FINLAND: Students face housing shortage

With the start of the new academic year, Finland will, once again, suffer its annual student housing crisis.

Tertiary student numbers have jumped over the past 20 years from about 100,000 in the late 1980s to nearly 300,000 in 2008. This increase is perhaps one of the factors promoting a growth in the demand for and number of one-person households, reported recently by Statistics Finland.

Most Finnish university cities and towns have service organisations to assist students with accommodation, usually without charging commission. The agencies locate vacant apartments in the private rental market so rents can be higher than for purpose-designed 'student housing communities'.

There are 19 such communities spread across Finland. They can be a variety of distances from the city centres and teaching campuses, and typically are not more than 30 minutes away by bus.

But there is not enough housing to go around.

The relative shortage varies in different parts although accommodation in the Helsinki region is perhaps in shortest supply. According to the Student Unions' Housing Service, the main reason for a shortage is the lack of appropriate land to build student housing.

The region's student population is rising faster than new apartments can be built and, at the moment, housing is available for only about one-third of students. There are long queues for apartments, but the situation is worst in September.

The largest single provider is the Foundation for Student Housing which has 8,000 apartments, yet there are 31,000 students at the University of Helsinki alone.

Another factor in the high demand is that Finnish tertiary students are less likely to live with their parents than those elsewhere in Europe. Statistics compiled for the Eurostudent project show that only 4% of students continue to live with their parents compared with 7% in Norway and 10% in Sweden.

At the upper end of the 'live at home' scale are Spain and Italy, with 64% and 73% of students living with parents, respectively.

That such a large proportion of students leave the family home in Finland is possibly based on two culture and welfare-related factors. First, completing secondary schooling is seen as a 'rite of passage' and many young people leave home at this point, whether they go on to tertiary studies or not.

In part this is a situation produced by the compulsory national service that conscripts all young men into the armed forces for at least six months. Most opt to complete their service straight after completing secondary school but they have up until the age of 30 to do so. Young women have been able to volunteer for national service since 1995 although few do so.

Another reason that might lead to a high rate of higher education students leaving the family home is Finland's relatively generous welfare situation. There are no tuition fees for university or polytechnic students and the government provides more direct student welfare than many other countries.

Finnish students can apply for a study grant (EUR298 a month) and a housing supplement of up EUR202 a month for those living away from home.

Despite the relative generosity, the study grant is not fully indexed against inflation and is adjusted infrequently. The housing supplement is unlikely to be anywhere close to actual rents charged, particularly in Helsinki. (For more information on student welfare in Finland, see UWN 14 June 2009)

Some observers have suggested the housing shortage problem could be alleviated if tertiary institutions had an intake in spring in addition to the main autumn intake. The education minister and the housing minister support the introduction of a spring intake but the universities and polytechnics say this would not solve the problem and takes no account of ramifications on institutions' operations and costs.

Perhaps students might have to ape their Spanish and Italian colleagues by continuing to live in the parental home when they go to university. Such a 'solution' is unlikely to please the students or their parents who might be looking forward to being 'liberated' from each other when secondary schooling is completed.

The thing least likely to occur, even in a highly organised and efficient nation like Finland, is for a group to be assembled to take a holistic approach to the problem by examining all the issues related to student welfare and housing, as well as completion times and minimum-time graduation.

If one presumes that university and polytechnic education will continue to be provided without tuition fees, what are the costs associated with students taking more than the intended number of years to complete because of their need to work to support themselves as students?

What benefit might there be of students receiving fully-indexed study grants and housing subsidies and moving through their studies and into the workforce in minimum time? Not rocket science but also not likely to happen!

* Dr Ian Dobson is Helsinki correspondent for University World News. An Australian scholar currently based in Finland, he is editor of the Australian Universities' Review and an honorary researcher with Monash University's Centre for Population and Urban Research in Melbourne.