Finland’s education system has long impressed. The OECD has ranked Finnish pupils among the best performers in the world for some time, achieving excellence though they spend less time in school than any of their OECD peers. Local teachers tend not to favour the standardised tests and focus on homework that stand at the core of other educational systems, preferring tailored modules designed to trigger the self-development of each student. 

In 2010, the Finnish government recognised the competitive advantage of the country’s education system in a global economy that was increasingly hungry for quality education – particularly in emerging markets – and made it a priority export moving forward. 

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“Education commerce is a growing business and it provides many opportunities for Finland. The aim is for Finland to become one of the world’s leading education-based economies, one education export strategy, which relies on the high quality of its education system,” the ministry of culture said in the same year. 

A decade into the programme, Finnish schools are opening up across the globe, from Vietnam to Morocco to Colombia, as the emerging middle classes of fast-growing economies demand high quality education services. 

Ubiquitous reputation

Finland’s reputation as a top education centre often precedes its education providers. 

“Wherever I went, it became very obvious that as soon as people heard where I was from, they wanted to know more about Finland’s education system,” says Finland-born Noora Laitio,  a former development finance professional and co-founder of FinlandWay, a company provides early education services, based on the Finnish model, to emerging markets. 

“There would be people in countries like Brazil, China or South Africa asking if there was any way I could provide such education services in a scaleable way in their countries. I was asked this question so many times that I started thinking that there must have been something in it, I started wondering why nobody was doing it in emerging markets in a way that could be accessible to emerging middle classes,” she tells fDi

Ms Laitio eventually developed her interest into a concrete business intention and FinlandWay was established in 2016. The company has teamed up with school operators in south-east Asia, north Africa and Latin America to sell its preschool education solution under a licensing or franchising model. It was planning to launch its first fully owned schools in Colombia when Covid-19 hit, pushing the project into 2021.  

“We looked at megatrends such as the emergence of dual-income families, the needs of women wanting to go back to work or joining the workforce and the need for corporate childcare. With rising incomes, families start having much more ambition for their children and set them up for a very successful path even before primary schools. The real bottleneck in many of the target countries was not the children, who are universally receptive, but teacher [supply],” Ms Laitio adds.  

Another such company, HEI Schools, is already providing its preschool solutions to schools across the Asia-Pacific region, from Australia to China and South Korea, as well as Argentina in South America, while in late 2019 it announced a new partnership in Saudi Arabia.   

Strengthening the network  

As part of its strategy to boost the export of education services, the Finnish government set up Education Finland (originally named Future Learning Finland) as a growth programme with a clear focus on promoting and creating opportunities for the export of Finnish education services.  

“We don’t exactly export degrees, but we build and tailor educational entities according to different needs,” said Eeva Nuutinen, then project director at Education Finland, in an interview with state website finland.fi in 2013. “Educational consulting also takes place. The educational level and needs of a country or region are evaluated, along with how they could be developed.” Physical and virtual learning environments both enter the picture.

Today, Education Finland supports dozens of Finnish companies active across the whole spectrum of education services, from preschool to vocational schools and edtechs. 

Essential edtechs  

Covid-19 has also given an unprecedented chance for Finnish edtech to showcase their solutions. The crisis has forced countrywide school closures in 188 countries, affecting as many as 1.5 billion students of all ages, or 89.5% of the total enrolled learners globally, according to figures released by Unesco in early April.  

A Finnish website called Koulu.me launched at the onset of the pandemic in mid-March to bring together an array of locally developed educational tools, based on high-quality Finnish pedagogical content.  

“As a mother of two elementary school boys, I wanted to do something tangible to help teachers in their challenging task to continue teaching in the coming weeks. Providing schools with free access to engaging and motivating educational content for the duration of the outbreak was the idea I started working on with the edtech entrepreneurs,” Laura Koponen, the managing director of innovation consulting company Spinverse, said as she launched the initiative.  

The website has since provided worldwide access to the solutions of several dozens of Finnish edtechs.  

With the world slowly lifting lockdown restrictions and international investors once again in a position to implement international expansion strategies, companies like FinlandWay and HEI Schools can bring their international expansion plans back on the table, and continue to take Finland’s educational excellence around the world.

This article first appeared in the August - September edition of fDi Magazine. View a digital edition of the magazine here.