FIRST+ is a Russian-Finnish student and teacher mobility program that encourages network partnerships between higher education institutions of Russia and Finland. The network always includes at least one institution in Finland and one in Russia, and is constantly supervised by a Finnish partner who applies to the Finnish National Agency for Education on behalf of the network – and is responsible for the use of grants and accountability.

Recently, two departments of ITMO University – the Department of Financial Management and Audit and the Department of Industrial Ecology and Safety – won a FIRST+ grant together with the Tampere University of Applied Science (TAMK). As Irina Sergeeva, head of the Department of Financial Management and Audit, noted, this was the result of a successful partnership that began four years ago.

“Finland’s educational system is among the world’s best. Students from all over the world go there to study, and many visiting professors work there. Our international partners speak to that fact and I can confirm it from personal experience. This is why organizing joint educational programs has been our goal and dream for a long time,” – says Dr. Sergeeva.

Irina Sergeeva
Irina Sergeeva

As part of the grant, the intensive educational course “Project-Based Approach to Business Canvas Model” is being conducted in St. Petersburg. Participants of the program are ITMO University and RANEPA, and two Finnish universities – TAMK and the University of Helsinki.

Business Canvas Model is a strategic management tool that lets a specialist describe a project, analyze it and identify its good and bad sides on quite literally a single sheet of paper. The model consists of nine blocks, sorted into four groups. Each of the blocks describes a part of the business model, like its key partners and activities, advantages, customer segments, resources, supply channels, costs, and revenue streams. Business canvas model is used by companies to analyze their existing business model and find weak spots or new growth areas.

Business Canvas Model. Credit:
Business Canvas Model. Credit:

The project was initiated by Tiina Wickman-Viitala, a professor at TAMK. She emphasized that the program is very much practice-oriented: throughout the week, students don’t just learn about the use of Business Canvas Model, but use that knowledge to complete cases for partner companies. The program is partnered with major Northern European companies Valio, SOK and Bonava.

“The idea for this project came to us to years ago after Irina Sergeeva’s visit to TAMK. We discussed our opportunities for collaboration back then and began preparing the intensive course,” – says Tiina Wickman-Viitala – “Our program includes a series of workshops and actual project work, which is done on-site at our industrial partners’ facilities. Here, students can learn how to use the Canvas to solve business tasks.”

Working process

A total of 30 students are participating in the program – 15 from both Russia and Finland. In the very beginning, they are split into five groups of six and spend five days at training workshops at ITMO and RANEPA. They will also be able to meet technological entrepreneurship experts who will tell them about the specifics of running a joint Russian-Finnish business and building relationships with international partners.

At the partner companies, the teams were given real business cases, for which they will need to create solutions using Canvas tools. Results will be presented on the final day during pitch sessions at each of the companies. The team that handles a case best will get an internship at the respective company.

As third-year students Anastasia Ivanova and Yulia Shik note, participation in such a program is a way to not only learn new things and improve language skills, but also to work on actual, real-life cases.

“We’ve studied in Finland before this, and we’re interested in going there again, as well as staying in touch with the students and teachers from Finland,” – they tell us – “The program’s cross-border nature lets us exchange experience and improve our communication and language skills. Besides, project-based approach is now used worldwide and it’s important to learn to use it while you’re still at university. Finally, if we solve our case, we get to intern at a company and learn about business processes up-close.”

The main goal of this project is to exchange experience and achieve successful results from interdisciplinary teams, adds Maija Kärnä, TAMK representative and the project’s coordinator.

FIRST+ Intensive Week in St. Petersburg
FIRST+ Intensive Week in St. Petersburg

“Of course, one of the goals is to teach students how to work and apply the tools that exist today. But at the same time, a major task for us is to get these mixed teams, which are made up of representatives of different cultures, to produce great results,” – says Dr. Kärnä – “Another important thing to keep in mind is that we’re bringing together students from wildly different fields. Some of them study marketing, some finance, and some – engineering. This way we bring together students of different cultures and different professions and let them work together, share their visions and establish relationships. This kind of communication, the need to find a common ground and work together is yet another challenge, but one that is also a cornerstone of this program.”

Future prospects

In addition to FIRST+, ITMO University works with Finnish partners as part of Erasmus+, the European Union’s biggest educational mobility program (read more about it in our article). ITMO and its partners have already applied for a grant to set up exchange semesters for students and short-term internships for teachers and professors. Results will be announced in June. ITMO University has previously collaborated on a similar project with the University of Piraeus (Greece); this year, two Master’s students from the Department of Financial Management and Audit went there on an Erasmus+ grant.

Tapani Kaakkuriniemi
Tapani Kaakkuriniemi

Today, universities and businesses in Finland are interested in expanding their relationships with the Russian side, as well as exchanging their best practices, says Tapani Kaakkuriniemi, professor of the University of Helsinki.

“I am very hopeful that our application to Erasmus+ is approved and we can continue working together on joint educational programs. I’m also hoping that we keep working together as part of FIRST+, as well as other Erasmus programs,” – adds Maija Kärnä, – “Russia is our neighbor, and it is also a large market, and, obviously, Finnish companies are interested in doing their business here and developing projects with Russian partners. Our task here is to get students interested in this kind of work, to tell them about opportunities and let them know how to work in Finland, what the business environment is like here and help them get the right contacts. It’s important that our students work together with their Russian peers, as in the future, it will help them do the same at work.”

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