There are more cities, more universities and more transport connections in the northernmost parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland than anywhere else in the Arctic region. Yet student mobility between these countries is at a surprisingly low level. What should be done? There are small steps and big leaps to be taken.

A recent report on sustainable Arctic growth presented four recommendations to the governments of Norway, Sweden and Finland. It is probably no surprise that one was the creation of “one pool of talent and labour” for the Scandinavian Arctic. The other three recommendations were the creation of one regulatory framework, one long-term transport and infrastructure plan, and the realization of one voice in Arctic matters.

Most people probably think that “one pool of talent and labour” already exists in these three Nordic countries. After all, the agreement on a common Nordic labour market was signed over sixty years ago in 1954. Sadly, this is not the case. Over the years numerous obstacles to the free movement of people, services and products have been created in the Nordics. Some of these obstacles have been unintentional, some of them outright protectionist. An example of the former is the implementation of EU regulation: since each country implements EU directives in slightly different ways, the final result is not “one regulatory system” but (in this case) three slightly different systems. An example of the latter are vocational and academic qualifications. One would think that a Finnish electrician could simply apply for a job in Norway, but a great number of professions, such as that of an electrician, are protected by national legislation. The result is that a Nordic labor market works well in theory but not in practice.

Creating one pool of talent and labour should not be an impossible task for the Nordic countries. We share a common set of basic values on which we have built a successful Nordic welfare model, and about 60 years ago we were at the cutting edge of regional economic cooperation with the introduction of a common labour market and the Nordic Passport Union. Yet border obstacles between the Nordic countries and uncoordinated education and qualification standards in various professions still hinder regional economic development in the High North.

It is clear that we have lost the momentum that we once had in regional economic cooperation, and this loss hits us hard at a time when the economic focus is moving northwards in many fields important to our national well-being. Fishing, the petroleum industry, tourism, mining and the development of Arctic technologies all depend on the predictable regulation of their business environments and qualified workforce located reasonably nearby.

What can Finland, Norway and Sweden do together in the field of education to regain their status as trailblazers in regional economic cooperation and to achieve sustainable growth from the North?

Firstly, their governments can harmonize the education and qualification standards in all regulated professions. A system for mutual recognition of professional and vocational qualifications was established in principle decades ago, but its full implementation is unfortunately still lacking. If we truly believe in the concept of a common Nordic labour market, our public authorities should trust that the neighbour’s education system produces professionals as good as their own, and our politicians can stop eloquent speeches at the Nordic Council.

Secondly, the universities can make better use of existing Nordic and Arctic exchange networks such as Nordplus, north2north, Nordic Five Tech and Nordtek. Although the majority of universities in Finland, Norway and Sweden are part of at least one Nordic or Arctic exchange network, the number of students moving between them is distinctively low. For example, in 2013 only 25 students from Norwegian universities and 61 students from Swedish universities studied in Finland. In comparison, in the same year 1,423 students from Germany, 115 from Slovakia and 332 from the Netherlands chose to study in Finland. Many study programs, especially in technical universities and business schools, should include one semester in another Nordic or Arctic university.

Thirdly, different public-private arrangements should be tried and tested to establish joint Master’s, PhD and research programs as well as part-time joint professorships in the areas of important drivers of growth in the North. Benchmarking innovation programs and supporting closer cooperation between academia and the private sector are integral parts of finding new growth.

If we are serious about promoting sustainable growth in the Arctic, we should be serious about promoting the mobility of students, teachers and researchers who are interested in the challenges and opportunities that the northernmost part of the world offers. And even more importantly, we should be serious about creating a single regulatory framework for labour, products and services. The Sami people have lived in a borderless North for centuries – it is time for the rest of us to follow in their footsteps.

And finally, while harmonizing professional qualification standards and boosting student and researcher mobility might be easiest among the Nordics, we should continue striving towards similar goals on a wider, circumpolar level as well to secure sustainable growth in the Arctic. If Nordic economic cooperation (remember Nordek) gave way to bigger plans once, it can certainly do it again.

Arctic Economic Area, anyone?

Risto E. J. Penttilä was the Finnish member of a working group set up by the Prime Ministers of Finland, Norway and Sweden to identify concrete ways of boosting sustainable growth in the North through tripartite cooperation. Eero Hokkanen was Secretary of the working group. The final report of the working group called “Growth from the North” was delivered to the Prime Ministers in January 2015 in Tromsø, Norway, and can be read in full on the Finnish Government's website.

[Read the article in the Shared Voices magazine here.]