Education for a just Nordic region

24.03.2014
The idea that everyone should have access to education is an important part of all the Nordic welfare states. Children’s opportunity to acquire the knowledge they need to create a good life should not be dependent on their parents’ income or background. As a result of this philosophy, the Nordic countries are among those societies that have made the most progress in minimising social inequities.

publikum JustEd conf.A large number of people receiving free education is one of the common features of the Nordic countries. Others include an inclusive working life and focus on common goods. However, in the past 40 years the political institutions and welfare states, and thus the educational systems in the Nordic region as well as in the rest of Europe, have undergone a number of significant changes. The idea of universal welfare has been affected by emerging neo-liberalist trends in recent years, and the educational landscape in large parts of Europe is in flux.

Major contrasts in Europe

Ken Jones, Goldsmiths, University of London_700pxs.jpgThis was the focus when Professor Ken Jones of Goldsmiths, University of London, opened the conference Justice through education: Marketisation and equity in embedded contexts organised by the NordForsk-funded Nordic Centre of Excellence: Justice through Education (JustEd) in Lillehammer, Norway, on 4–5 March 2014.

Professor Jones took his point of departure in the developments following the financial crisis, which has affected the European countries very differently, also with regard to education. Countries such as Greece, Spain and Portugal have been forced to restructure in the face of strong pressure from the EU, OECD and IMF. The phenomenon of unequal development in education, however, is not merely seen in southern Europe. Dr Jones discussed his home country, where world-class education in large cities such as London stands in stark contrast to the situation in other parts of the country. And what are things like farther north, in the Nordic countries?

Nordic perspectives

The conference sought to shed light on the impact of marketisation on justice in educational policy, teaching and professional practice. The principles relating to an individual’s freedom of choice and freedom of competition are not necessarily aligned with the concept of justice. In what ways do these systems and cultures within Nordic education promote or limit justice?

Your children, your money, your choice?

Janne Varjo og Mira Kalalahti, University of Helsinki_700.jpgA number of the centre’s researchers presented their work on various topics in the field. Several, including Janne Varjo and Mira Kalalahti of the University of Helsinki, focused on school choice and the resulting social benefits and costs. Statistics and reports from the OECD indicate that countries with a high degree of freedom in school choice also exhibit the greatest social differences between schools, and the children with the weakest starting point have the most to lose. Anna-Kaisa Berisha of the University of Turku, who recently began her research on how this problem plays out in Åbo, Finland, presented her initial findings at the conference.

Access to education and employment

Lisbeth_Lundahl_29B0286_portrait_400pxs.jpgOn the final day of the conference, Professor Lisbeth Lundahl of Umeå University summarised the conference by viewing developments in recent decades in an overall perspective. Like other parts of society, the Nordic model is undergoing change. However, according to Dr Lundahl, a critical aspect of this development is that neo-liberal ideology has in many ways been presented as common sense and encountered surprisingly little opposition.Although social inclusion remains a strong force in the Nordic countries today, it does not exert as great an impact on policy development in the field of education.


In addition, the transition from education to work presents ever-increasing challenges in all of the Nordic countries, especially in Finland and Sweden. So what is the best way to build bridges between the various stages? What results in better learning for pupils? Will an increasing amount of personal choice create greater social inequalities and poorer educational programmes for those with the greatest need for good training? The centre has just begun its efforts, and will be employing a broad focus to address many different topics in the coming years.


Hanna_Ragnarsdottir_at_NERA.jpgResearchers from the centre, as well as from other projects funded under the Education for Tomorrow programme, also participated in the annual conference organised by the Nordic Educational Research Association (NERA), which took place directly afterwards. The overall theme for the 640 conference participants was “education for sustainable development”.


Written by: Lisa H. Ekli
Photo: Terje Heiestad

Main photo: Professor Lisbeth Lundahl, University of Umeå.
Photo 1: Conference audience.
Photo 2: Professor Ken Jones, Goldsmiths, University of London
Photo 3: Janne Varjo and Mira Kalalahti from the University of Helsinki.
Photo 4: Professor Lisbeth Lundahl, University of Umeå.
Photo 5: Professor Hanna Ragnarsdóttir, University of Iceland, at the NERA-konference.

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