What makes international students want to stay on or go?

Three-quarters of bachelor degree graduates and two-thirds of masters and doctoral graduates live on in Finland for three or more years after their degree, according to new research.

The study by Charles F Mathies and Hannu Karhunen, researchers at Jyväskylä University and the Helsinki Institute of Labour Economics, tracked a sample of 13,046 international students graduating at 24 universities of technology and 14 universities in Finland between 1999 and 2011, via the Finnish personal identity code.

They observed that 74% of bachelors, 67% of masters and 65% of doctoral graduates were residing in Finland three years after graduation.

This is high compared with findings in similarly framed studies in other Scandinavian countries: Denmark (58% two years after graduation); Norway (44% five years after degree start), they reported.

Examining the international literature and through a robust statistical design, Mathies and Karhunen have looked into why international students surprisingly have a greater tendency to stay behind and find work in Finland, despite the country having a difficult language to learn, a climate that goes down to minus 20 degrees in winter and a working life in which networking through friends and family is often the way to find work upon graduation. They looked at a combination of background factors and governmental policy.

Background factors

Examining background factors, they found that marriage to a non-Finnish spouse increased the probability of staying for only master’s degree candidates (8%) and for doctoral candidates (6%), but marriage to a Finnish spouse increased probability for all three categories.

Also, having children or other family in Finland increased the probability of staying for all three degree types.

“With family ties specifically, having children (13% to 15%), having at least one parent (other family) residing in Finland (22% to 34%), and marriage (in multiple forms, 5% to 20%) related to a higher probability of staying,” Mathies and Karhunen said.

“This is in line with EU-wide research showing that the more migrants [student or otherwise] are rooted [family and housing] to a location the higher the probability that they were to stay, regardless of the employment situation.”

High stay rate targeted in government policies

Mathies and Karhunen found a strong tendency in government policies over the past two decades to encourage international students to stay on.

“Finland’s government, since 2001 has enacted numerous policies aimed at attracting, retaining, and integrating international students into Finland. The two main reasons cited for this focus in Finnish policy are to improve the reputation and prestige of Finnish institutions, through increased internationality, and increase the available skilled labour for the labour market,” they said.

In 2018 the Finnish government expanded beyond the European Union’s (EU) directive governing international student residence and work permits (minimum nine months after graduation) to search for employment to 24 months with a possible extension to 48 months.

In 2013, the Finnish government published the ‘Government resolution on the future of migration 2020 strategy’ (2020 Strategy) stating it recognises that “international students are an important resource for the Finnish labour market” and the 2020 Strategy document calls for a policy supporting migrants and international students, connecting them and integrating them into Finnish society and the labour market.

“The belief is if migrants [international students] find a role for themselves in the Finnish labour market, then there is a reduction in inequality and migrants feel they are contributing members of Finnish society,” Mathies and Karhunen said.

Finnish family ties and ‘happy country’

Two factors reinforce each other, they found. “Choosing to migrate is not a choice made in isolation. Often, families (parents, spouses, children) are directly and indirectly a part of the process. That all family ties findings were positive while controlling for employment, demographic, and the characteristics of the degree programme and higher education institutions in our model suggests Finland is attractive for international graduates staying for family reasons.”

They said there were multiple pieces of evidence to support this as Finland ranks as one of the best countries in the world to raise a family; high levels of safety and quality of primary and secondary schools; and recognition as the happiest country in the world, according to the World Happiness Report 2019.

Racism and a difficult language

Mathies and Karhunen said that it is notable that a large majority of international students stay and work in Finland despite it being a challenging place for migrants and international students to live, as previous research has found, due to racism and the language being hard to learn.

The employment findings are particularly noteworthy as previous research by R Alho* shows Finland being a difficult place to find employment for international students, before and after graduation.

The main barriers to employment identified are Finnish language skills and networks (professional and personal). Finland has the highest share of degree programmes offerings in English of any non-English speaking European country, as found by Wächter and Maiworm in 2014.**

The Finnish government has acknowledged the issue of lack of Finnish language skills of international graduates and has continuously advocated for Finnish language skills for international students during their studies.

However, most higher education institutions and degree programmes have difficulty fitting Finnish language studies into a curriculum with limited space.

In Finland, students are instructed in one language (English), while the labour market uses another (Finnish and Swedish).

“So, although being trained or educated in Finland is still likely a positive for international students entering the Finnish labour market, the difference in the languages of instruction and labour market likely lowers the positive affect it would have if both were the same,” Mathies and Karhunen explained.

‘Hidden job market’ accessed by networking

Mathies and Karhunen refer to the ‘hidden job market’, which is not easily accessible to international students. In 2017, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment reported that Finnish employers often apply informal ways of recruiting, which creates a ‘hidden’ job market in which international students are at a disadvantage in finding employment due to their ‘weak’ professional network ties, as R Alho found.

Despite being viewed as highly desirable by governments, recruitment of international students into local and national labour markets requires context-bound knowledge and embeddedness into that culture, Mathies and Karhunen say.

