Quality is created in higher education institutions

The funding model for higher education institutions is currently undergoing minor modifications in accordance with the government programme. However, the need for a more fundamental change in the model is brewing in the background, according to the Ministry of Education and Culture’s Director General of the Department for Higher Education and Science Policy, Sirkku Linna.

Text minna hiidensaari images miika kainu English translation Marko Saajanaho

“In this sector, a quarter can be twenty-five years. There are no instant wins here”, says Sirkku Linna, the Ministry of Education and Culture’s Director General of the Department for Higher Education and Science Policy.

Linna took up her current position as Director General in December 2023. The fixed term lasts until the end of November 2028. The goals of the department include the strategic development of the higher education and science field, legislation, funding, guidance, and international co-operation in the field.

“My goal is to play a small part in the development of quality research and teaching in Finland.”

There are no instant wins, but two individual requirements for change can be observed on the agenda. The shorter term is about changes to the university and vocational school funding models, approved by the government in early April 2024. These support the goals outlined in the government programme. The more major change, which is intended to redefine and overhaul the funding model entirely from the ground up, remains waiting in the background.

Plenty of catching up to do

“The department is guided by two percentage figures in the government programme”, Linna summarises.

The first of these percentage figures has been regularly trotted out by media as well. The goal is that by 2030, fifty percent of Finnish young adult have a higher education degree. Currently, the number is forty percent.

“While the higher education sector has improved tremendously, there is plenty of catching up to do from the international perspective as well.”

The second crucial percentage figure informing the department’s goals is four. That number has to do with the research, development, and innovation (RDI) increase outlined in the government programme. “The goal is to get R&D costs to four percent of the GDP.”

At the moment, that percentage is hovering around three. The four-percent goal is outlined in the Act on Research and Development Funding, which Linna describes as historic.

“The RDI funding law offers great support to lean on, but many reference countries are still ahead of us. We need more effectiveness. There is a lot to do and improve if we want more expertise and scientific data to use.”

In Linna’s opinion, the education pipeline must function if these objectives are to succeed. Higher education institutions receive incentives in funding models to speed up the processes for passing. Efforts are also made to prevent the same individuals from accumulating degrees and consequently increase the percentage of higher education degrees.

“It is important to ensure young people find a place to study in time and also get to working life in time.”

Achieving the four-percent goal outlined in the RDI act is supported through incentives to obtain external funding, for example.

The government programme also mentions increasing the importance of doctoral degrees. What does that mean in practice, and what is e.g., ‘the one thousand doctors’ programme meant to accomplish?

”If we want to increase RDI to four percent, we need people who can improve research and its level of quality. We need people capable of leading research work.”

“If we want to increase RDI to four percent, we need people who can improve research and its level of quality. We need people capable of leading research work.”

Linna describes having wondered if there are applicants to the doctoral programme with a three-year degree target and being pleasantly surprised upon hearing about the applications.

Funding models do not create quality

The word ‘quality’ regularly appears when Linna talks. It is more important than volumes. According to Linna, quality comes from profiling and focus among other things.

“Quality is created in higher education institutions. Funding models do not create quality”, she notes.

Quality education is also connected to not separating teaching and research.

“One does not exist without the other. They must go hand in hand.”

The autonomy of higher education institutions is a concern in the field. Is it being reduced? What role does Linna’s department pla

Linna says she recognises the tension within the question. She has several years of experience heading the Aalto University’s Leadership Support Services unit, so she is also able to see things from the higher education institution perspective. Linna reckons Finnish higher education institutions are rather autonomous.

“This is already the case and must remain so in the future.”

She notes the government programme’s strategic funding update increases the autonomy of higher education institutions.

“Strategic funding used to be split to two parts – each school’s own strategy and programme funding, which included objectives or project portfolios introduced by the Ministry. Now, programme funding is being abandoned altogether. To replace it, funds are allocated to development activities the schools themselves can influence with suggestions.”

Increased pressure to update the funding model

The current funding model for higher educational institutions is largely results-oriented. A few percentage point adjustments have now been made to the computational model.

“In my view, a larger overhaul of the funding model is sorely needed.”

The call from the field has been heard. Linna says the working group devising the funding model reckoned an all-new vision should be created, together.

”In my view, a larger overhaul of the funding model is sorely needed.”

However, a lot has happened across higher education institutions and the world.

“We should assess the effects of many changes to the sector. Digitalisation, changes in global politics, migration, the increased importance of a global approach”, Linna lists.

According to Linna, another issue to consider is how to accomplish the goal of continuous learning and what role degrees play in general. First, a new vision should be created through co-operation. After that, funding and guidance would be back on the table.

“Increasing mutual understanding is crucial. To create a consensus, discussion is needed.”

Development ideas on the table in performance agreement negotiations

This year, the lengthy process of performance agreement negotiations is also on the Department for Higher Education and Science Policy’s desk. Common goals pertaining to the negotiations were agreed upon last year, and dialogue regarding degree target figures has taken place.

Linna says the ministry negotiated with vocational schools in 2024, and universities are next in September and October.

“The negotiations address the goals set by the higher education institutions themselves, their indicators, and funding. We have asked for suggestions on where development-type funding might be needed.”

Linna says she recently went over the vocational schools’ suggestions. Three separate groups of suggestions could be clearly identified: those regarding new co-operation structures between higher education institutions; those regarding R&D ecosystems; and various international initiatives.

“I was particularly happy to see the suggestions for co-operation between schools”, she commends.

While there is plenty of catching up to do, Linna also knows the field’s strengths. There are positive signals as well.

“Strong, independent action happens in Finnish higher education institutions. The base is solid. The school staff is committed and determined. People want to work together for something good.”

Sirkku Linna

M.Sc. (Econ.), M.Soc.Sc

Born: 1975 in Virrat, Finland

Work: Director General for Higher Education and Science Policy, Ministry of Education and Culture

Family: 17-year-old Oliver, American hairless terriers Jussi and Pedro

Hobbies: Exercise in all its forms, primarily street dancing.

“I still compete in hip hop, currently on VTKY’s Rare Batch formation team.”

What are you known for in your work community? Laughter

What are you not known for? “All kinds of handiwork from renovations to knitting socks was inherited from the family, which is probably not something you don’t see at work that much.”


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