Always a top finisher on rankings of the world’s best higher education systems, Finland was recently declared to be “a miracle of education” by the World Bank. On Universitas 21’s assessment of the world’s top universities, meanwhile, Finland claimed top spot when levels of GDP per capita were taken into account -- scoring well above expectations given its income level.

All of which begs the question: What makes Finland so special? Here’s a closer look.

Making Sense of Finland’s Success

A recent Business Insider article featured four ways Finland’s innovative education system excels, including the following points.

1. It eschews standardized testing.

While students in the US regularly take standardized tests to track their performance, Finnish students take just one during their entire time in primary and secondary school. Called the National Matriculation Exam, this teacher-graded test measures yields much more than a score. It measures general academic maturity and is viewed as “a sign of being a mature, educated person in Finnish society,” according to Valerie Strauss for The Washington Post.

Finnish Lessons author Pasi Sahlberg says of the test, “Students are regularly asked to show their ability to cope with issues related to evolution, losing a job, dieting, political issues, violence, war, ethics in sports, junk food, sex, drugs, and popular music. Such issues span across subject areas and often require multidisciplinary knowledge and skills."

2. It prioritizes play.

While students in the US may have hours of homework a night, Finnish students spend just a fraction of this time on homework. Instead, the focus is placed on free time and play with students given frequent breaks during classroom instruction. Considering research indicating the detrimental impacts of a “deficit of play,” this is lauded as a benefit for Finnish students’ physical and mental health.

3. It is free for many students

Finland remains one of the only countries to offer bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree programs 100 percent free of fees for its own citizens and students from European Union and EEA countries. Yes, you read that right: international students from eligible countries accepted into any degree program in Finland do not pay a dime in tuition. 

4. It reveres its teachers

While teachers are often undervalued in countries like the US, the opposite is true in Finland. Not only is the profession extremely selective, but teachers in Finland are treated better, work fewer hours, and get paid more than in many other countries.

Another area where Finland shines is on the international higher education scene. Its emphasis is on project-based learning based on “positive emotional experiences, collaborative working and creative activity,” according to The Guardian.

A Work in Progress

But just because Finland is highly regarded all over the world does not mean it is content to kick back and coast. In fact, the country is committed to ongoing development aimed at staying ahead of the curve. One university leading the charge is the University of Helsinki.

The university’s Professor of Educational Psychology Kirsti Lonka, says, “The greatest threat to the future school is clinging to our past achievements. If we compare the workplace of the 1980s with the workplace today, we see a very different picture. Digitalization is undoubtedly among the great reformers in work, and the reforms should also be made in the school world.”

In other words, in a changing world, teaching must be equally dynamic. “As a result, future learning will take place in multidisciplinary projects that center on complex phenomena and develop learners’ problem-solving and thinking skills. New technologies will also be integrated into teaching, and learning environments will be increasingly modified to promote learning,” adds Lonka.

Given its appeal, it is hardly a surprise that Finland is a top international destination in the area of teacher education. But Finland’s stellar reputation in education is not to say it is not open to what the rest of the world has to offer. Quite the opposite, in fact. “Learning takes place everywhere. When people meet in person, they value the encounter and concentrate on co-creating knowledge rather than simply sharing it. The University is an oasis of learning in which people enjoy coming together, either virtually or in person,” Lonka insists.

The takeaway, when it comes to the role Finland will continue to play in education, according to Lonka? “We should not export the school system we used to have, because we are among the leading countries in creating new innovations in education. Instead, we should – as we do – develop new export products in collaboration with universities, universities of applied sciences and companies.”

Read more about studying at the University of Helsinki.