Cooperative education and research in Finland are still limited

Despite their success, cooperatives remain an invisible giant in the education offered by higher education institutions in Finland.

Cooperative and mutual companies employ more people worldwide than publicly traded companies. The combined turnover of the 300 largest cooperatives is an impressive 2,234 billion euros. Cooperatives have also demonstrated their resilience during both the financial crisis and the pandemic.

However, in Finnish universities and higher education institutions, theories still primarily rely on observations made from investor-owned companies. Anu Puusa, professor of management at the University of Eastern Finland is concerned about this situation.

“We have seen some improvement, but the state of cooperative education is still inadequate, even dismal,” says Puusa, who also sits on Pellervo Coop Center’s board.

She wonders why, despite its success, the cooperative model remains completely marginalized in research. “If investor-owned companies were as economically strong and yet not studied, they would have risen to the barricades long ago.”

According to Puusa, the cooperative movement is an invisible giant in the business world that has not managed to make its presence known. “So far, neither cooperatives nor researchers have succeeded in developing an evaluation framework that starts from the specific characteristics of the cooperative model.”

Cooperatives in Finland also lack their own governance code. According to Puusa, the theories of good governance have been developed from the perspective of investor-owned companies and do not fully apply to cooperatives.

“Recognition is a significant challenge for us. Without research, there are no theories, and without theories, there are no textbooks, which are necessary for the spread of cooperative education to other levels of education,” reminds Puusa, who has seen firsthand what it takes to integrate cooperative studies into university education.

The cooperative course she leads has sparked interest from the beginning, but within the university, it initially faced outright resistance. Fortunately, the courses have since received official recognition: in 2016, the Finnish Association of Business School Graduates awarded Anu Puusa a teaching prize, and last year, she and her colleague Sanna Saastamoinen received the UEF Skillful Teacher Award.

Anu Puusa views the recent professors of practice in cooperative studies as positive developments but recognizes their weaknesses.

“Unfortunately, both professors of practice and research professorships are highly dependent on individuals and thus very vulnerable. When the individuals change and the temporary funding ends, the education is at risk of fading away.”

Banking research in Oulu

Last year, a professorship in financial economics was established at the Oulu Business School at the University of Oulu through donation funds. Juha-Pekka Junttila, who holds this position, teaches sustainable banking and finance.

“The course also covers the business model of cooperative banks and their actions related to responsibility.”

Junttila sees great potential in the cooperative movement because themes related to sustainability and resilience are very high on the research agenda at the University of Oulu. His goal is to integrate cooperative studies into the business school’s curriculum.

“An understanding of the basics of cooperatives should also be present among business students, for example, as cooperatives are flexible organizations that can most easily adapt to and recover from crises.”

It is also important to have a deep understanding of cooperative membership and the objectives of cooperative enterprises in a rapidly changing operating environment.

“Cooperative education should be increasingly based on research into the differences between business models. This would better harness the relative advantages of the cooperative model for the benefit of society as a whole.”

Junttila plans to create a common undergraduate course on cooperatives, which could in the future be rotated among universities. Distance learning would benefit everyone.

Junttila has previously served as a professor of economics at the University of Jyväskylä and has also pursued a career at foreign universities. He also has extensive experience in governance roles within the OP Financial Group, both as a member and as chairman of the board of Liminka OP.

Theory and practice

Since 2021, Taavi Heikkilä – former CEO of the consumer cooperative S-Group – has served in a part-time Executive in Residence role at Aalto University’s Department of Marketing, akin to a professorship of practice.

“Aalto has never previously had cooperative education. Without my role, it probably still wouldn’t. Now the cooperative course is running, and I’ve been able to introduce the business model to students in other courses as well,” says the cooperative business veteran.

The six-credit cooperative course includes practical assignments and an exam. Companies can assign case studies to student groups and provide topics for bachelor’s and master’s theses. Taavi Heikkilä finds it always rewarding to inspire students about the subject.

“Cooperatives are not familiar to many students, and not everyone chooses the course as an elective. However, those who participate have delved into the topic, completed it commendably, and provided positive feedback.”

What have been your best experiences so far?

“The professors co-leading the course with me, Anu Puusa and more recently Iiro Jussila, have been outstanding. Combining my practical experience with theoretical insights has worked wonderfully,” Heikkilä replies.

He hopes that in 5-10 years, more professorships of cooperatives will be established. The long-term goal would be to provide comprehensive education on cooperatives at various levels of education.

“The unique characteristics of the business model should always be mentioned in basic studies, not just in separate cooperative courses.”

