International students are satisfied with the University of Helsinki, but call for more social support

Each year, a company called i-graduate conducts the International Student Barometer survey to collect information on international students’ experiences of studying and student life. The University of Helsinki has participated in this survey five times as of 2010.

Usually, more than 100 higher education institutions from around the world take part, but in the latest round, in 2020, only just over 30 did so.

“We have decided that the University of Helsinki will participate in the survey every other year,” explains Specialist Rebekka Nylund of Strategic Services for Teaching. “This will give those studying in our master’s programmes the opportunity to take the survey at least once during their studies.”

International Student Barometer ISB now part of the University’s feedback system

International students had the opportunity to take the latest ISB survey between 18 November 2020 and 29 January 2021, and more than 800 of them (32%) did so.

The survey was sent to all those who are not Finnish citizens or who hold dual citizenship. The target group included all degree students (bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral students) and exchange students. Nearly half the respondents were postgraduate students, and more than 100 stated that they were exchange students.

In the 2020 survey, the University of Helsinki wished to focus on student experiences of participation and discrimination. Employment was another topic explored, as were experiences of remote studying and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on studying and student life.

Mostly good results, but students wish for more communication and discussions with academic staff

The University of Helsinki received excellent feedback in the survey. The results were similar to those in previous years. The quality and expertise of the University’s lecturers was considered high. As a rule, the University of Helsinki has succeeded in the provision of remote teaching and in making virtual teaching platforms and learning material available to students. Communications during the pandemic were also praised.

The ISB survey showed that most international students had chosen the University of Helsinki because they believed it would boost their career.

“However, the students wish for more contacts, meetings and discussions with academic staff,” Nylund says. “One recurring topic related to career prospects and the professional skills provided by studies. More networks and mentors are needed. International students don’t have the networks that Finns have, which is why the responses demonstrate the need for social support.” 

One wish clearly expressed by international postgraduate students was the opportunity to teach.

Better practices for welcoming international students

The area of the survey in which the University of Helsinki received the poorest feedback related to welcoming new students. Many had found it challenging to arrive in Finland and deal with Finnish bureaucracy.

One respondent, Leah Martin, says that the University of Helsinki and, more generally, Finns seem to find it difficult to provide arrivals with hands-on guidance. Newcomers are expected to know what to do, for example, when opening a bank account or obtaining a residence permit. Martin says that advice and support should be provided for all kinds of situations, not just those related to studying.

The respondents praised the services associated with housing although they were dissatisfied with the price of housing. International students missed social contacts when arriving at the University and called for more interaction with both academic staff and Finnish students. They also wished for more, and more comprehensive, information on student organisations and services.

Experiences of discrimination also reported

The University of Helsinki also explored the participation and inclusion of international students as well as the discrimination they had faced. The majority (87%) agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that they had encountered no discrimination at the University. However, 4% disagreed and 4% strongly disagreed with this statement. Open-ended responses focused on discrimination based on language. The restrictions associated with the Covid-19 pandemic had also increased experiences of discrimination. Students with no friends and networks considered their loneliness a form of discrimination. As an antidote, the respondents suggested compulsory training for staff and students, more information in English, and more diverse student representatives on various administrative bodies. In addition, the respondents proposed that an easy-to-use and anonymous system of reporting grievances be established. On the other hand, Finland and Helsinki felt safe. Personal safety and security were significant factors in the choice of place of study.

Most would recommend the University of Helsinki to others

Despite the shortcomings, the respondents stated that they would encourage others to apply to the University of Helsinki, with the quality of teaching being the decisive factor. Students from outside the EU also stated that the University of Helsinki provides value for money. Overall, most respondents were satisfied.

The analysis and review of the findings will continue at Strategic Services for Teaching and in various working groups. Faculty-specific findings will be discussed in August and September in connection with the annual review of degree programmes. The University hopes that degree programme staff will discuss the survey topics and findings with  their students. 

Student feedback system

International Student Barometer