Mira Huusko, Senior Advisor, Finnish Education Evaluation Centre
An annual meeting of the NOQA (Nordic Quality Assurance Network in Higher Education) member countries was arranged by FINEEC in Porvoo, Finland 6.–7.9.2018. In addition to the Nordic agencies, higher education experts from Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Greenland also attended the conference. At this year’s meeting, the focus was on the theme of quality assurance and research and research-based education. The discussion in Finland rarely reflects on what research-based education is and how to approach it. The Nordic debate aroused the interest in finding out more.
Research-based education is defined in the law
In Finland, research-based education is defined in the law. According to the Universities Act (2§), ”(T)he mission of the universities is to promote independent academic research as well as academic and artistic education, to provide research-based higher education and to educate students to serve their country and humanity at large.”
The Act of Universities of Applied Sciences also states (4§), that “The mission of universities of applied sciences is to provide higher education for professional expert jobs based on the requirements of working life and its development and on the premises of academic research and academic and artistic education and to support the professional growth of students. They shall also carry out applied research, development and innovation activities and artistic activities that serve education in universities of applied sciences, promote industry, business and regional development and regenerate the industrial structure of the region.”
Since the Universities Act clearly defines the existence of research-based teaching, it is seldom questioned. Research, Development and Innovation (RDI) is also a part of the activities of universities of applied sciences. The foundation of Finnish higher education is in the idea of German Bildung-university, where teaching and science are strongly linked together.
Areas of research-based education
In the other Nordic countries, the situation with research-based education is slightly different. In the quality assurance of higher education, quality assurance agencies are thinking about what research-based education is and how to define and measure its existence. Berit Hyllseth has defined research-based education through the following areas:
- Teaching takes place in accordance with the most recent research results.
- The programme is linked to a research environment.
- Research based teaching is offered by full time employed teachers with research competencies.
- Research based teaching is offered by active researchers in the discipline.
- Research based teaching implies that students take part in training in scientific method in cooperation with a practicing researcher.
Because in Finland research-based education is often taken for granted, it is easy to think that all these areas are also realized in Finland. In preparation for the NOQA conference, a mini project was conducted to examine whether this is the case in Finland.
How does research-based education appear in audit reports?
I decided to approach research-based education through audit reports of higher education institutions. In the context of the second round of quality system audits, research-based education was asked in the self-evaluation guidelines and in some audit interviews. As I reviewed the 37 audit reports from 2012–2018, I gained more insight to the theme of research-based education. Although the implementation of research-based education was challenging, especially in universities of applied sciences, most higher education institutions were proud of it. Some challenges for the universities of applied sciences included the separation of RDI and project activities from teaching activities, and the fact that those activities were carried out by non-teaching staff.
Universities’ audit reports emphasized a strong connection between teaching and research. It was brought out by stating that all researchers are teachers and all teachers are researches. Teaching is carried out in accordance with the latest research results and it takes into consideration the unit’s research profile and its emphases.
Bachelor and master’s theses were combined in both higher education sectors with research or RDI activities. Students could be included as part-time employees in projects that the staff otherwise carried out and had funding. Students themselves can thus influence the development of research. This enabled students to gain access to the world of research in authentic research environments.
Research or RDI activities were often integrated into all curricula as well as individual courses. Research priorities were especially highlighted in research method courses. Through RDI, the courses included regional and national competences. Students could be encouraged to pursue a doctorate degree. Undergraduate students and doctoral students could participate in the research groups’ activities and lectures.
Indicators have been developed for research-based education at some higher education institutions, and it has been described in self-evaluation reports and in operational and quality manuals.
In the future, more attention should be paid to research-based education
When comparing the image of research-based education provided by the audit reports to the definition provided by Berit Hyllseth, it can be stated that all the different aspects described by Hyllseth are also realized in the Finnish higher education system, although they are often not distinctive. Particularly in the new third-round audit model, there are questions regarding research-based education in the higher education institution’s self-evaluation, so more attention will be paid to the subject in the future:
- What procedures does the higher education institution have to promote the impact of research, development and innovation activities and/or artistic activities in the society?
- How do you develop and monitor the societal interaction and impact of RDI and artistic activities?
- How are research findings, artistic activities and innovation results communicated to the society?
- How does the higher education institution ensure the link between RDI, artistic activities and the overall strategy?
Perhaps in the future, more accurate monitoring systems will be developed at higher education institutions for these issues, so that research-based teaching and its quality are ensured in all teaching. The task of higher education is to raise critical new actors, for which research-based education can provide a good starting point.