Arene is the Rectors’ Conference of Finnish Universities of Applied Sciences whose main goal is to protect the common interests of 24 Universities of Applied Sciences in Finland. We interviewed Ph.D. Petri Lempinen, the Executive director of the Rectors’ Conference in order to understand how the COVID-19 outbreak affected one of the most advanced education systems in Europe.
1.What measures have been taken in your country? Tell me how the higher education institutions handled a lockdown in the first days.
On the 13th of March, a Rectors’ meeting took place where we evaluated an existing situation in the country and decided that we need to take measures and start preparations to stop all the education activities. Later, the following Monday, the Government decided that all the education institutions should go on distance learning, all the schools and campuses should be closed, including RDI campuses. Currently, we can use a few laboratories and facilities if it is necessary to ensure that students who are about to graduate can finish the studies. Also, a critical RDI can continue, for instance, animal testing.
2. What was the biggest challenge for your members in the first days of the announced lockdown? How ARENE supported its members in that time?
Since we took a decision earlier than the government, it gave us a little bit of time for a preparation to work in a different mode. Also, the fact that we have an ongoing national development project which aims to develop a virtual campus was quite helpful in this period. Finally, 98 percent of the staff members have laptops so they are ready to switch to teleworking or smart working any time.
Talking about challenges, it mostly affected a healthcare sector because our students were not able to use simulation rooms. Our organization has been very active throughout this period for its members and served as a platform of the exchange of information. Besides that, we organized periodical Rectors’ meetings, have a WhatsApp group where we exchange certain issues or good practices on the daily basis.
3. This period for UAS is particularly important due to the ongoing entrance exams. Did COVID-19 affect students’ selection procedures in the country?
Talking about foreign language study programs, international students have been prevented from participating in entrance examinations in Finland due to the closed borders. Therefore, it has been decided instead of entrance examinations to rely on applicants’ school performance and selection assignments.
When it comes to Finish/Swedish language study programs, UAS took a decision that the second joint universities of applied sciences entrance examinations this spring will be organised online. There were 92 000 applicants to the UAS by the end of the application period on 1 April. 75 000 of those sought admission in the joint application examinations.
The decision to organise the examinations online was taken in order to protect the health of applicants, staff and their families. There are no projections for the progress of the Corona pandemic and we are therefore unable to predict a safe future date for the entrance exam.
At the moment we expect to start without a delay, but when it comes to the international students we are not sure whether we will have any of them.
4. Part of your members’ studies are happening in the workplace. How are you dealing with that – postponing the placements?
The traineeships depend on the employers and the nature of their activities. One of our biggest sector-social and healthcare cancelled almost all the traineeships. At the same time they hired students who have finished 2/3 of their studies to fight the pandemic.
In other sectors, a lot of companies temporarily terminated their activities. At the moment there are around 400 000 thousand people who are temporarily out of work and this economic shock may crucially affect the whole labor market. So naturally, if there are no activities in the companies, there are no possibilities to have traineeships too.
It is quite probable that some students will face delays in graduation too. It is very difficult to find an alternative for the traineeships because we cannot use the campuses. But once they are open, we can organize some kind of the alternative traineeships, for instance in engineering, in the sector of culture, which was highly affected by the pandemic. At the same time, we need teachers to do so and the summer holidays are approaching.
5. Did universities receive any financial support from the government?
Universities have not received additional funding due to COVID-19 outbreak or restriction measures ordered by the government. Due to the labor market effects of the virus the Finnish government is planning to increase funding of continuous learning to provide learning opportunities for those who lose their jobs.
There is flexibility in using a student grant. But since the labor market is very much affected, students most probably will not be able to have summer jobs, and, therefore, it may affect their income and ability to sustain themselves throughout the year.
6. Are you aware of any social problems that students may face? i.e. online learning could be a challenge to socially underprivileged groups.
We have noticed that not all the students are ready to fully participate in the online learning. For those who had problems in learning before the crisis, this situation has not been helpful.
At the level of Rector’s conference we noted various risks, but universities are dealing with them individually, with the support of the Students’ Union.
7. What are your members’ expectation on the European Union?
Higher education in Finland is publicly funded, so we are not depended on the students’ tuition fees and, therefore, a risk to the system could be moderate.
Speaking about the European level, we believe that the structural funds, Horizon and Erasmus programs should be first finished before evaluating what support the European higher education system needs further. Currently, the expectations are related to economic and employment policies rather than education on the European level.
8. A lot of businesses are changing their activity models and concentrating to the industry related to tackling pandemic. Have you heard about any early business-university collaborations in this field?
Around 20 UAS opened up their services to support the ones who currently lost their jobs with skills learning and development. How useful it will be, it is still difficult to say. Other universities are offering to companies free services to write applications in order to receive money from government economic support programs. Our UAS also supported social healthcare sector by providing various materials and equipment to the hospitals.
9. What may be future arrangements and lessons from the current crisis? Do you think it will change a professional higher education sector?
I think that the crisis has shown that digital solutions are feasible and it will be used much more in the future. What we see nowadays, for instance online tools that we use for learning or hold the meetings are still quite primitive and are based on the idea to replicate the same things that we do in the campuses. In Finland we have an approach that this is not about the tools, but more about how do we use and analyse all the data that comes from the learning, and how we could use it to better identify learning and labour market needs.
In my view, when we will learn how to use different mobile applications and apply the same technological, psychological techniques that we use in the computer games, we can change the way how the learning environments could look like.
Our members expect that most of the future investment of the learning environments will be digital and not anymore on the campuses. It doesn’t mean that campuses will extinct, but there will be a much bigger variety of how we learn and work.
10. Would you like to add something:
Moral support and an ability to unite are very important in the times when nobody knows what it is coming. I think that our organisation was very helpful from the beginning by supporting its members and providing a platform of communications.