Universitas Helsingiensis

The quarterly of the University of Helsinki
Guarantors of future
Foreign students seek to study in Finland for family reasons or the free university education. But how to make them stay in Finland, to help cover the looming shortage in the workforce?

Tapio Ollikainen

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The international strategy for university education estimates that the population development in Finland, together with the ever-tightening global competition in business, will by 2015 lead to a situation where the workforce available in Finland will be insufficient to meet the need. A foreign workforce will be needed in fields of high competence level in particular, such as IT and biotechnology, as well as services. There are currently 3,800 foreign university students in Finland. The strategy states the objective is 10,000–15,000 students by 2010. How are we to achieve this?

Free tuition must be retained

The matter was looked into by Kulsoom Ally, a student, who conducted a study on foreign degree students by commission of the Student Union of the University of Helsinki and the University of Helsinki Academic Affairs Department and completed at the end of 2002. In the survey, 1,186 foreign degree students were asked what made them choose Finland and the University of Helsinki. 447 or 44% responded. The study entitled Making a New Life - A Study of Foreign Degree Students in University of Helsinki, also examined what it was like to live and study in Finland, and whether the students wished to stay in Finland after their studies.

There have been occasional suggestions of imposing tuition fees on foreign degree students. Free university education is, however, Finnish universities’ biggest single attraction internationally, the report reveals. “Nearly half of the respondents said that free tuition was the main reason for choosing the University of Helsinki. If fees were introduced, 46 percent said they would drop their studies, while 41 percent would continue. If the thought of educating foreign students with tax payers’ money seems too generous, we should remember that someone else has already paid for the students’ whole school education,” Ally says. “On the contrary, if a student studying in Finland also stayed here to work, money would be saved.”

In addition to free tuition and career opportunities, many students came to Finland with a Finnish partner. These three reasons were more important than, for example, the high standard of living or the good reputation of Finnish industry. “You can surely make close personal friends during your studies – even with Finns!” Ally says, but doubts very much that this would take place in the lecture room. “The lecture culture is very different from what I’ve experienced in Britain or the United States. At first, I’d automatically start chatting to anyone sitting next to me in a mass lecture, but learnt very quickly that this was not done. Finns are happy to give information to each other and foreign students, but friends are rarely made before or after lectures!”

In addition to free tuition, Ally mentions libraries and the standard of IT services as strong points of Finnish universities. Student meals, housing, public transport and health care are publicly supported, which helps with students’ living expenses.

Cold shoulder from official Finland

Somewhat surprisingly, Finnish authorities seem less welcoming towards the influx of academic human capital. Foreign students find, for example, the annual rigmarole of residence permits humiliating. Although one’s study plan might cover four years, the student has to apply annually for a residence permit, queuing with refugees and other immigrants, when the processing time can be as long as eight months. “During that time, the student is without his or her passport. In the United States, the permit is given straightaway for four years.” Ally suggests that students’ applications be processed separately to avoid the long waiting periods.

Another confusing bureaucratic detail is that students have to leave the country as soon as their studies are completed. Those who would wish to concentrate on looking for a job cannot do so even for a summer. “The United States grants a 'student work permit’ for one year, thanks to which most of the graduates stay in the country.” The authorities have long been aware of the problems with work and residence permits: as early as 1990 a foreign student working group appointed by the Ministry of Education suggested that their processing should be simplified. The new Alien’s Act is about to be discussed in the Parliament, but according to the Student Union, this is unlikely to change the situation of foreign students. The general election in March can, of course, alter things.

Difficulties in the path towards employment

According to the survey, 60 percent of foreigners are employed in jobs below their educational level and competence. One third said they would stay in Finland, if work suited to their competence level is available. If not, they will move on. Ally is also faced with this situation. “My graduation is near, and I would be ready to stay if only I could find a job in which I could use my skills. If not, moving elsewhere is an option.” The Student Union view is that the state should offer traineeships to foreign students so that they could improve their language skills, acquire working experience and build contacts.

A key prerequisite for getting a job and integrating into Finnish society is the Finnish language. Language teaching should be given more resources and Finnish language skills could be a required element before receiving the degree. “To know such a rare language as Finnish would surely create a lasting bond to the country.”

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