Literature review Measuring the Engagement of Higher Education Institutions in Finland
A number of expert interviews were conducted in the spring of 2021 as a part of the Engagement Readiness Monitor project. With their help we revealed the important role of engagement for every single higher education institution and its surrounding stakeholder organizations. Engagement is to some extent a natural part of HEI’s operations but also an activity that recognizably brings high benefits to all participating parties and thus should be encouraged and aimedly further developed.
A part of the effort to develop and exploit engagement better and to be more ready to engage, is its measuring and monitoring. Each HEI has its own goals and monitoring tools, and the activities are often not even comparable between the organizations. However, in Finland some level of unification exists – engagement is monitored on a national level by the Ministry of Education and Culture.
By Core Funding towards Engagement
The activities of higher education institutions in Finland are based on extensive autonomy and the freedom of science, but the Ministry of Education and Culture interacts with the HEIs continuously and acts as their prime source of funding. In practice this is implemented by four-year agreement cycles, which are pre-negotiated and later methodically monitored. (Steering, financing and agreements of higher education institutions, science agencies and research institutes 2021.)
The HEIs set their own goals and commit to achieving them in the timeframe of the agreement. The Ministry defines the funding framework of HEIs that comprises of the different sets of goals given particular weights. For example, a University of Applied Sciences commits to a particular number of employed graduates and for achieving this goal it gets 6% of its core funding by the Ministry.
This is a powerful tool for steering engagement among other HEI activities. Figure 1 reveals that the role of engagement for HEI’s core funding has risen significantly since the last agreement cycle regardless of HEI’s type.
Figure 1. HEI’s core funding framework in 2017 and 2021 in Finland according to the Ministry of Education and Culture (2021).
For the UAS the share of general quality of education in the formation of funding is declining. There is more emphasis on graduated students and employed graduates than before, which relates to engagement. The funding based on R&D is also increasing. Since UAS conduct applied research, the activities included in that section – projects, master’s degrees and publications – are also tightly connected to engagement.
In the science universities the importance of bachelor’s and master’s degrees is increasing and this of PhD degrees is slightly decreasing, which is directing the trained staff towards the labor market. The significance of employed graduates is also increasing. In 2021 the competitive research funding is also more important for ensuring the core funding of a university.
The majority of indicators used as a factor of core funding are reported and available on Vipunen – Education Statistics Finland portal (Vipunen 2021).
Core funding is an important stimulus for HEIs to maintain and develop certain activities, since their existence depends on it. The direction set by the Ministry of Education and Culture is clearly towards increased and versatile engagement.
Student Feedback as an Indicator of Engagement
Student feedback is included in the funding model of Finland’s HEIs, but its content is worth taking a closer look at. In Finland all students graduating from a bachelor’s degree answer a standardized feedback questionnaire. The one used in the UAS, named AVOP, naturally differs from the questionnaire of the science universities, because the tasks and functions of both institution types also differ.
In terms of engagement, the AVOP questionnaire carries greater importance. It is being conducted since 2015, and it contains a total of 98 questions, divided into 13 groups (Jonninen 2019). Table 1 lists the question groups and questions related to engagement.
Table 1. Questions related to engagement in the AVOP questionnaire (adapted from Jonninen 2020)
The questions related to engagement are almost a third of the total number of questions included in the student feedback, which indicates that the engagement of UAS with the industry is a crucial part of the studies. The student is a unique resource of HEI, helping it build the relationships with the business. On the other hand, the student is the main “customer” that the HEI serves, and to do so HEI needs strong and competitive ties to the industry.
With the help of the unified student feedback a single UAS can be compared to others and situated in the chart according to its success in different areas. In addition to that the development of different aspects of higher education, for example engagement, can be monitored in time.
In general, a positive trend is observed regarding the UAS student feedback in Finland. The answers have improved in all question groups in 2019. The most positive result development has been in studies’ planning and guidance, and in working life connections, with an improvement of almost 1,5%. In career counseling, thesis as well as internship the development has been the slowest with the average improving by only about 0,5%. However, internship is still on average the question group receiving the best feedback. The weakest feedback has been given to career counseling and working life connections. According to the 2019 report, there isn’t any UAS that dominates all engagement-related question groups. In addition, results depended partially on the field of studies, for example social and healthcare sector studies providers were evaluated highly for their working life connections and internships. (Jonninen 2020.)