“As such, and coupled with our model’s positive employment finding, it suggests it is beneficial for international students, as well the Finnish government and higher education institutions, to invest time and resources in enhancing international students’ ability to develop professional networks and acquire Finnish language skills.”

The findings on the characteristics of the degree programme and higher education institution, controlled for in the model, led to additional observations.

“In general, bachelor’s graduates had higher probability to stay than masters and doctoral graduates. A likely explanation is that university and college degrees, by nature, are more applied and focused on getting graduates employed into the Finnish labour market than master’s and doctoral degree programmes,” Mathies and Karhunen said.

“As for the location of the institution, we found those who graduated in ‘other regions’ [of Finland] were more likely to stay when compared to those who graduated in a large city or the capital region.

“The higher education institutions in the other regions of Finland operate in relatively small towns (populations under 150,000) and have a climate where temperatures below -20C in winter are common.

“For an international student, choosing to attend a higher education institution in such a region might represent a higher predisposition to staying in Finland prior to enrolling. On the other hand, perhaps those who graduate in the capital and large city higher education institutions are able or more often look to compete in wider labour markets, not just in Finland,” they said.

New neo-liberal trend

They said that, in the past few decades, international higher education has shifted paradigms in a policy context from a diplomatic project to an import-export industry.

“It has become very market-driven and grounded in a neo-liberal framework. Countries developed their international education policies differently, and largely did so as a response to a global competitive environment with countries ‘racing’ to obtain larger shares of the international student market,” Mathies and Karhunen argued.

Finland as a model

They concluded that, although there is a need for continuing research on international graduates’ stay rates, the evidence from this study provides clear evidence for the direction of policy for countries looking to increase their stay rates.

“Even in a country [Finland] with documented difficulties for international students to enter its labour markets, our models found employment and family ties, in multiple forms, relating to increased retention of international students after graduation.

“This suggests countries interested in increasing international students’ stay rates should develop policies aiming to enhance family life and the ability of international students to enter their labour markets.” The researchers said their sample for the study, which was published last month, was restricted to study international students who had not studied previously in Finland (secondary or primary) nor spoke Finnish or Swedish as a native language, although there were some exceptions, who were mainly students who had come to Finland as children.

Göran Melin of the Technopolis group in Stockholm, an expert on international education, told University World News: “The Finnish higher education and research system has for long been in need of increased internationalisation, and the Finnish government has undertaken measures to support this. It is, therefore, most positive that this study now finds that Finland, in fact, has become a relatively attractive country to study in for foreign students, and also to stay in following graduation.”

He agreed that the Finnish labour market reforms for foreign students could serve as a role model for other countries wishing to keep foreign students to stay on and work.

Maria Nyroos, who is responsible for international affairs and is EU Advocacy Advisor for SYL, The Finnish National Union of Students, with 140,000 student members, told University World News: “We strongly believe that by making the entrance and stay in Finland easy and welcoming, our international students will be more likely to stay in Finland after their studies.

“We like to talk about integration and well-being of international students, as we know that those students who are more integrated both in the student body and the university community will also be more likely to enter the Finnish labour market. Integration, in turn, requires accessibility.”

She said one the biggest problems the union has to deal with for international students is residence permit issues, including lobbying for more accessible and faster residence permit processes.

Rector of Helsinki University Sari Lindblom told University World News that Helsinki University introduced a degree system reform to offer international masters programmes to meet societal challenges.

“We also offer extensive training in Finnish for foreigners as well as practical training as part of the studies.

“As many foreign students have no experience of working in Finnish companies, we have even launched a special training programme for them to work part-time in university services while finalising their masters degree.”

Lindblom welcomed the evidence of foreign students integrating to the Finnish society and deciding to stay after graduation.

“Together with the Confederation of Finnish Industries, we have called for extended work visa procedure for graduates, and the government has responded positively,” Lindblom said.

Helsinki offers many courses taught in English but as many masters programmes are multilingual, with students able to take courses in national languages.

“In addition, services are available in all three languages. In our language policy we emphasise a culture of parallel use of all three languages, Finnish, Swedish and English.”

Current situation

University World News asked Mathies what changes have occurred since the years for which the data was collected.

In August 2017, Finland introduced tuition fees for non-EU and non-EEA students in master’s and bachelor’s programmes (doctoral students and students studying in Finnish and Swedish are exempt).

“Up until that point, we suspect the situation remained relatively stable (from the end of study to August 2017). Then there was a drop in numbers initially but the numbers came back up within a year or two. However, where the students came from [nationality] likely changed,” he said.

The coronavirus pandemic has also greatly affected the new international student intake this year and likely will have some lasting effects. “What those are at this time is unknown but is certainly something we intend to follow up on in our future research,” said Mathies.

* Alho, R. 2020. ‘You Need to Know Someone who Knows Someone’: International Students’ Job Search Experiences. Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies 10 (2): 3–22

** Wächter, B, and F Maiworm. 2014.
English-taught Programmes in European Higher Education: The State of Play in 2014. Bonn: Lemmens Medien GmbH.