Erkki Tuomioja: Friendship And Learning Through Six Decades

Academic exchange programs have been an integral part of the relations between Finland and the United States since the early years. The renowned Fulbright Program is a prime example of this. July 2012 marks the 60th anniversary of the establishing of the Fulbright exchange program between Finland and the United States. I have also a personal connection to the event; the agreement was signed on behalf of the Finnish government by then Foreign Minister Sakari Tuomioja.

The Fulbright Program – established in 1946 - was an achievement of the U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright. This internationally-minded politician could have influenced American history even more profoundly had he been chosen as the Secretary of State in 1960 as President Kennedy then wanted. Nevertheless, this remarkable statesman has left a substantial legacy, which has brought countries together in the areas of education, research and sharing knowledge.

In the beginning, Finland was more on the receiving side of Finnish-American relations; the United States supported Finland after World War I by granting loans to rebuild the country, and through the academic exchange programs. Today Finland is a Nordic welfare state and part of the European Union. The United States and the European Union are strategic partners, and for Finland, the United States is an important partner in various sectors. Actually, nowadays the most important cooperation sectors between our two countries are technology and education.

Finland is no more only on the receiving end. Quite the opposite, today our small country is known for its innovations, high-technology, and most importantly, high-quality educational system. Especially, the success of the Finnish basic education system in the international PISA tests has gained an unprecedented interest in the United States. This phenomenon has even been termed: “Finlandophilia”. Although this might be a slight exaggeration, the truth is that American policy makers and experts from the educational sector are now looking ever more closely at this outstanding Finnish accomplishment.

Finland’s educational system is part of the Nordic model, where the cornerstone is free education for all citizens from the first grade through university. This way Nordic countries guarantee equal access to education for all regardless of their social status and economic situation. U.S. experts are also interested in how to create more quality education for all learners. The other topic that has gained interest is the professionalism of Finnish teachers. In these areas we can significantly increase our cooperation, as these are strengths of the Finnish educational system.

The basic values behind our educational system, equality and democracy, are fundamental principles in all policy making in Finland. This can be seen especially in Finland’s development policies, for example in Afghanistan. We see equal access to education as a basis for sustainable and democratic development. Educating girls and women, and thus empowering them, is one of our priorities and an integral part of the development policies.

We hope that this “hype” on the Finnish basic education system will lead to a new, intensified cooperation in higher education between Finland and the United States. We also want to develop our education system further, towards one that is truly international and equal. The educational sector is now, and will continue to be, one of the key elements in the relationship between Finland and the United States.

Erkki Tuomioja
Minister for Foreign Affairs

Photo: STT-Lehtikuva/Prime Minister's Office

Published in the Fulbright Center News 1/2012