The results of AVOP reveal that there is a lot that needs to be done in terms of engagement to improve student’s experience. However, there is evidence that small steps are being taken in the right direction and new practices are being introduced and tested, which results in improvement of student feedback.
Development Project Indicators and Engagement
As already discussed, the core funding of a Finnish HEI depends also on research and development initiatives. R&D activities are one of the most visible parts of engagement. A big share of HEI’s R&D work comprises of development projects, which funding depends not only on reaching the results of the particular project, but also on complying with national and international strategies and development programmes and contributing to hitting their targets. This is the reason for the existence of unified indicators that are being monitored throughout the lifecycle of every development project. These indicators vary somehow between the different project types, but all projects monitor employment in different age groups, gender equality and sustainable development issues.
At Finnish universities of applied sciences, arguably the most significant sources of project funding are European Union’s European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD) and European Social Fund (ESF). Table 2 summarizes the indicators of these funding tools that could be related to engagement.
Table 2. Project Indicators in EAFRD and ESF Related to Engagement
Although the projects are a tool of direct engagement with the business and the society, this relation is being monitored very vaguely and indirectly by indicators. Of course, funding tools such as EAFRD and ESF are not designed only for HEIs and thus monitor much broader spectrum of activities, but concrete engagement actions could be required from every project regardless of its managing organization. Nowadays projects are largely criticized namely for their detachment from the actual stakeholders and beneficiaries.
Lots of Work Ahead
The engagement monitoring on a national level is increasing, but still, it is not a conscious process. For some of the measures used it is hard to conclude, are they being used to actually monitor and develop engagement or is this only an indirect impact of their other, main purpose. Although this writing focuses on the Finnish model, most probably the same struggle exists in many other countries.
The recognition of engagement as a phenomenon, a process and a success factor of a HEI, as well as a certain engagement level should be targeted by the Ministry of Education and Culture as an institution steering the higher education field in Finland. In order to have a network of engagement-ready HEIs Finland should first develop clear and concrete national indicators that monitor specifically engagement in the wide spectrum of its activities.
The author Rositsa Röntynen works as a project manager, tourism and R&D specialist at Jyväskylä University of Applied Sciences, Finland.
Jonninen, J. 2020. Opiskelijapalaute 2019: Analyysi vuoden 2019 ammattikorkeakoulujen valmistumisvaiheen opiskelijapalautekyselystä (AVOP), Jyväskylän ammattikorkeakoulu.
Steering, financing and agreements of higher education institutions, science agencies and research institutes, 2021. A page on the website of Ministry of Education and Culture. Retrieved on 12.7.2021 from https://minedu.fi/en/steering-financing-and-agreements.
Universities, core funding model from 2017, N.d. A pdf-document of on the website of Ministry of Education and Culture. Retrieved on 12.7.2021 from https://minedu.fi/documents/1410845/4392480/Universities_funding_2017.pdf/abc0974d-b8d5-4486-a12a-aa141d54b66f/Universities_funding_2017.pdf.
Universities, core funding model from 2021, N.d. A pdf-document of on the website of Ministry of Education and Culture. Retrieved on 12.7.2021 from https://minedu.fi/documents/1410845/4392480/UNI_core_funding_2021.pdf/a9a65de5-bd76-e4ff-ea94-9b318af2f1bc/UNI_core_funding_2021.pdf.
Universities of Applied Sciences, core funding model from 2017, N.d. A pdf-document of on the website of Ministry of Education and Culture. Retrieved on 12.7.2021 from https://minedu.fi/documents/1410845/4392480/UAS_funding_2017.pdf/070f8c08-ec18-4227-8436-d4e9f96037b9/UAS_funding_2017.pdf.
Universities of Applied Sciences, core funding model from 2021, N.d. A pdf-document of on the website of Ministry of Education and Culture. Retrieved on 12.7.2021 from https://minedu.fi/documents/1410845/4392480/UAS_core_funding_2021.pdf/1c765778-348f-da42-f0bb-63ec0945adf0/UAS_core_funding_2021.pdf.
University education, N.d. A page on Vipunen – Education Statistics Finland portal. Retrieved 13.7.2021 from https://vipunen.fi/en-gb/university-education.
University of applied sciences (UAS) education, N.d. A page on Vipunen – Education Statistics Finland portal. Retrieved 13.7.2021 from https://vipunen.fi/en-gb/university-of-applied-sciences-(uas)-education.
Vipunen – Education Statistics Finland, N.d. Website. Retrieved on 12.7.2021 from https://vipunen.fi/en-gb/.