of Tampere.

Ministry of Education and Culture of Finland (MoEC). (2010). Finnish education export strategy: Summary of the strategic lines and measures. Publications of the Ministry of Education and Culture.

Ringarp, J., & Rothland, M. (2010). Is the grass always greener? The effect of the PISA results on education debates in Sweden and Germany. European Journal of Education, 9(3), 422–430. DOI: 10.2304/eerj.2010.9.3.422

Sahlberg, p. (2011). Paradoxes of educational improvement: The Finnish experience. Scottish Educational Review, 43(1), 3-23.

Santos, Í., & Centeno, V. G. (2021). Inspirations from abroad: The impact of PISA on the choice of reference societies in education. Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education. DOI: 10.1080/03057925.2021.1906206

Santos, Í., Pekkola, E., Abebe, R., Kujala, E-N., Kivistö, J., Ilola, H. (2022). The presence and influence of Finnish Education sector expertise in international organisations. Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland Publications.

Schatz, M., Popovic, A., Dervin, F. (2015). From PISA to national branding: exploring Finnish education. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education. DOI: 10.1080/01596306.2015.1066311

Sellar, S., & Lingard, B. (2013). Looking East: Shanghai, PISA 2009 and the reconstitution of reference societies in the global education policy field. Comparative Education, 49(4), 464–485. DOI: 10.1080/03050068.2013.770943

Waldow, F. (2017). Projecting images of the ‘good’ and the ‘bad school’: Top scorers in educational large-scale assessments as reference societies. Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 47(5), 647-664. DOI: 10.1080/03057925.2016.1262245