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EACEA National Policies Platform:Eurydice
Historical development


1.Political, social and economic background and trends

1.1Historical development

Last update: 31 May 2023

Historical development

Finland was incorporated into the Kingdom of Sweden in the 13th and 14th centuries after the Northern Crusades. The roots of the Finnish social system, legislation and culture originate from this period of Swedish rule.

The Finnish written language was developed by Mikael Agricola in the 16th century during the Protestant Reform. He wrote the first Finnish-language book, a textbook for teaching people to read and write in Finnish, in 1543. A translation of the New Testament came soon after.

During the 18th century, wars between Sweden and Russia resulted in Russian annexation of parts of Finland. In the Napoleonic wars Sweden surrendered Finland to Russia in 1809 and Finland became an autonomous Grand Duchy of Russia. However, legislation and the social system from the Swedish period stayed largely unchanged.

During the years of Russian rule, the degree of autonomy varied. It was during this time that a Finnish central government was built, and in 1812 the capital city was moved from Turku to Helsinki. Finnish nationalism and promotion of the Finnish language flourished during the Russian rule, and at the latter part of the period Finland had its own army and currency, with the Finnish language having official status aside Russian and Swedish. Universal suffrage was implemented in 1906. After the Russian revolution in 1917, Finland started to disengage from Russia to gain independence. Finland has been an independent state since December 6th, 1917.

Shortly after gaining independence, the internal tensions resulted in a civil war in 1918 between left wing and right wing political forces. The war ended in the victory of the right wing government forces. The war had a lasting impact on Finnish society, dividing the nation for decades.

During the Second World War, Finland fought against the Soviet Union in the Winter War (1939 – 1940) and the Continuation War (1941–1944). As conditions for peace, Finland fas forced to cede land to the Soviet Union. Finland provided homes for 400 000 evacuees or 12% of the population from these areas. As part of the peace treaty, Finland also had to expel the remaining German soldiers from Finland, resulting in the Lapland War (1944-1945).

After the war Finland pursued a policy of neutrality, balancing good relationships to both the Soviet Union and the West. Helsinki Olympic Games were held in 1952, and 1955 Finland joined the United Nations and the Nordic Council. The after-war period was also a time of radical change with rapid urbanization and the building of the welfare state.

Finland’s political system has been developed in a more parliamentary direction by strengthening the role of Parliament and the Government in relation to the President of the Republic. Because of the updated constitution from the year 2000, Parliament has an even stronger position as the supreme organ of state.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and Sweden's application to the European Community in 1991 increased interest in the EC in Finland, and a referendum on joining was held in 1994 with 57% support for membership. Finland joined the European Union in 1995.



Finland's first schools were founded by the church and Catholic monks at the latter part of 13th century. The church was the main organizer of education until the mid 19th century. The languages of schooling were Swedish and Latin. The first school where the language of instruction was Finnish was founded in 1858. 

The first university, the Royal Academy of Turku was founded in 1640. The university was moved to Helsinki during the Russian rule, where it eventually became University of Helsinki.

Finland was among the last countries in Europe to make education compulsory. The act concerning general compulsory education came into force 1921. However, schooling was very common in urban areas also long before that, in rural areas it was less common. One of the aims was to do away with the educational inequality between children in towns and the country. In 1921 the so called folk school (kansakoulu) offered six years of education and education became compulsory for all children aged 7-13.

After the 4th grade in the folk school, academically gifted pupils could apply to grammar schools (oppikoulu). This school path comprised of a 5-6 year middle school and 3 year high school, and was more theoretical and academic in nature than folk school, preparing pupils for future academic study. Tuition fees in grammar schools, especially in smaller cities and rural areas, made these schools unavailable for economically disadvantages families.

After the Second World War, the two-path system was starting to be seen as old fashioned. A new school system was seen as necessary to provide citizens with the skills and knowledge they need in the fast changing society, with one path for all pupils to give equal opportunities for everyone despite their socioeconomic status. The nine year free comprehensive school system was implemented throughout Finland from 1972 to 1977.

Even though vocational education had existed in some forms from the early 20th century, the industry need in rebuilding and paying war reparations after the Second World War was the factor that really popularized vocational education. As the entire education system was already under reform plans in the 1960s, reforming and formalizing vocational education as an equal educational path was seen as important. In 1974, vocational education was formalized as continuing from comprehensive education, containing academic studies aside technical ones, and providing a path to higher education.

In 2021, compulsory education was extended to 18 years, with upper secondary education also becoming free to all students.