Ethnic minorities and working-class people need to make up too much ground to get into university

The journey to the world of academia for immigrants, the less well off, the disabled and various minorities must be made smoother.

When Jenny Kasongo started her studies in social sciences in the University of Helsinki, she noticed that she was the only black student in her year.

“It didn’t come as a surprise, but I did find it rather amusing. In the entire Faculty of Social Sciences, there are maybe ten of us who belong to ethnic minorities.”

Students from an immigrant background make up a relatively small fraction of the student population compared to their share of the total population. The same can be said of the disabled, and children of poor and working-class families.

Indeed, as an institution of higher learning, the university comes across as quite white and middle class.

Jenny Kasongo has both an immigrant and working-class background. Her parents, who are originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, never studied beyond basic schooling. Her parents have always encouraged her to pursue academic studies, but they couldn’t help her with her homework, or with exploring different study options.

“I thought a lot about whether university was the place for me, and if I’d fit in with the other students. What convinced me that I wanted to study at university were the stories of my friends who were already studying there,” says Kasongo.

Two worlds

Mari Käyhkö, a lecturer at the University of Eastern Finland, has been studying women with a working-class background who study or teach at a university.

“Many of these women feel that they don’t belong, even if they’re successful. They describe themselves as juggling two culturally distinct worlds. Feelings of inadequacy easily lead to under- or overachieving,” says Käyhkö.

The researcher notes that the history and culture of universities are based on middle- and upper-class values, which are not the same as those in working-class homes. Parents might not read to their children or discuss things at home the same way as more academic families. As a result, such students might not feel comfortable speaking up in class; sharing their point of view doesn’t come quite as naturally.

We can change the set-up

At university, however, class is seldom discussed, and instead the focus is on an individual’s personal characteristics and background, which can lead to individuals blaming themselves for their personal experiences.

“Working-class students and teachers engage in class struggles within their own minds,” Mari Käyhkö notes.

The whole of academia cannot be revamped overnight, but a teacher can and should take cultural differences seriously and create an atmosphere in which one need not fit into a particular mould in order to pass muster.

“In my own courses, I have tried to change the hierarchical set-up and encourage dialogue. I talk about class and my own experiences as I, too, come from a working-class background,” says Käyhkö.

Different paths

Study grants, state-funded university education and the regional network of universities are important factors in creating equal opportunities, stresses Käyhkö. If these are weakened, the University will become even more middle class. Even in the current situation background and financial means limit a student’s options.

“The realistic choices of where to apply to are determined at a very young age. The paths diverge at an early stage,” says Käyhkö.

There is more to it than just the external obstacles. Studying at the University might not feel like an option if there is no precedent in your immediate circle of acquaintances. It’s not always easy to believe in yourself and your possibilities.

"What is expected or demanded of a young person? Do they define themselves as a reader or a doer? What comes as natural to each individual in the first place?” Käyhkö asks.

A young person can feel uncomfortable straddling two cultures: their family or childhood friends don’t understand their new world and might think they have changed. Relationships can be put to the test. Is the student trying to be better than everyone else?

The working-class students Käyhkö interviewed at the university talked about their thirst for knowledge, their reading hobby and the support given by teachers. Self-confidence grows when supported.

“A single encouraging comment from a teacher can go a long way.”

Role models are important

What people think is possible for them is impacted by where they see people like themselves. Even the images universities choose for their promotional materials make a difference – role models are important.

“When I started as a class teacher at a primary school in east Helsinki, my students with immigrant backgrounds thought I was a classroom assistant. They had never seen a teacher who looked like them,” says Mona Eid, now a Planning Officer at the University of Helsinki.

“People probably don’t realize how white the university really is. Many students from ethnic minorities feel really cut off,” says Eid, who coordinates student well-being services.

According to Eid, the difficulties people with immigrant backgrounds face getting into higher education stem from larger issues in the Finnish educational system. One of these, for example, is the teaching of Finnish as Second Language, as it doesn’t necessarily support the learning of academic Finnish.

Another problem is the discrepancy in points awarded towards university admission based on points scored in the Finnish matriculation exam: for some degree programmes a good matriculation exam grade in Finnish as a Second Language gives fewer points than the lowest approved grade in the native Finnish test.

Encouragement from upper secondary school teachers

Jenny Kasongo studied Finnish as a Second Language during her first two years, but then moved to the native speaker group. Her family speaks Finnish at home, as her parents decided to learn it along with their children. Besides Finnish, her parents speak four other languages.

“Sometimes I’ve been upset that my parents didn’t speak French to me, for example. But they wanted to make sure it was possible for me to do well in the Finnish school system and pursue higher education.”

Kasongo didn’t feel like she received much encouragement in elementary school, but in upper secondary the teachers believed in their students and urged them to apply to university. She was very interested in psychology and applied four times to study it at the University of Helsinki, but never got in. When she decided to apply to the Faculty of Social Sciences, she got in on her first attempt.

“So far I’ve been happy with my studies.”

Racism during lectures?

Ever since upper comprehensive school, Jenny Kasongo has sought to understand racism as a phenomenon and she thought the best place to gain this understanding would be the University. As a child, Kasongo used to wonder about the way in which people spoke to her parents on the bus and the metro. Nowadays racism interests her in general, as a universal phenomenon.

The University is not free of racism, either. Kasongo works in the Students of Colour organization that has investigated five different instances of a teacher using racist language during lectures. This year, Students of Colour is compiling a report on experiences of racism at the University of Helsinki.

