Wits university students protest. Picture: ANTONIO MUCHAVE
Wits University students protest. Picture: ANTONIO MUCHAVE

WE OFTEN hear the government, political parties and media commentators claim that their ideology, ranging from socialism to neoliberalism, is the answer to SA’s broken education system and lack of jobs. However, rarely do they cite actual examples of countries that have taken charge of their fate and turned their situation around.

My business partner and I recently embarked on a one-week visit to Finland, which we believe approaches basic education and entrepreneurship in a way SA should strive to emulate.

This Nordic country of 5.5-million people is sandwiched between East and West, bordering Russia on one side and the EU on the other.

It only gained independence from the Russian Empire 100 years ago, and was relatively poor until the 1980s. It was around that time that the Finnish government radically altered its mediocre education system, and also began truly to embrace technology and innovation.

The World Democracy Audit ranks Finland the second least corrupt country in the world, meaning tax money is spent correctly to foster a relatively equal society.

The highest tax bracket is a whopping 70%, and all its residents’ salaries are available upon request. Citizens even receive traffic fines on a sliding scale based on annual income, and there are almost no private educational institutions as education is seen as a human right.

"Good" and "bad" schools do not exist, as all schools are equally resourced, with fees, textbooks, living stipends for university students and nutritious lunches funded by the state through taxes.

The Department of Basic Education and the Fees Must Fall movement should take note of the Finnish education system. Its philosophy, which is a mixture of best practices throughout the world, is based on trust, individuality and real world skills.

Children only begin attending school at age seven, as childhood and play are considered as important as formal learning, and must be cherished for as long as possible.

Teachers are relatively well-paid and are required to hold a master’s degree, rendering the profession competitive. Students are rarely assessed through tests, and success is measured based on individual learning goals set with one’s teacher, who is addressed by his or her first name.

The curriculum is taught holistically, meaning students do not take a particular subject (eg history), but have lessons that combine various subjects (History and English combined). Home economics is a required course, and teaches students how to cook and clean. Schools do not separate strong and weak students, and encourage those who are not as academically inclined to attend vocational school, instead of university. In fact, 40% of Finnish high school graduates choose vocational school over university, and there is even an option to do a hybrid of both.

The Department of Small Business Development and free market capitalists would love the Finnish government’s approach to start-up entrepreneurship, which mushroomed after Nokia began mass layoffs in 2008. A survey 20 years ago at a top Finnish business school indicated only three out of 600 students intended to start their own business after graduating. A more recent survey conducted at the same school showed that 400 out of 600 want to start their own business after graduating, reflecting a radical attitude shift towards entrepreneurship among young Finns.

The Department of Trade and Industry and proponents of the developmental state would relish the central role the Finnish government plays in driving the economy. For example, funding entrepreneurs and creating a business-friendly ecosystem is seen as the public sector’s responsibility, and is not outsourced to the private sector (there is no legislated enterprise and supplier development). Entrepreneurs can apply for up to several hundred thousand euros to the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation, and are guaranteed an outcome within one month.

Compare this to SA, where many young entrepreneurs have to jump through numerous hoops and wait up to a year or longer to receive an outcome from developmental funding agencies.

The government even has an agency called FinPro, which is tasked to help Finnish start-ups export their products to new markets. It subsidises them to visit those markets to understand the local business environment.

The Department of Higher Education and vice-chancellors must know that Finnish universities are home to incubators and accelerators that assist students and graduates to scale their start-ups. One example is xEdu, based at the University of Helsinki. xEdu’s participants come from throughout the region as it is Northern Europe’s only EdTech accelerator, providing participating enterprises with seed capital and an intense three-month programme. Accelerators such as xEdu are developing a new generation of Finnish entrepreneurs who are democratising education by marrying Finnish pedagogy with cutting-edge technology. One such start-up is CLANED™, which claims to be the world’s first open, personal and intelligent learning portal using artificial intelligence. Founded by an ex-Nokia executive who assembled a team that developed unique learning algorithms, CLANED™ measures how the user engages with various types of digital content, and recommends course material based on their individual learning style.

Soon to be used by 90% of Finnish educational institutions, it is about to launch a new offering, Marketplace, which enables users to produce and peer-review digital learning content.

Funzi is another Finnish start-up that is levelling the global education playing field, and has teamed up with Facebook’s Internet.org’s Free Basics to deliver learning to mobile users at no cost in more than 40 countries. It provides free six-week courses on all mobile devices on basic life skills such as finding a job, starting a business and integrating into a new host country, and has been used to integrate newly arrived refugees into Finnish society.

The learning is delivered in bite-sized packages that only take a few minutes to read, and uses a combination of reading, pictures and multiple choice quizzes to convey its content.

We met many incredible education start-ups in Finland that use technology to teach children 21st century skills, such as coding, 3D printing and foreign language acquisition. Although the country is wealthy, relatively homogenous and has a much smaller population than SA, it is doing many things right, particularly in the spheres of basic education and entrepreneurship.

I would like South African leaders to see for themselves how a relatively poor nation with a mediocre education system and risk-averse attitude towards entrepreneurship can take charge of its future and pivot in the right direction.

Brotman is the co-founder of En-novate, which exposes entrepreneurs and business people to new global markets.