Finland has a unique higher education system, with no tuition fees for Finnish and international students. Furthermore students receive a study grant for the full length of their studies and on top of that a housing supplement.
The foreigners versus the Finns
But these heaven-like-circumstances might end, as seven political parties in the Finnish Parliament have collectively proposed to introduce tuition fees for international (non EU) students. A bill has been put forward to change the higher education law. The argument goes that without such fees, Finnish universities and Polytechnics cannot expand and compete internationally.
In the end, the proposal aims to attract a larger part of international students. MP Arto Satonen explains: “Nowadays many Finnish universities and Polytechnics are not actively marketing their courses because they are depending on budget financing. If they are taking in more foreigners for free, more Finns remain outside. If the institutions could ask a fee, we develop a more businesslike education system like in most other western countries.”
Satonen continues: “Nowadays there are thousands of Asian students, who apply for education Finland, but who can’t get a place. Globally higher education is big business and Finland has a good reputation as a country, because of its fantastic Pisa-results. Our high-technology industry is also known world-wide.”
Tripping over the language
One problem for Finland is that many of the international students move along after their – basically free – studies to find jobs in English speaking countries. Mastering the Finnish language often proofs too big a hurdle to enter the Finnish labour market, even though it is legally not too difficult to enter the Finnish job market.
According to Satonen international graduates are offered a six months window to find a job in the country without any permit bureaucracy. Satonen: “But it seems so that people coming from Russia, CIS- countries, Asia and Africa get their free academic studies in Finland in order to work in Britain, US, Australia and so on after graduation. I don’t see why Finnish taxpayers shouls produce academic labour force for Anglo-Saxon labour markets.”
No proof from Sweden and Denmark
The proposal may have broad support in Finnish Parliament (with 118 signatories), Finnish student organization Samok is not at all convinced that the bill will result in attracting more foreign talent. Contrarily Pauliina Savola (international affairs, Samok) thinks it will scare them off.
Savola: “If we look at international comparisons, Sweden and Denmark are clear proof that tuition fees will do nothing but harm to internationalization of higher education which has been a key goal of our government for several years now. In Sweden, the number of students went down by 80 percent. And in the end, the majority of those who got accepted were still financed through a scholarship, in turn financed by the state.”
“Similar trends can be seen in Denmark. In addition, the Norwegian Ministry of Finance just made their own calculations of the financial effects of implementing fees on non-EU students and they concluded that the costs would actually rise with the implementation of fees, the costs of scholarships, of marketing and of administrative personnel.”
Trial was a failure
Interestingly the Finnish government recently conducted a ‘tuition fee trial’ since the beginning of 2010. A government evaluation indicates that the trial did not result in big numbers of paying students. Pauliina Savola says that in the year 2011-2012 only 12 students actually paid for their studies and that there were in total 110 students in free charging programmes.
“The majority of the students received a scholarship that covered their tuition fee entirely, in part or in many cases even living costs. Alltogether Finland has about 17.000 international students, of which approximately 40 percent from outside the EU. It is clear that the trial has been a failure and Finland cannot attract international talent by competing with the US and the UK.”
Life after graduation in Finland
On the labour market Samok offers different data than the MPs. Pauliina Savola: “Approximately 70 percent of international students wish to stay in Finland after graduation and approximately 70 percent actually are in the country after one year. They often find employment not quite corresponding to their education and have a hard time finding internships. The lack of language skills with the students as well as the attitudes of some employers, make life after graduation difficult.”
In order to really keep the foreign talent in Finland, Pauliina Savola is convinced that more language classes should be offered and that higher education institutions should take more responsibility in offering internships to foreign students.
Even though the bill has not been passed yet, the Parliamentary proposal will definitely stir up the debate on the financing of higher education and internationalization. The carefree days in Finnish education are over.