International masters programmes turn slump around

The decision to introduce tuition fees for international postgraduate students from outside the European Union (EU) and the European Economic Area (EEA) starting at Finnish universities in autumn 2017 caused a sharp drop in applications for places from such students at the University of Helsinki last year, but for courses starting in 2018 demand has more than recovered.

The continuing demand is all the more significant given that while fees across Finland ranged from €4,000 to €20,000 (US$5,000 to US$25,000) in 2017, the University of Helsinki’s fees were at the top end, €13,000 to €18,000 (US$16,000 to US$22,000).

Is this a rich reward for the university’s strategy over the past two years of making significant, long-term investments in increasing the number of international applicants?

A key part of the strategy has been a push to attract international students via the introduction of a new type of degree programme that focuses on important global challenges. The university has also focused on its digital marketing.

In addition, the upgrading of the contents of its masters programmes was designed to raise the profile of the university. The application process has been streamlined and admissions and student services enhanced.

The detail of the recovery is worth noting. There was a 30% drop in applications to the University of Helsinki’s international masters programmes in 2017 (1,606 applications).

But the university’s international masters programmes received a total of 2,946 applications for places in 2018, an increase of 83% from 2017. A new degree programme, the masters programme in environmental change and global sustainability, ranked among the top programmes.

Thirty-three masters programmes were offered also for international students, and 25 of these had a majority of applicants from outside the EU/EEA. Altogether 2,614 people applied for 716 study places. The average percentage of applications from outside the EU/EEA was 59.1%.

Significant degree reforms

The influx is the result of important changes brought in by the University of Helsinki in 2018, placing an emphasis on bachelor and masters degree programmes that focus on globally relevant problems.

The reform was carried out across more than 100 disciplines, creating 32 broad bachelor degrees taught in Finnish or Swedish, and multidisciplinary and problem-solving masters degrees taught in three languages, Finnish, Swedish and English. New masters programmes started in 2017 with more options in English. The masters programme in environmental change and global sustainability being introduced this year has already attracted the second-largest number of applicants.

Professor Jukka Kola, president of Helsinki University, told University World News: “Helsinki wanted to get into the global educational market fast. So in 2016-17 we had a lot of market analyses when planning and pricing, and did a lot of benchmarking efforts on what the successful institutions in Nordic countries had done (such as Lund University, for example), when tuition fees were introduced in Sweden and Denmark.”

He said the University of Helsinki had worked hard to ensure the number of international students did not drop with the introduction of tuition fees in 2017.

“Already in the first year, the drop in applicants and freshmen numbers was not as big as we feared. And now with these promising numbers of applications, we are already reaching the same level we had before.”

He said the first year, 2017, was a try-out from which they analysed carefully how they should improve their marketing efforts for programmes in the second year, 2018.

“The use of digital marketing (videos, social media, user stories) was quite systematic and strategic,” he said. “We have had a fast growth in international students – in a couple of years after the introduction of tuition fees, and we expect soon to have more foreign students than we had before.”

Applications from 127 countries

As in previous years, the largest numbers of applicants came from Pakistan, China and Ghana. There was a marked increase in applications from many countries, including India, Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, Peru, Indonesia, the United States, Hong Kong, Russia and Vietnam. Applications were received from 127 countries in total.

The university also received a large number of scholarship applications, with 84% of the students affected by the introduction of fees applying for a university scholarship.

The most applications, 230 altogether, were submitted for the masters programme in global politics and communication. In second place was the new masters programme in environmental change and global sustainability (202 applications). The third place went to the masters programme in computer science with 182 applications.

Sini Saarenheimo, head of services for Admissions Services, explains that the placement of the masters programme in environmental change and global sustainability in the top three in its first year is exceptional. Usually it takes several years for programmes to become this popular.

Professor Helena Åström, vice-dean for academic affairs at the faculty of biological and environmental sciences, is delighted by the global interest.

“The multidisciplinary programme has an ambitious goal: solve the sustainability problems in the shared systems of humans and nature,” she said. “The educational content has been designed together by three separate faculties.”

Saarenheimo said the high-quality degree programmes were the key to attracting international students. “Thanks to digital marketing, we have been able to publicise them to prospective students around the world. We are very happy to see our hard work pay off,” she says.