Immigrants under-represented at universities – new guidance network SIMHE helps applicants

Applying for higher education requires language skills, familiarity with the Finnish education system and evidence of personal skills from immigrants.

When Majd Al-Sagheer moved to Finland in 2014, she had recently graduated from upper secondary school. A study place in dentistry at a Syrian university awaited her, but she emigrated from the country and never embarked on studies there. Nevertheless, Al-Sagheer did not give up on her dream of a research career.

“I knew that getting into a university in Finland requires a lot of work, but I still wanted to study pharmacy at the University of Helsinki,” Al-Sagheer says.

Now, four years later, she is an exception at the University. Thousands of people move to Finland every year, but few immigrants end up studying in a university. Many have basic education suitable for higher education, such as a prior degree from upper secondary school or university in their home country, but for one reason or another, their skills are left unused in Finland.

To make better use of immigrants’ skills and to encourage them to apply for further education, six institutions of higher education established SIMHE (Supporting Immigrants in Higher Education), a service network targeted specifically at immigrants.

“SIMHE wants to be of help at those stages of application where immigrants come across obstacles,” says Education Planning Officer Sonja Mitroshin.

Mitroshin is in charge of SIMHE at the University of Helsinki. The service was launched in spring 2018. 

SIMHE familiarises its clients with the Finnish higher education system

Its mission is to identify immigrants among the clients of the admission services of higher education institutions and to provide them with application and career guidance. The advisers can, for example, steer applicants to another educational institution or supplementary education, if an option better suited to the career aspirations of an applicant is available elsewhere.

The service is intended for those who have not completed comprehensive school or upper-secondary education in Finland. Their reason for coming to Finland is irrelevant.

According to Mitroshin, a typical SIMHE client has completed vocational education or a degree already in their country of origin. They reach out to Admission Services because they are unable to find employment in Finland based on their degree, wishing to supplement their expertise. The Finnish education system may not be familiar to immigrants, which is why SIMHE advisers provide them with career and study guidance, also by referring them to the course selection of other educational institutions, when necessary.

Many SIMHE clients have recently received a decision on the equivalence of their prior education from the Finnish National Agency for Education.

“In a sense, equivalence decisions are rather meaningless to institutions of higher education. They tell absolutely nothing about the skills of the individual, but only provide information on whether the degree gained abroad corresponds with a certain Finnish education,” Mitroshin explains.

In other words, what the document describes is the level of the education in question, but not the correspondence of the content of, for example, a medical degree with that of a Finnish degree in medicine.

Another typical client brings documents describing their qualifications to their SIMHE appointment. Such documents describe the professional qualifications of the applicant and clarify which further studies may still be required for them to be able to work in a similar position in Finland.

“Qualification documents are often tricky. We can tell the applicant to complete a course in Finnish or to supplement their degree at the Open University, but even after that, we cannot guarantee their employment. We don’t have the keys to professional life or to businesses.”

SIMHE advisers cannot make employers choose their clients in the recruitment process.

Finnish language and certificates as stumbling blocks

Language proficiency is among the biggest challenges in terms of immigrant education. The Finnish courses offered to immigrants primarily aim at skill level B1. This means basic language proficiency, or the ability to communicate in Finnish in everyday situations in Finland.

“In university entrance examinations, the required level is often at least B2. What’s more, the oral examiners are native speakers. This puts immigrants in an unequal position,” says Mitroshin.

Majd Al-Sagheer began studying Finnish at the Summer University, continuing later at the Open University.

“For six months, I studied nothing but Finnish. Then I applied to the Eira High School for Adults to be able to complete upper secondary studies in Finnish.”

Al-Sagheer has also completed upper secondary education in Syria, but she wanted to learn mathematics and chemistry also in Finnish.

“I already possessed all the information, but in Arabic. I wanted to learn the terms in Finnish, in order to apply to university.”

She was also prepared to complete the Finnish matriculation examination, but was accepted to the University just when the examination period was about to start.

Finland needs a system of skill certificates

Al-Sagheer applied to the University a year before SIMHE was established, facing exactly the kinds of problems the network now aims to tackle.

“After the entrance examination, I received an email telling me that my admission was conditional if I did not submit my original upper secondary school diploma,” Al-Sagheer says.

In other words, she would have to forgo the student place if the original certificate from her Syrian school was not submitted to the University of Helsinki by a set deadline. The certificate being located in Syria, its transfer to Finland was not a foregone conclusion.

“I was so nervous. What if my admission to the University hinges on this?”

A friend of Al-Sagheer still living in Syria managed to get hold of the document and deliver it by courier to Helsinki by the deadline.

All applicants do not have contacts in their home country or opportunities to hunt down their documentation. This is why SIMHE established a process through which complete documentation is not required from a person with a refugee background.

“However, certain admission criteria apply to all applicants. Language requirements, for example, remain the same for everyone,” Education Planning Officer Mitroshin says.

If SIMHE guidance had been available at the University of Helsinki when Al-Sagheer applied to study, she would not have had to fret about her study place.

“I had to ask a lot of questions from various sources. It’s a good thing that immigrants are now provided help in these matters,” says Al-Sagheer.

According to Mitroshin, politicians could do more to facilitate the education of immigrants.

“In Finland, the policies are currently two-fold: new employees are wanted from abroad, while there is already untapped expertise in Finland.”

Indeed, Mitroshin wishes to import an equivalent active party currently working in Norway. There a single authority measures immigrants’ skills and issues statements on the skills of individual applicants accepted by all institutions of higher education. At the moment, each educational institution in Finland separately assesses the eligibility of applicants with no certificate from Finnish schools.

Centralised operations would support the admissions procedure of individual higher education institutions, while the assessment of applicants’ prior expertise would be unequivocally standardised.

Read more about the guidance service SIMHE