Fairness in education – from research to practice

Gunilla Holm and Fritjof Sahlström. Photo: Terje Heiestad.

Fairness in education – from research to practice

A new Swedish-language teacher education programme will be launched at the University of Helsinki in autumn 2016. After years with a shortage of teachers for Finland’s Swedish-speaking population, two researchers from one of NordForsk’s Nordic Centres of Excellence are taking on the task of remedying the situation.

“We are concerned that the education provided to children is fair. This is not just something we work with; it’s something we feel very passionate about,” says Gunilla Holm, a professor of education at the Institute of Behavioural Sciences at the University of Helsinki. Her colleague Fritjof Sahlström, the deputy head of the institute, agrees. “It’s crucial that we not only conduct research, but that the results are used to implement measures in the real world,” he adds.

Support from Nordic networks

As part of the Nordic Centre of Excellence “Justice through education in the Nordic countries” under NordForsk’s Education for Tomorrow programme, Drs Holm and Sahlström cooperate with researchers from eight different countries. The focus of their research is quality and diversity in education. “This is a way for us to transfer our research to practice,” says Dr Holm. “It’s been helpful to have the Nordic collaboration in the centre to support us in convincing others that this is the right way to go.”

A long process

“It’s crucial that we not only conduct research, but that the results are used to implement measures in the real world”. Fritjof Sahlström

Ever since they first came up with the idea for the new teacher education programme in 2013, the two colleagues have used a great deal of time to gain the support of their own administration, stakeholders and politicians, and to obtain funding. So far they have received EUR 6.6 million in grants. They admit it has been a lot of work, but both of them are convinced that this is the only way to address the problem.

“Ensuring that the linguistic minority in a society has access to a sound education is a matter of fairness,” states Dr Sahlström. “Here we have a situation in which the minority does not have the same conditions as the majority, and it is important to do something about this.”

Major inequalities

The shortage of teachers has been a topic of heated debate for a long time. Municipalities and parents complain about the poor quality of teaching and constant switching of teachers. In fact, there are schools for Swedish-speaking children in southern Finland that do not have a single homeroom teacher with a teaching certificate. While about 90 per cent of the teachers at schools for Finnish-speaking children have a teaching degree, the figure is only 80 per cent for those at the Swedish language schools. According to Dr Sahlström, the situation is even worse in the Helsinki region in southern Finland, at only 75 per cent.


The current Swedish-language teacher education programme in Finland is administered by Åbo Akademi University, and since the 1970s it has been located in Vasa in the Österbotten region. Teacher coverage in this region is high, whereas southern Finland has far too few certified teachers. Various measures have been implemented through the years to meet the need, but the shortage of teachers continues.

However, establishing a new teacher education programme in the capital city has not been simple, and it means that the current programme in Vasa will have to compete for applicants. Drs Holm and Sahlström agree that this is a controversial move. Previously there was not enough political will to establish alternatives, but after a new act relating to universities entered into force in 2004, it became formally possible for other universities to offer teacher education in Swedish. Now it is becoming a reality.

Multilingual community

In the Helsinki region, three-fourths of all children in Swedish medium schools grow up in bilingual homes, and both Finnish and Swedish are spoken during most activities outside of school. “It’s important to educate teachers who can support more than one language,” says Dr Sahlström. This is not only a matter of language, but also of relating to the children’s cultural framework. The proportion of ethnic minority children is largest in the Helsinki region, and it will continue to increase. This is precisely why it is so essential to think ahead. “With the societal development we are seeing in Finland today, educating teachers who can work for an inclusive society is a critical social mission,” says Dr Sahlström.

The final formalities around the new teacher education programme will be clarified during autumn 2015. The new teacher education programme at the University of Helsinki will start in the fall 2016 with 40 new students. In the long run the aim is to establish a collaboration between the University of Helsinki and Åbo Akademi University.

Text: Lisa H. Ekli
Photo: Terje Heiestad

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