Online education strengthens

The Cooperative Network Studies (CNS), focusing on cooperative and social economics, expanded in the fall of 2023 to include eight universities, with the University of Turku joining the network. The network’s teaching is developed, produced, and coordinated by the Ruralia Institute at the University of Helsinki in collaboration with other universities in the network.

“The contract negotiations were quite intense, but the CNS network’s situation is currently quite good. Our funding is secured until the end of the academic year 2025-26, so now it’s easy to consider new initiatives,” says Taneli Vaskelainen, a university researcher specializing in sustainable economics and cooperatives at the Ruralia Institute, University of Helsinki.

The upcoming curriculum will offer eight courses revolving around three themes: the fundamental principles of cooperatives, business expertise within cooperatives, and cooperatives as ecological, social, and economic actors.

According to Vaskelainen, the courses have attracted a good number of participants, and students also show genuine interest in cooperatives.

“However, students still know relatively little about cooperatives. Their knowledge of sustainability goals, for example, is significantly better,” notes Vaskelainen, who is responsible for the development of the CNS network.

He has a clear vision for the content of online courses and the direction of teaching for the upcoming funding period.

“The aim is not to completely dismantle old structures but to build new ones on top of the old. However, we must ensure that the course offerings meet current requirements so that cooperatives can become even more appealing. We are also considering whether some courses could be made into free and open to all MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), while others could become core courses for certain study programs.”

Funders: quality education doesn’t come for free

The North Karelia Cooperative Society (PKO) – part of the S-Group – has set a good example as a funder of cooperative education and research for years.

“PKO contributed to the University of Eastern Finland’s business education in 2017 with a donation of €200,000. We also brought in other cooperative enterprises, which collectively donated €700,000 to the university,” says Juha Kivelä, CEO of PKO.

In 2022, PKO donated €205,000 to the University of Eastern Finland’s Joensuu campus, where groundbreaking research and education on cooperatives are conducted.

Kivelä reiterates the concern that cooperative research in Finland still lags considering the scale of the movement.

Education or research doesn’t happen for free. How could cooperative enterprises be encouraged to become funders?

“If companies themselves don’t raise the issue, no one else will. Funding should be seen as both enlightenment and, to a large extent, marketing,” says Kivelä.

LähiTapiola Southwest Finland mutual insurance company has donated €60,000 over three years to Turku University for a cooperative and mutual professorship of practice in collaboration with the LähiTapiola Group. Local actors Turku Consumer Cooperative and Turku Cooperative Bank are also part of the donor pool. Eliisa Troberg serves as the professor of practice.

CEO Olli Aakula reminds us that customer-owned companies are significant players and employers but haven’t traditionally been prominently featured in university education.

“Our goal is to highlight customer-owned companies more in connection with studies and thus enable us to continue attracting skilled individuals to our companies,” says Aakula.

According to Aakula, LähiTapiola Southwest Finland collects feedback on how the professorship of practice is perceived among students. If the experiences are positive, continuing funding is very likely.

The largest donor to Åbo Akademi’s cooperative and sustainable entrepreneurship professorship of practice is Jordfonden Foundation, which aims to promote agricultural entrepreneurship in Finland’s Swedish-speaking areas.

“We have donated around €80,000 to this professorship. Otherwise, we haven’t specifically funded cooperative research in recent years,” says foundation representative Anders Strandberg. He continues, “Professor of practice Martin Nordell recently started in this role. We expect his contribution to improve interaction between work life, students, and teachers.”

According to Strandberg, Jordfonden considers funding on a case-by-case basis but doesn’t rule out the possibility of supporting professorships of practice in the future.

Cooperative education and research in numbers

8 universities part of the Cooperative Network Studies -network

40 dissertations on cooperatives between 1939-2022

8/14 universities, students have the opportunity to join a student cooperative

Professors focusing on cooperatives

Cooperative Law Professor Jukka Mähönen, University of Helsinki

Professor in Management Anu Puusa, University of Easter Finland Business School

Associate Professor Antti Talonen, University of Easter Finland Business School

Professor of financial economics Juha-Pekka Junttila, University of Oulu Business School

Professors of practice in cooperatives

Executive in Residence Taavi Heikkilä, Aalto University 2021-25

Cooperatives and mutuals, Eliisa Troberg, Turku University Business School 2022-24

Cooperatives, business development, Sami Karhu, Vaasa University 2022-24

Cooperatives and sustainable entrepreneurship, Martin Nordell, Åbo Akademi 2023-25

Text: Riku-Matti Akkanen, original article in Finnish  OT-magazine 1/2024)


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