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Principled Pragmatism

Li Andersson, Chair of the Finnish Left Alliance, and Minister of Education, has promoted polices to invest in teacher training and reduce differences between schools, improve public health, increase parental leave.

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Last year your party, Vasemmistoliitto (Left Alliance), entered government as the second-smallest partner in a five-party coalition. What powers do you have as part of this coalition?

Before entering government, we wrote a list of critical objectives that we absolutely had to achieve. When I look at the government’s agenda thus far, I can point to several aims that we are already in a position to realise. A great deal of action is still required regarding legislative proposals impacting the labour market, where our aim is to improve the position of precarious and migrant workers. But we still have time to make a difference in this area.

Many left-wing parties view coalitions with scepticism. Yet the vast majority of your members – 97 per cent – were in favour. Would you say the Finnish Left is largely pragmatic?

To a certain degree, yes. But we have formed governments many times in the past – it’s nothing new. If we were to aggressively attack our opponents all the time, it wouldn’t go down well with our voters. The Finnish tend to be pragmatic people. But the political context also played a key role. The right-wing coalition that governed previously made dreadful policy decisions. They made changes that were detrimental to the unemployed and asylum seekers, and caused so much harm to our education system. The time was ripe for a change of government.

Besides the impact you have had in your role as Minister of Education, what projects has the Left Alliance been able to implement as part of this government?

We enacted a crucial reform regarding an issue that played a significant role in our election campaign: the number of carers in care homes. We are also in the process of finally passing a reform on public healthcare, which has been postponed twice. We have increased the basic state pension and reversed the worst unemployment reforms enacted by our predecessors. We have also been able to make changes to parental leave and recruited more teaching staff to the vocational training sector.

You are Finland’s education minister. Is the job as wonderful as it sounds?

It is indeed a dream job in the sense that I’m able to influence policy that has a direct impact on our future. Compared to the broader policy issues that our government has to contend with, I’m always content to be focusing on our projects here in this department. I think the biggest challenge we are currently facing in Finland’s education system is the growing trend towards polarisation within primary education, i.e. the growing differences between pupils from different social backgrounds. Social class is becoming a bigger factor in Finnish education, even though our system was once the world’s best at facilitating social mobility. For me, as a member of the Left, tackling the widening gap between our social classes is one of our most pressing tasks. 

Speaking of equal opportunities, how well did the Finnish education system cope with inequality during lockdown? And did digital teaching work well? 

Overall, our schools and other educational institutions did a great job. This was mainly because we have invested heavily in teacher training in recent years, including training in digital learning formats. All that investment paid off this spring. However, researchers are already warning that this lockdown will have a polarising effect. If you look at learning outcomes or the well-being of pupils, you can see that those more heavily reliant on additional support before the crisis were less likely to meet their attainment targets.

Is teacher training also one of the reasons why the Finnish education system performs so well in international comparisons?

Training certainly plays a key role, but how the profession is viewed is also crucial. All qualified teachers are required to hold a master’s degree and the profession is highly valued in Finnish society. Teachers work in a highly attractive professional environment that encourages learning. Pupils have good, highly capable teachers. Another factor is that our education system works for everyone. You won’t see as much ‘shopping around for schools’, i.e. families who select their child’s school, as you do in Sweden. In fact, the opposite is true: if you look at the results of the latest PISA study, we had the lowest difference in quality between schools. Of course, there are issues and socioeconomic differences within school classes, but not between schools, and that is crucial as it means everyone can trust that their own local school is among the best in the world. 

You would like to make education compulsory up to the age of 18. There is increased funding available for universities as well as specialised and vocational institutions. What other achievements have you chalked up in your first year as Minister of Education?

One important change is that we have reinstated the right to full-time childcare for unemployed parents with small children. This was also symbolically important and rectified one of the worst errors made by the previous right-wing government. We also reduced the size of infant groups in nurseries to increase the quality of care. Taking these steps has allowed us to improve early years care.

You have visited many schools and met many pupils. What was the best question you were asked by a child?

Well, the children have so many great questions. It’s hard to pick just one. But I can tell you the funniest question I was asked. When the schools were reopening in May for three weeks before the summer holidays, I received many letters from second-year pupils. You can imagine what they were like: lots of colour and very large handwriting. Reading how excited they all were because they were going back to school and could see their friends again made me the happiest minister in the world. Anyway, there was one letter that ended “P.S.: Madam Minister, could you please send me a toy dinosaur? Thanks.” I really liked this cheeky little request. After all, there’s no harm in asking! 

And did the young man get his dinosaur? 

No. If I had sent him something, I would have had to do the same for the entire class! I thought it best to keep things fair.

You used to be in favour of a six-hour working day and a four-day working week. I guess the issue took a backseat for you earlier this year? 

(Laughs.) Well, at least with regard to my working hours, it did. But I still support the idea. After all, the past has shown us that rising productivity often goes hand in hand with a demand for fewer working hours. But we haven’t seen any major changes in recent decades. 

Could you do your job in just 30 hours a week? 

No. (Laughs) But it would be an interesting experiment to see what would happen if every minister only had a 30-hour week. On the other hand, it’s not really a job but a mandate. And it’s one that I must fulfil 24/7.

The coronavirus crisis is also having an impact on Finland’s economy. What do you think the consequences of lockdown will be? And what challenges will the Left Alliance have to face as a result?

Well, the impacts will, of course, depend on how the second wave unfolds. Obviously, we hope there won’t be a second lockdown and that we will be able to manage the situation with regional measures – but it depends on the number of infections. However, it is already clear that Finland and Europe grasp that cuts are no way to get through this crisis. This year we will have a budget deficit of €20 billion. But that is simply what it costs to provide financial support to companies, local authorities and schools. Trying to make cuts now wouldn’t be particularly wise: times like these call for economic stimulus.

Just like neutral Sweden, Finland cooperates closely with NATO, e.g. as part of the BALTOPS exercises in the Baltic Sea. What is your stance concerning the ongoing debate on Finland joining NATO?

My party and I are against Finland joining NATO. Given Finland’s geopolitical situation, such a move would heighten our security risk. What’s more, we are a very small country, so speaking with just one voice internationally allows us get our message across more effectively than if we were a small country within a large alliance such as NATO. If we do our jobs properly, we should be able to make our voices heard. 

Where do you see yourself in five years? 

I have no idea. I hope I still enjoy it and want to continue in politics. I have always said to myself that I will do this as long as I am sure that I’m doing it for the right reasons. 

What will influence your decision? 

From a leftist perspective, it obviously can’t just be about whether I’m involved in government or in these buildings. (Gestures around her office.) When a political movement is defined solely by the fact that it is able to exert power, it has already lost its right to exist. 

According to recent surveys, the Left Alliance is polling at around eight to nine per cent among voters. How much potential is there for the party to grow? 

Research has been conducted into which sections of Finnish society consider us electable, at least hypothetically. We are aware that the party by no means appeals to every Finn. But we do appeal to numbers far larger than those currently voting for us. It should thus be our objective to fully realise our potential. But regardless of what we say, how we present ourselves and what our demands are, we won’t be able to win everyone over.

The interview with Li Andersson, Chair of the Finnish Left Alliance, was conducted by Robert Stark for neues deutschland (nd).