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A Unique Initiative for Special Educational Support at the School of Business and Economics at Åbo Akademi University

How do we create a more inclusive and accessible learning environment at universities? During the last academic year, the School of Business and Economics at Åbo Akademi University offered its students the opportunity to receive special educational support. This spring, several students who received support through the initiative will graduate with a bachelor’s degree.

In autumn 2023, a special educational support pilot project was launched at the School of Business and Economics at Åbo Akademi University (SBE) to assist students facing challenges in their studies. The aim was to establish a more inclusive and accessible learning environment, ensuring all students have better opportunities to achieve their academic goals.

During the past academic year, special educational support has been provided to third-year students in the Business and Economics programme, comprising a group of approximately 100 students. By the end of the academic year, 13 students will have benefited from the opportunity. Four of them have recently received their bachelor’s degrees, and another five or six are expected to graduate this autumn.

– It is a significant achievement for every student who graduates and moves forward in their life.  Finland also needs all its young people, especially considering the demographic structure of the country. A significant portion of the universities’ funding also relies on the graduation of those admitted, says Malin Johansson, who has worked with the students in the project.

A Pioneering Initiative

The project is ground-breaking; the School of Business and Economics at Åbo Akademi University is one of the first universities in Finland to implement such an initiative.

In elementary schools and nowadays also in upper secondary schools, there are various forms of statutory special educational support, Johansson explains. Support that disappears rather suddenly at university.

‒ We are starting to realise that we need to support these students at university level as well, says Johansson.

Malin Johansson
“We are almost surprised by how well it has gone.” Malin Johansson is a German and English teacher with an academic background also in business administration. She has also spent many years working with business students as a language teacher. This experience has given her a fundamental understanding of how various subjects at the School of Business and Economics are organised.

She stresses that special educational support does not serve as a replacement for student health services or study psychologists.

– The support given in the project is not therapy nor medical care. We adopt a practical and pedagogical approach to academic studies, asking questions and exploring concrete possible solutions together.

Close Cooperation with Teaching Staff

In practice, this often involves study advisors or teachers identifying students who are facing challenges in their studies and putting them in touch with Malin. Sometimes students have also approached her on their own.

– The entire process builds on a close collaboration with study advisors, teacher tutors, and other teaching staff at SBE, who intervene when a student begins to fall behind. For example, staff members might request permission to refer the student to me. They do not merely recommend forms of support, but take the first step with the student’s consent, says Malin Johansson.

– I would like to give special recognition to Joanna Anckar, study advisor for the Business and Economics programme, who has been highly engaged in both the planning and implementation of the project. Joanna is a crucial sounding board and has also advised numerous students in my direction

The students and Malin meet to evaluate and create an individualised plan for their work, which includes follow-up and ongoing plan development.

– When a student seeks my guidance, I strive to begin with practical tasks quite quickly, in moderate portions. We address incomplete assignments and reach out to teachers in courses where the student has fallen behind. We acknowledge setbacks, celebrate small achievements, and collaboratively clarify the next steps needed to keep moving forward. This may include establishing routines, creating timetables, enhancing study techniques, and finding the courage to try again. The student is provided with deadlines and is held accountable by someone.

– It is not about changing the academic programmes. Once students get underway, they generally handle the requirements quite well. We prefer to support students to meet the requirements, rather than lowering the standards, says Johansson.

Support is available without the need for a disability diagnosis.

The students who have received support can be divided into three main groups, says Johansson. The largest group comprises students with various neuropsychiatric impairments, such as ADHD. Some have a formal diagnosis, while others do not. Some are waiting for formal assessments.

The second largest group consists of students dealing with mental health challenges, such as mild depression or anxiety, which have caused them to fall behind in their studies.

– The third group does not have a clear common denominator. It simply encompasses situations where life circumstances have gotten in the way. These circumstances could include serious illness, personal crises, or students balancing school and family life, especially with young children. It could be any one of us.

Clearer Structures

Another crucial objective of the pilot project has been to examine how SBE addresses the requirement for special measures in teaching, aiming to define an effective process for supporting students with disabilities.

This includes, for instance, defining eligibility for special educational support and determining who qualifies for various types of adapted examinations, and so on. What are the internal roles and responsibilities for supporting students, and how should boundaries be established to ensure that special arrangements do not compromise the quality of the programme and the degree?

– Clearer processes reduce the workload for administrators and teachers, resulting in smoother academic progress and quicker degree completion. Students, families, and everyone involved will be happier, says Johansson. Working at this level has also been possible thanks to Wilhelm Barner-Rasmussen being an active part of the initiative, Johansson explains.

Barner-Rasmussen is responsible for the School of Business and Economics and thus also for the pilot project.

What happens now?

– We have received funding to continue in autumn 2024 and will now extend the support to years 2–4 of the Business and Economics programme. At present, future funding beyond that is uncertain, but we naturally hope for a continuation, so that we can work in an even more long-term and goal-oriented way, says Malin Johansson.

She emphasises that one of the most important lessons learned over the past year is the necessity for special educational support to be closely aligned with the activities of the university and tailored to the specific needs of the unit.

– An important factor contributing to our success has been my familiarity with the SBE. I am well-acquainted with the programmes and the teachers, and they are familiar with me. Special needs support thrives through collaboration.