Tan Kay Yong, the head of Singapore's Lifelong Learning Council, brought his colleagues to a field trip to Finland. / Photo: Heidi Höök

Finland versus Singapore – what should be done to guarantee best education results?

Reportage. ​International rankings reveal that investments in formal and non-formal education have clear impact on later proficiency results. A lifelong learning new-comer country Singapore sent a team of adult education experts to Finland so that they could learn more about the Nordic system. Journalist Terhi Kouvo reports from the Finnish capital.


How do you get students to feel as a group when they are studying online? Why do you choose to work so tightly in networks?

Questions abound at the employees of the Finnish Lifelong Learning Foundation when their Singaporean colleagues are visiting the foundation’s office in Helsinki, capital of Finland.

Tan Kay Yong, the head of Singapore’s Lifelong Learning Council, has brought a number of education experts for a field trip to the Nordic region, at the roots of public education ethos and practice. An intensive tapping can be heard from the guests’ laptops and tablets when they type down their observations.

There is a shared belief that we can learn from each other.

− In Sweden, we visited the People’s Academy and I discovered that Swedes work very orderly in everything they do. When visiting the Playful Learning Center of the University of Helsinki, I found that Finns are never satisfied with their achievements but they will constantly want to develop better yet, Kay Yong says.

That is very uplifting to hear in Finland, a country whose education has in recent years been pulled apart by a policy that could be playfully diagnosed as “a chronic savings syndrome”. The Finnish Prime minister Juha Sipilä’s center-right government has initiated a program of austerity measures which include drastic cuts to all levels of education. The cuts will affect the Finnish system from early childhood education to university level education and research – and also the non-formal adult education.

Concerns about the impact of these measures is wide among the Finnish education professionals. However, at least from an outsider’s point-of-view, the Nordic innovation ethos has not faded.

Tan Kay Yong

  • is an adult education expert and a chairman of the Lifelong Learning Council that operates under the auspices of Ministry of Manpower;
  • has made vocational career in management positions in pharmaceutical industry;
  • thinks that learning continues throughout life: “I would really like to learn how to become a better person.”

It is always the right time for learning

After hearing presentations on the Finnish Lifelong Learning Foundation’s international operations, which vary from Kulkuri, the online elementary school for Finnish children living outside Finland, international documentary productions and the media literacy project in Palestine, Kay Yong picks up another feature which he would like to copy back home in Singapore.

− It is obvious that you know how to do things together and work as a team. Also, the idea of ​​learning together inspires me.

In Finland, the tradition of community colleges and public education has existed longer than the country itself – civilizing the whole population is a national project ongoing since the late 1800s. The country’s oldest educational organization, The Finnish Lifelong Learning Foundation, just turned 142 years, whereas Finland will only celebrate a centenary of its independence next year, 2017.

Meanwhile, in Singapore the concept of lifelong learning is in itself relatively new. The Lifelong Learning Council that operates under the auspices of the Singaporean Ministry of Manpower was established two years ago to develop and lobby for adult education. The Council has six members, and it functions with the help of a range of experts, one of whom is the chairman Tan Kay Yong himself: a retiree from a management position in the pharmaceutical industry.

In order to develop the work of the Council, the Singaporean adult education experts seek inspiration, good practices and contacts from abroad. The knowledge and experience of the Finnish colleagues is collected to further develop their own system – for which they do not lack enthusiasm.

– It is never too early or too late to learn, one member of the delegation summarizes.

Digital skills are a must in the future

A quick scan on international education rankings reveals some interesting facts about education policy in different countries. Investing in education clearly affects the learning results over time.

A few years ago, The Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), a survey that measures adult skills, revealed that the Finns did second best at numeracy and literacy skills in comparable countries, and in problem solving in technology-rich environments they did third.

Nevertheless, in Finland the elderly, the unemployed and the immigrants have considerable difficulties in coping with everyday life due to lack of digital skills. As a matter of fact, the country analysis of Finland shows a huge gap between Finland’s young adults (aged 16 to 24) and older Finns’ (aged 55 to 65) proficiency. The performance difference between younger and older adults in Finland is one of the largest observed – a fact that reflects the fruits of investments done during the past decades.

What about Singapore’s results? Ph.D. Antero Malin, a former professor at the Finnish Institute for Educational Research answers the question.

− Singapore ranks below the OECD average in numeracy and literacy skills, but well above the average in problem solving in technology-rich environments. However, Singapore hits the very top in PISA study (Program for International Student Assessment) that measures the proficiency of the primary school students. Does this reflect some major investments in the education of young people, and if so, how about the adult education? Are there any plans for adults? the professor ponders.

− Yes, there are, Tan Kay Yong answers with assurance.

− We have no other option than to be at the top with digital skills because technology is our only resource. And we will work hard to ensure that the adults’ results will improve in other areas as well.

Education is for the whole life!

The visit of the Singaporeans confirms that the essential issues of lifelong learning are global. At quick glance, Finland and Singapore have only one thing in common: the size of the population, which is a little less than five and a half million. But they do face same challenges.

For example, online learning needs to be developed; the elderly need to be involved in learning knowledge and skills; and the digital skills of the population must be ensured throughout life, especially after the end of a vocational career.

The countries also share the same ethos.

− Education is not just for the labor market, it is also for empowering people and helping them to find their own strengths. For this to succeed, education must be kept near the grass-roots level, that is, the learner, Tan Kay Yong says.

During their visit in the Nordics the Singaporeans have taken up many ideas, which Tan Kay Yong promises to put to practice in his home country after getting back.

Translation from Finnish and adaptation by Karoliina Knuuti. Originally published in Souli Media. The Finnish Lifelong Learning Foundation is the publisher of both Souli and Elm.

Happening now at the Finnish education sector: budget cuts to all levels of education

Finnish Prime minister Juha Sipilä’s center-right government has started a program of austerity measures that will impact all levels of education.

The coalition government − formed by the agrarian-liberal Center Party, right-wing National Coalition Party and the populist True Finns Party −  made the announcement of a series of austerity measures was made quickly after being elected in 2015.

The education sector budget is effected by an estimate of 0,6-1 billion euros of cuts in the upcoming four years. Also the basic income of the students is being affected by savings.

Nor will the non-formal adult education sector be left out of the cutting list. The exact amount of the cuts are still estimates, but right now it seems that the budget will shrink by 8,3%, 13 million euros next year.

− Cutting from non-formal education is really silly, says Taina Saarinen, the principal of Adult Education Center of Helsinki to the Finnish Teacher Magazine.

− Our services cost 23 euros per year per an individual taxpaying citizen. What else would prevent exclusion and marginalization in such a cheap way? she aks.

Did you find this article?
  • Useful 
  • Interesting 
  • Easy to read