A lifelong curriculum

A legislative reform made continuous learning the fourth mission for universities in Finland. Who will draft the lifelong curriculum and what will it lead to?
Origameja kuvituskuvassa "Koko elämän oppimäärä". Kuva: Kalle Kataila

Software industry professionals are acquiring the latest knowledge on machine learning as their career progresses. More in-depth knowledge inspires them to develop new types of digital services, which make it easier to handle business and boost the efficiency of organisations staggeringly.

At the same time, a large group of people has lost the plot when it comes to digital affairs. Fancy new apps only bring them consternation – and not so much increased efficiency. Services don’t free employees to focus on more productive work and time is spent helping users and customers who have run into trouble.

Lesson of example: educating individuals benefits not only them, but also the people and society around them. At the same time, however, some fall by the wayside, hurting not only themselves, but others as well.

This is one of the big questions of continuous learning. A lifelong study path has now been envisioned for us all, and the goal is to get everybody on it.

Fourth mission for universities

Up to now, universities have had three missions: education, research and societal interaction. A new one, continuous learning, was added in the beginning of 2019 – no doubt to ensure that universities don’t run out of things to do.

This mission was enshrined in fresh university legislation and the Ministry of Education and Culture has allocated €30 million in one-off funding towards its implementation. Universities were given a task without detailed instructions on how to perform it, and they are now busy considering a response.

Lifelong learners are the people who this year once again will sign up for basic studies at open university. They are the people who complete management courses in between meetings and dedicate their doctoral theses to their endlessly patient families.

Finns are ardent students who are prepared to spend their own money on further education. The share of self-funded participants has grown in, for example, Aalto EE’s supplementary education, with half of the MBA students paying the €35 800 tuition from their own pockets.

But there are also many people for whom the idea of returning to school feels impossible. They can’t afford to take time off work and their boss refuses to foot the bill for supplementary education. Many are their own bosses, but their energy is spent on earning a livelihood as a microentrepreneur.

Finnish politicians go on and on about the need to retrain a million Finns within ten years. So how can this be done?

Faster and smarter

Re-education in the future won’t force us to switch fields entirely in the middle of our professional career. Instead, we will be required to add enhancements to the degree earned in our youth: to change course, maybe seek out a new field of specialisation.

Aalto University’s Head of Learning Services Eija Zitting has grappled with the new task issued to universities. She says the demand for continuous learning means that, at the very least, the university should offer a more diverse selection of short modular studies or degree components. These are more concise than degrees, more specialised than open university courses – and more attainable also for the unemployed or the self-employed than market-priced supplemental training options.

“A person could have a lifelong partnership with the university: they’ll train, serve in some role in the outside world and intermittently return to update their expertise. It would be great if taking study leave became a national habit,” Zitting envisions.

The lifelong learner sounds like quite the active character. It’s true that people must keep their eyes open and observe changes in their own field. But, according to Zitting, the lifelong curriculum is not the sole responsibility of the individual.

“You can’t abandon people to think about what will happen to them in the next five or ten years all alone. Support is available from, for example, our effective alumni network. It is an important asset for Aalto when we’re communicating about the options on offer here.”

Teaching can be realised in a tailored manner with digital tools. The university could also deploy at corporate facilities. Zitting thinks continuous learning also means that young students and seasoned professionals will be more likely to attend the same courses.

“This provides a tremendous learning opportunity for both parties.”

All this of course costs money. The one-off funding provided will help things get started, but Zitting says universities will themselves have to come up with implementation models. Resources are being sought from corporate cooperation and ever-closer collaboration with other institutes of higher learning.

“Shared efforts will yield more extensive results than what could be achieved by everyone fighting their own corner alone.”

Filling the talent shortage

There is a massive shortage of competent coders. Last year, the Finnish Business and Policy Forum EVA estimated that Finnish software companies could immediately hire 7 000–9 000 new employees. The shortfall is expected to grow up to 25 000–40000 by 2025.

One response to this challenge is the FITech project, which is filling the shortage in talent faster than would be possible with degree-oriented studies alone. Aalto is educating ICT experts together with other technology universities as part of a network, which just received €10m in funding from the Ministry of Education and Culture.

“People with qualifications for other sectors are transferring to ICT. We want to open bachelor’s level basic studies, which consist of basic programming skills and program production, to all willing participants. On the other hand, the skills of industry professionals eventually become outdated, and many want to deepen their competence in, for example, machine learning and the Internet of Things,” says Aalto University Professor Petri Vuorimaa, who heads the ICT project.

The FITech network was created some time ago to help meet a shortage in talent in the Turku region. Discussions with businesses help tailor studies.

Vuorimaa reckons there are possibilities in collaboration with regard to the contents of education, where the university would provide the general segment, while corporate representatives arrange group work, workshops or on-site training days.

