A bit of a different tack for this week’s Better Know a Higher Ed System. I’m not actually going to bore you by explaining the intricacies of four different systems of higher ed, or drone on about the ever-trendy Finnish polytechnics, or anything like that. I am, however, going to tell you some nifty things about the way education and the labour market interact in these Scandinavian countries, and why, as a result, one should be quite careful when interpreting higher education statistics from this region.
There are three notable and interconnected facts about Scandinavia that you need to know:
- The average age of Scandinavian students is much higher than it is elsewhere. In Canada (indeed, throughout the Anglosphere) the four-year ages with the highest participation rates are 18-21. In Scandinavia, it’s usually 21-24.
- Scandinavian countries are usually considered to have the highest participation rates in adult education in the world.
- Scandinavian countries are usually considered to have among the highest dropout rates from higher education in Europe.
Now, you’re probably thinking: how exactly are these things interconnected? Well, it has to do with these countries’ labour markets working completely differently than anywhere else. As explained to me by a few different sources (including some senior Scandinavian civil servants), Scandinavian employers actually tend to hire based on skills rather than credentials. It’s not entirely clear how or why this happens – it’s certainly not because of newfangled “badges” or any such thing. It’s just their culture.
As a result, it’s quite common for students to go to school, study for a few modules, get the desired skills, and then move into the labour market. Later, they can simply slip back into the system and finish their studies. You can see how this would distort the statistics from everyone else’s point of view: the first transition causes a lot of – what, to the outside world, looks like – drop-outs; the second creates the illusion of a fabulous system of lifelong learning. But they are, in fact, two sides of the same coin: students are just taking a leisurely path through studies, mixing periods of study with periods of work. Because they can. Which, let’s face it, is pretty cool (as is much else about Scandinavia).
But there’s a cautionary tale here, as well. We’re accustomed in the age of publications, like the OECD’s Education at a Glance, to compare countries based on international statistics, and to think that there’s something we can learn from “leaders” in particular categories. But it’s not always true. Scandinavian “success” at lifelong learning is ultimately a byproduct of a very unique set of attitudes amongst employers with respect to hiring young people. And you just can’t import that.