In the future, Kasongo would like to work with issues regarding equality. She is also interested in a research career, even though competition and applying for funding is intimidating.

“I’ll have to complete my master’s degree first and then think about it.”

Discrimination under scrutiny

Mona Eid has worked on a podcast called “Kaikkien koulu?” [‘Everyone’s school?’] for the Ruskeat tytöt media [‘brown girls media’]. For the podcast, she interviewed educational experts and students with an immigrant background.

Upper secondary school students interviewed by Eid talked about feeling like an outsider, racism, and a need to prove their worth.

“It is common for pupils with an immigrant background to be steered towards vocational education, regardless of their skills. The young people I interviewed were recommended to apply for practical nurse training, even when they wanted to go on to upper secondary school,” says Eid.

According to Eid, there should be a greater focus on the experiences of social exclusion, to find out the cause of these feelings. Immigrant parents should also be told more about the Finnish school system and the opportunities it provides.

People from minority groups are hardly ever represented in schoolbooks though they are a growing number in schools. Nowadays, in the Helsinki metropolitan area every fourth child below school age has an immigrant background.

“When my brother and I went to school in the city centre, we were the only ones with a foreign background. When our sister went to the same school 12 years later, the situation was already completely different,” says Eid, who is of Egyptian heritage.

Will I get a job?

Many young people with an immigrant background are wondering whether they will get a job that matches their education. Finnish employers often pass over applicants whose names differ from typical Finnish names. Eid knows several educated Somalis who moved to Great Britain because it is easier to get employment there than in Finland.

Eid points out that the University has a say in how approachable it is felt to be. The University can choose to partner with schools which have a lot of pupils from immigrant backgrounds. The emphasis within study programmes can also influence who applies; Eid herself completed the Intercultural Teacher Education programme at the University of Oulu.

It pays for the University to embrace diversity. Background, gender, class and ethnicity affect the way researchers approach their research questions.

“Our understanding of the world is left too simplistic if we close in on ourselves,” says Eid.


Invisible boundaries

In 2007, together with Katriina Järvinen, Professor Laura Kolbe published the book Luokkaretkellä hyvinvointiyhteiskunnassa [‘A class trip through the welfare society’ ]. Now she is chairing the Ministry of Education and Culture’s steering group preparing a report on planning accessibility for universities.

Kolbe is interested in the pivot points in education: what influences whether someone tries to get into upper secondary school and later university. The drop-out rate at all levels of education is high. Besides accessibility, universities have to think how they can get their students to commit to their studies.

“The world of academia is full of invisible boundaries and practices, but you can do something about the general atmosphere. As a teacher, I try to signal that everyone is welcome,” says Kolbe.

According to Kolbe, Finland’s strength lies in the fact that educational paths are kept open regardless of where you were brought up, your gender or social background. And that’s the way she wants to keep it.

“The university ideal is to educate the nation, not just the elite. This is the only way we can exploit our resources to the full. Education is a small nation’s best hope for increasing the common good.”


The article was published in the Yliopistolehti magazine 2/2021.

The article was translated by Ronja Aaltonen, Roosa Aalto, Markus Ala-Turkia, Angelica Andström, Sanna Antinluoma, Mikko Aulio, Elli Elo, Emma-Liisa Greed, Ella Grönroos, Veera Haavisto, Sini-Tuulia Heino, Akio Huovinen, Lotta Huvila, Iina Hyyppä, Panu Ikonen, Niko Ilonen, Lukas Järvenpää, Otto Kaija, Jimmie Kangasharju, Rosaella Karjalainen, Petra Kilappa, Elina Kivari, Mikko Koivusalo, Akseli Krook, Sini Krooks, Hilda Kujala, Saga Kumlin, Milda Kyllönen, Kati Mattsson, Suvi Miekk-Oja, Opri Miikki, Zana Mohammedi, Misdka Mäkinen, Salla-Maija Mäkinen, Nea Nieminen, Joni Oikarinen, Veera Paavola, Roosa Peitsara and Ibrahim Uronen, and post-edited by John Calton and Nely Keinänen, lecturers in English.


Pooling everyone’s talent

The Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture is currently drawing up a plan for accessibility to tertiary education. To this end, it is investigating, how well social, regional and linguistic equality are realised and what obstacles minority groups face on the path to university.

The study is being carried out by Dr Tapio Kosunen, a senior specialist with the support of a steering group and panel of experts. The aim is to draw universities’ attention to the diversity of the student population.

“We need more university graduates. Age cohorts are shrinking, which means that Finland needs to attract capable people from abroad and help all Finns realise their full potential.”

In Finland, the influence of family background on university education has been increasing in recent years, and is already approaching the European norm. There is an increasing split between male- and female-dominated fields of study. The availability of education also varies according to region.

Kosunen sees room for improvement, particularly in the participation of people with an immigrant background in university education. They are less likely to apply to upper secondary schools than the rest of the population and interrupt their studies more often. Employment levels among immigrant women in Finland are the lowest in the Nordic countries.

“There would have to be a doubling of students with immigrant and foreign backgrounds for it to reflect their share of the population overall.”

There are many reasons for this under-representation, from language proficiency and the family’s educational level to study guidance.

Kosunen states the need for closer co-operation between universities and working life, so that more work placements and job opportunities would be made available.