He has a vision for the future in which artificial intelligence makes recommendations to alumni based on their earlier studies and then monitors the progress of supplemental studies. Corporate training packages and online teaching could be combined with studies arranged by the university.

The goal sounds ambitious:

“In future, we won’t be producing just degrees, but a lifelong career,” says Vuorimaa. 

Difficult to measure learning at work

The price tag for lifelong learning was €18.9b last year, of which State and municipal authorities accounted for €15.5b with the rest coming from businesses.

These figures were contained in a report by Sitra, the Finnish Innovation Fund. The difficulty of measuring learning was revealed in the same paper. A lot happens outside course-based training.

Then higher the learning demands of a job, the more the work itself will resemble learning and problem solving.

“When you work and learn at the same time, it is difficult to separate what part was working and what was learning, or to assign euro amounts to them,” says Sinimaaria Ranki, a Leading Specialist at Sitra, who has studied the cash flows of training.

In its Lifelong learning focus area, Sitra has gathered together representatives of ministries, higher education institutions and labour market organisations. The objective is to generate ideas that future governments can consider when deciding policy. This work is only beginning, but the main message is that training is an investment we can’t afford to skimp on.

“Spending money on developing competence in the right way reduces the amount of people excluded from working life. This leads to less resources being needed on the rectifying side,” says Senior Adviser Tapio Huttulaof Sitra.

Continuous learning is more than just tailored training for corporate needs.

“Getting educated is always a good thing from the individual’s perspective. It’s a positive factor when seeking employment, but also adds other good things like self-confidence and societal awareness to your life,” Ranki says.

Intermittent work, entrepreneurial work and breaks in your professional career are part of the flow of life, and lots of people develop their competence independently without employer support.

An important question is thus whether society encourages self-development. The unemployed, for example, should be able to study without fear of losing their financial support.

Flexibility to extend to degree studies

Tapio Hautamäki, the Chair of Aalto University’s Student Union Board, is at the master’s degree phase of his engineering studies. In his field, it takes students an average of seven years to graduate, with that time including some two years of relevant work experience on average.

Such people are ideal for employers: young, educated and already experienced.

But, from the perspective of the university’s funding, they are “weak” students who take too long to complete their studies. Universities receive funding based on degrees completed, with the new calculation methods particularly favouring rapid completion.

“We’ve tried to underline the social futility of having study paths produce graduates with no work experience. Experience gained while studying can help direct your studies and boost confidence in your actions, which is likely to be much better for employers and society,” Hautamäki says.

Hautamäki thinks the idea of continuous learning should be taken onboard already in the degree phase. If we really want to produce those versatile and innovative learners, we need to allow time for multidisciplinarity and experiments with interesting minor subjects.

Hautamäki argues that, over the long term, universal basic income would provide the best support for lifelong learning. It would enable people to both work and flexibly study without changing their status, and paid work would always be worthwhile.

Furthermore, the duties of universities can’t be increased without additional funding, if quality is to be maintained. Hautamäki says funding will encourage the development of continuous learning if it is determined according to completed study credits instead of degrees. In such a scenario, it would not matter whether studies were being carried out by degree students, students from other institutions or learners popping over from working life.

Foundation still key

Lifelong learners don’t always return to the halls of a university. They might complete foreign online courses, attend Supercell’s coding school or, if they’re extremely ambitious, apply for the Nasa- and Google-funded Singularity University’s intensive courses to tackle humanity’s most pressing problems.

In future, advanced studies will be provided by an increasing number of parties.

Alternative study paths don’t, however, mean that we should cut corners on the long education journey of our youth. The degree earned when young provides a foundation that creates an ability to study throughout our lives. It is also not advisable to turn universities into mere providers of tailored courses – for them to be able to offer the best possible education, they must be allowed to conduct research from which the most profound and fresh knowledge stems.

“The challenge is to remain patient. Over the long run, we must permit some to delve into fundamental theories and, at some stage, perhaps emerge with fresh ideas. Faster-paced dialogue with companies is needed alongside this,” says Sitra’s Sinimaaria Ranki.

Many have asked if external conditions are dictating too many of the demands and funding pressures directed at continuous learning. And what if we start training people on demand for narrow tasks that then, in the worst case, vanish when the multinational giant that ordered the training ups sticks from Finland?

Aalto University’s Zitting says we must ensure that the range of training on offer is sufficiently diverse and that the university maintains communications channels with an appropriate variety of actors.

“We support continuous learning, but we also have our own educational mission. And, in the background, basic research is generating fresh knowledge to serve as a foundation for education.”

Text: Terhi Hautamäki. Illustration: Kalle Kataila.

This article is published in the Aalto University Magazine issue 24 (

Origameja kuvituskuvassa Koko elämän oppimäärä. Kuva: Kalle Kataila.

In future, we won’t be producing just degrees, but a lifelong career.

Petri Vuorimaa

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