Value of education: Graduate students make most of opportunities in Finland

Photos provided to the Daily Mining Gazette Mexican graduate student in showing off her pizza making robot designed and built with her Finnish classmates.

Editor’s Note: Michigan Tech professor Joshua Pearce is spending his sabbatical in Finland at Aalto University on a Fulbright Fellowship. In this first-person narrative series, he shares some of personal observations and insights on Finland’s educational system.

Finland is actually a relatively new country but has already built up a solid international reputation in education. When I first arrived in Finland, they were celebrating a century of independence.

On Nov. 15, 1917, the Bolsheviks declared a right of succession for everyone in Russia. Without even letting the ink dry, Finnish Parliament took control of their country on the same day.

The next year there was a bitter Finnish civil war, and then shortly after Finland defended its independence twice from the Soviet Union in World War II.

Therefore, it is somewhat surprising that what started out a relatively short time ago as a poor, war-torn, largely rural country has universities that are any good at all. Finnish universities are all public and among the top 2 percent of international rankings. For example, Aalto University ranks 137th globally. For perspective that puts it several spots above of Michigan State at 149th.

Photos provided to the Daily Mining Gazette Micronova, the Aalto University Microfab where I am working, shows off their national spirit and technical prowess with a celebratory message taken with a scanning electron microscope much smaller than a human hair and then ironically made poster size so you can actually see it.

In Finland, I taught several graduate classes, just as I do at Michigan Tech. The room in I teach is laid-back, just like the rooms for younger students (although we all keep our shoes on), with clusters of couches that create a conversational atmosphere for smaller classes.

The room was a bit different from what I am accustomed to, but the most striking thing I noticed about teaching graduate students in Finland is many of them were Finnish. That may not seem overly surprising to you, as Finns are known to value education and I am in Finland after all. However, my experience as both a graduate student and a professor in America are far different.

In America, those willing and able to pursue graduate degrees in the technical disciplines are few and far between. This is despite the evidence that most jobs are either very likely or very unlikely to be automated in the future. Many weakly-skilled jobs will be the first to be automated away.

Young people who want future job security should work hard to ensure they have advanced degrees doing the designing, not being only employable in jobs that are easily designed away. Finnish students are clearly choosing to be the designers, while many American students are struggling.

Last year I taught a graduate-level solar photovoltaic class at Tech. Solar energy is by far the fastest-growing source of energy, creating jobs 12 times faster than the rest of the U.S. economy, as lower-cost solar energy even makes it highly profitable to turn tobacco farms into solar farms.

Predictions are optimistic for the future of solar energy. As America’s electric system must be redesigned for the transition to a more distributed, modern grid running on renewable energy, there are thousands of new, rewarding, high-paying electrical engineering careers for those willing to work hard in graduate school to earn them.

International students seem to know this. Tech’s graduate classes in solar and wind energy are always packed with those looking for a good job that will help them make a comfortable future in America. We are lucky to have them, as Americans themselves seem to have missed the memo.

One of Michigan’s top electrical engineering students, whom I had recruited into my research group, came up to me after the first solar class last year and asked, “Am I the only American student here?”

The unfortunate answer was yes. Now in my large and small classes in Finland, there were certainly international students, but there were still many Finnish students.

Even more shocking is where some of the international students came from. I expect to see Indian and Chinese students because their countries have more than a billion people each and are graduating millions of engineers every year.

However, I had several students from South, and Central, America. as well as Mexico. These students literally have hundreds of North American university choices, yet they were coming all the way to Finland to study.

An extremely smart Mexican mechanical engineering graduate student took my 3-D printing class to help speed her prototyping of a pizzabot. In nine months with a team made up of herself and Finnish engineering, design and business students, they created a robot about the size of a small kitchen table that makes pizzas to order.

The idea is these small kiosks would be deployable on a tiny footprint and have trivial labor costs (like stocking the machine), and customers could get inexpensive pizzas fast.

I had a slice of the robot-manufactured pizza, and it was pretty good. A Finnish company sponsored the project and clearly benefited from the talent pool at Finnish universities.

Why would a talented Mexican graduate student pass America by and come all the way to Finland? One reason is Finland is much more inviting to international people.

Finland’s Prime Minister Juha Sipilä, who was kind enough to personally give my children buttons when we stopped by his office during an open house, offered his own home to displaced migrants. It is hard to imagine either version of the Finnish open houses occurring in the U.S. under any administration.

This is a very different greeting than we sometimes offer those who cross American borders. It is concerning, although not surprising, that international student demand has suddenly dropped in America. Make no mistake about it, losing the smartest students in the world to other countries is not in our best interest.

Another reason international students choose Finland is simply cost. Any Finnish person smart enough can attend Aalto University at no cost. In Finland, university education is free for everyone, with the cost covered by taxes — except for non-EU students who only pay a nominal charge compared to U.S. universities.

Our two local universities cost much more: Finlandia University’s tuition is more than $22,000 per year, and Michigan Tech costs in-state students about $15,000 per year and out-of-state students $32,000 per year.

Finnish universities are actively recruiting foreign students. By making education free for their own students and low-cost for the top international students, Finland is clearly gaining a competitive advantage.

A zero-cost university education creates a society where, even if you are poor, you can get a good education and a good job, no matter how badly pizzabots and their electronic relatives decimate low-skilled jobs.

The Finnish meritocratic system is a lot like what the U.S. aspires to be. We offer as many scholarships as we can to the best students. This is good, but a far cry from providing every talented student a free education and a much better chance at a good future as I see here in Finland.