On 21 December, more than half of Finland’s MPs agreed to a proposal to change legislation to allow for students from outside Europe to be charged tuition fees for degree programmes. The fees would be between €3,500 and €12,000 (US$4,700 and US$16,000) a year.
Student unions have vigorously opposed the move and argued for keeping Finnish higher education fee-free for international students.
The proposal to charge fees was put forward by four MPs from four parties and was supported by 119 of 200 MPs.
One of the proponents, MP Arto Satonen from the National Coalition Party, told Finnish national television YLE that students from Asia, Russia or Ukraine go to work in the UK, US or Australia when they get their degrees. He said Finnish taxpayers’ money was educating workers for Anglo-Saxon countries’ economies.
This has been refuted by CIMO – Finland’s Centre for International Mobility. Their finding, based on foreign graduate data, was that two-thirds of the 2007 cohort, and three-quarters of those from 2009, stayed in Finland. Half found work in Finland within one year of graduation compared to 86% of Finnish students graduating.
The MPs’ proposal also states that foreign graduates staying in Finland would be able to tax- deduct the fees paid over five years, thereby enabling the system ultimately to charge fees only to students who leave Finland after graduation. The motion also calls for the establishment of a grant system for talented students from developing countries, to be funded by Finnish development aid.
Fee-charging pilot project
The motion is being introduced before the end of the ongoing pilot project (2010-14), according to which tuition fees could be charged for special international master programmes – different from those available to domestic students – at Finnish universities.
Neither Finnish universities nor students from outside Europe expressed much enthusiasm for the pilot scheme. Of the 124 English-language second cycle degree programmes started between 2010 and 2012, only a handful of international students paid the stipulated tuition fees, with the majority receiving scholarships to cover tuition costs.
A final evaluation will be conducted by an expert panel during 2014. It is to be chaired by Professor Riitta Pyykkö from FINHEEC, the national quality assurance agency.
When asked whether the MPs’ proposal would improve the evaluation process, she told University World News: “I don't think [the proposal] will influence the evaluation and follow-up process, at least not much.
“As you might know, the numbers in the pilot phase have been very low and the evidence from the follow-up and evaluation minor. That again means that the main evaluation result is that the trial as such, as a process, was not successful. [This] means that the decision about introducing tuition fees will be purely political.”
Students are against charging fees, while rectors are of mixed opinion.
In a press release, the Finnish student unions (SAMOK and SYL) argued against the motion, saying they were “baffled by the legislative motion which takes Finnish higher education to the era of tuition fees. The motion that introduces tuition fees to students from outside the EU and the European Economic Area is based on false presumptions with no support from research or evaluation results.”
The European Students' Union is similarly opposed. Chair Karina Ufert said: “It is not only unfair to discriminate [against] students based on nationality but also harmful to Finland’s own interests as it would diminish its diverse student population.
“Finnish authorities must take previous experience and research from other countries into account when they shape their policy for higher education. Tuition fees would send international students the message that they should not go to Finland to study.”
Some Finnish rectors, such as Ilkka Pöyhönen from Lappeenranta University of Technology, support the introduction of tuition fees for non-EU students, while the rector of the University of Helsinki, Thomas Wilhelmsson, last year told AngloHigher magazine:
“So far Finnish universities are prevented by law from collecting tuition fees for education leading to an academic degree. However, the developments in the UK and elsewhere in Europe have inspired a discussion on fees in Finland as well.
“Some of the university rectors seem to be in favour of proceeding in the same direction as the UK. This is seen as a solution not primarily to economic challenges, but rather to the problem that Finnish students remain for too long at their universities,” Wilhelmsson said.
“Personally I am not in favour of a general introduction of tuition fees, as it might lead to growing social inequality and less social mobility – in a situation where inequality in Finland is unfortunately already growing in many other respects.”
More recently, Wilhelmsson told University World News that the discussion in Finland has become polarised. “We feel that international students can be a vital resource for Finland both when they stay in the country upon graduation and when they seek employment and further studies elsewhere.
“As alumni, they may retain contact with the University of Helsinki and can contribute to the success of the university. We are, however, confident that our educational and service offer is of such high quality that we will be able to attract talented students from abroad even if fees are introduced.”
Finnish authorities need to tread carefully.
When fees for foreign students were introduced in Sweden, numbers plummeted. If pressed to pay full fees, foreign students might opt to spend their money in English-speaking countries.
* Dr Ian Dobson is a co-resident of Finland and Australia. He was a research director with the University of Helsinki in 2011 and 2012 and is editor of the Australian Universities' Review and the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management.
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