Student-centred learning for internationalisation

The new Finnish government is truly making an effort to internationalise its higher education system: tuition fees for non-European Union/European Economic Area students are going to be introduced over the next couple of years and the funding incentives for universities to have international degree programmes are likely to be scrapped.

With these unfortunate realities in mind, I believe that student-centred learning and expectations management are key if Finland – or any other country – wants to pursue the aim of making its universities internationally attractive.

I completed my undergraduate and graduate studies abroad, but one year ago I decided to start a master of laws, or LLM, in public international law at the University of Helsinki. I knew it would be an academic culture shock, but at least I was familiar with the general gist of Finnish mentality, which is not necessarily the case for other international degree students.

At the National Union of University Students in Finland, or SYL, I am responsible for the internationalisation of higher education and I could not have wished for a better way to understand my job than getting to be a guinea pig in a relatively new international degree programme.

Law school is known as the most ‘cost-effective’ faculty in Finland: mass lectures and independent cramming. While some international students are clearly very happy with their choice of country, others are having a hard time adjusting to a new academic and social culture.

An American friend has been shocked by the lack of guidance despite the fact that our pilot degree has quite a lot of student-staff interaction by Finnish standards. For her, the lack of feedback and the fact that professors are not interested in her academic and career advancement are demotivating. At the same time students from other cultures find feedback sessions intimidating.

Our Scottish friend is happy he did not have to follow a rigorous curriculum and could take a semester off for an internship. He has been able to pick the courses he finds interesting and to study at his own pace.

Some of the international students find Finnish examination methods stressful: exams can last hours and hours, and many have failed their first exams because they did not know how to prepare. Some teachers prefer open book or take-home exams, which are less stressful, but some students find them too easy.

The other day, I participated in a lecture belonging to the Finnish law curriculum for the first time. Or actually I did not participate. It was a classic: a mass lecture and a professor who had not changed his teaching methods since the 1970s. I usually love lectures and note-taking, but this time I lost focus very quickly, and I have no idea what was said in the end.

I spoke with an acquaintance after the lecture and he literally said he does not go to law school to obtain the skills to be a good lawyer – this he would learn in working life. Sitting back and not having to interact are his preferred ways of learning.

Managing expectations

So, in the end is nobody happy? In my opinion internationalisation is also all about student-centred learning and expectations management. Had my fellow students been told in advance how Finnish universities are in terms of guidance, examination and teaching styles, they would have been able to set their minds to a different system.

One of our local unions, the Aalto University Student Union, or AYY, has produced a brilliant video titled “Aalto is Multicultural”, which explores how Aalto could benefit from the diversity of its student community in teaching situations. The video explains that “different learning practices can cause a learning shock, symptoms of which are stress, lack of direction and feelings of alienation”.

I wish I had known this when I was almost on the verge of a breakdown during my exchange studies in France back in 2009, when I was expected to sit in lectures for eight hours a day and write down what the teacher said instead of critically analysing and discussing the information, which I was used to at my Dutch university. It had been my dream to study in France, but when I arrived there and experienced insecurities, there was nobody to support me.

Recently, I heard about an initiative at Finland's Turku University of Applied Sciences, which offers a three-credit course during which international students analyse their mobility experiences in order to bridge the capability-expectations gap. The course has been very successful, and in addition to interactive tools like AYY’s video, reflective courses would be a very good way to prevent and remedy learning shocks of international students.

In a recent blog I discussed the need for epistemic diversity at universities: the need to create in-between spaces where different academic cultures can coexist without having to make choices between them. The same goes for learning styles: universities cannot be truly international if they do not cater for international students’ learning needs.

I therefore suggest universities and faculties – and not just student unions – start preparing their incoming students for Finnish ways and their own faculties for the ways of international students.

Cecilia Pellosniemi is the international officer of the National Union of University Students in Finland, or SYL. She is Finnish and holds an MA in EU International Relations and Diplomacy Studies from the College of Europe, a BA in Law and International Relations from Utrecht University in the Netherlands, and is completing an LLM at the University of Helsinki in Finland.