Tuition fees and cuts hit internationalisation of HE

Finland is facing a sharp drop in applications by non-European Union and European Economic Area, or non-EU/EEA, students and an outflow of scientists, according to media reports. The introduction of tuition fees for international students and cuts in university funding are being blamed.

There was a 30% drop in applications from international students from outside the EU and European Economic Area to study at the University of Helsinki last autumn, according to a report by Yle, the Finnish broadcaster.

This is thought to be linked to the decision to make non-EU/EEA international students pay tuition fees to study in Finland from the autumn term of 2017. The fees will range from €4,000 to €20,000 (US$4,400 to US$22,000), according to the Ministry of Education and Culture.

Meanwhile, Yle has also reported that in 2015, 375 research-trained people migrated from Finland, while only 156 came to Finland. Between 2005 and 2015, 3,124 scientists left Finland, while 1,963 came to Finland, a net outflow of 1,161 scientists.

Markus Laitinen, head of international affairs at the University of Helsinki, told Yle that in previous years about three in four international applicants for international masters degree courses (taught in English) came from outside the EU/EEA, while this proportion in 2017 had fallen to 57%. In total 1,614 people have applied for places in these courses, which is a decline of 30%.

In Acatiimi magazine, Professor Kai Lindström and Timo Kolu have broken down the numbers regarding the outflow of scientists, demonstrating that the trend is skewed towards moving to the United States and other countries in Europe.

For Europe, the imbalance between outgoing and incoming migrating scientists was 705 for the period 2005 to 2015, with the greatest imbalances relating to Sweden (139); the United Kingdom (134); Germany (122) and Switzerland (60). The imbalance with the US was 204, and 99 with Asia.

Their analysis shows that Finland is now losing out in science, in particular the scientists with the strongest academic records.

“The general message is clear,” Lindström and Kolu noted. “Finland is losing its most successful scientists. The largest migration flows are to the US and Europe. Migration patterns have developed negatively over the last years with most European countries.”

Riina Lumme, president of the National Union of University Students in Finland or SYL, told University World News that cuts to funding of universities and research had led to an atmosphere where both students and professionals within the higher education field feel they are not valued by society.

She said the introduction of tuition fees for all international students from outside the EU/EEA has led to significantly fewer applicants in the international study programmes in every university except for one.

“The concern of the policy-makers is the lack of top-class research in Finland, but we feel that the means to achieve it have not been quite right.”

But Birgitta Vuorinen, a counsellor of education at the Ministry of Education and Culture, said the reduction in the number of applicants was expected. “The same happened in Sweden and in Denmark after introducing tuition fees for international students. What counts, in the end, is how many international students Finnish higher education institutions will recruit.”

Data for the number of international students recruited will not be available until this autumn. Also, the figures for applicants may be incomplete, because some universities have reportedly decided to recruit students for international programmes in the autumn instead of the spring, Vuorinen said. She also questioned the robustness of the Yle figures for inflow of researchers.

Leena Wahlfors, executive director of Universities Finland or UNIFI, the former Finnish Council of University Rectors, said although applications from non-EU/EEA countries will drop due to fees, it is not a big problem because Finland has a reputation for high-quality education and will attract “more talented and better motivated applicants”.

She said mobility and international careers are natural aspects of research careers.

“The balance between leavers and researchers entering the country may at the moment be tilted towards leavers. That is due to the budget cuts made in the higher education sector, and the working conditions caused by the cuts.

“The other side of the coin is that the interest in professorships and other high-level research positions still seems to be high among international and Finnish academics.”

However, Petri Koikkalainen, chairperson of the Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers, warned against ignoring or playing down the emigration of researchers. “It is good that many people are heading abroad, but it is alarming if we can no longer offer jobs for foreign experts and returnees. The reason for the flow of know-how should therefore be seriously considered."

Trebling of international students

Last year a report* published by the Research Foundation for Studies and Education or OTUS, said that the number of international students trebled during the 2000s, reaching 20,000 or close to 7% of the total student population in 2013.

But less than half (45%) of the students who studied and completed a degree in Finland found employment in Finland within a year of graduation in 2014.

According to Statistics Finland, of the 2,444 graduated candidates, the highest rate of employed graduates was in ‘social, health and physical education’ with 68%, followed by ‘travel, catering and economics’ (50%) and ‘natural sciences’ (48%).

‘Inward-looking’ approach

David M Hoffman, senior researcher at the Finnish Institute for Educational Research at the University of Jyväskylä, said the huge challenge in Finland is that key policy actors, researchers and professionals with responsibilities in areas implicated by migration dynamics still discuss contemporary migration issues and mobility in an “inward-looking, ethnocentric, theoretically unproblematised and empirically ungrounded manner”.

He told University World News: “We’re decades behind actually understanding and acting on migration dynamics compared to the countries, companies and communities that we’re competing with.”

Jaakko Hameen-Anttila, professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, who left Finland last year, said his decision was partly motivated by the government’s “very negative attitude towards universities”, reflected in “major cuts in the budgets, which in practice means that the universities in Finland are left with diminishing resources”.

He said the outlook is especially bleak for younger scholars, whose chances of getting funding, never mind a permanent position, have become less.

“As a senior scholar, I am personally in a relatively safe position, but guiding and supporting young scholars is an essential part of a professor's work and when this is made difficult, it is time to move somewhere where research is still actively supported.”

‘Evaluate consequences’

Lumme said the National Union of University Students in Finland hopes that the government will evaluate the consequences of the decision to charge tuition fees from non-EU/EAA international students.

“The point was to broaden the opportunities for funding the universities and increase the quality of education, but we fear that it's only making our higher education less attractive and less international.”

She said for the international students already studying there, the problem has been difficulty finding employment after graduation, especially in time to be able to retain a working visa.

“Just now, the government is about to introduce amendments to the immigration laws in order to facilitate entrepreneurship and the employment of international workers.”

Milla Ovaska, a specialist in international affairs at Aalto University Student Union, said the lessons were not being learned from Sweden’s experience of introducing fees for non-EU/EEA international students in 2011, as explained repeatedly by visiting Swedish delegations.

These were:
  • • Don’t introduce high fees to start with;
  • • Make sure different ministries are working on the same page to support immigration;
  • • Have sufficient scholarships in place;
  • • Don’t just add a price tag to existing programmes; and
  • • Support international graduates’ integration into the job market.
She added that before the tuition fees the number one reason for international students to come to Finland was free tuition, and it seems Finnish higher education institutions are still trying to figure out what the attraction will be in future.

She noted that “concepts like the ‘international classroom’ or ‘internationalising the curriculum’ that take designing education for an international audience as the vantage point, are fairly underdeveloped in Finland”.

* “Report on the Employment of International Degree Students in Finland”, written by Tiia Villa, Tuukka Salminen and Juhani Saari on behalf of the Research Foundation for Studies and Education or OTUS.