International student applications rise, but is it enough?

New measures to make it easier for international students to study and stay in Finland have contributed to a 54% increase in applications from students seeking first-time residence permits, but whether the government can reach its 2035 target aimed at tripling the number of international students remains to be seen.

By the end of October 2022, first-time residence permits for studies had been granted to 7,060 applicants from outside the European Union. In contrast, in January to October of 2021, student residence permits were granted to 4,595 applicants.

“The number of new international students has increased significantly, even when compared to the pre-COVID years. The number of residence permits granted in 2022 already surpassed the record-breaking year of 2016 when 6,348 first-time residence permits were granted to students,” Deputy Director-General Elina Immonen from the Finnish Immigration Service said in a press release.

The increase comes in the wake of new legislation passed in April 2022, as reported by University World News. As a result of changes in legislation, students from abroad may be granted a residence permit for the entire duration of their studies. Previously, students could only be granted a residence permit for a maximum of two years at a time.

The new law also makes it easier to look for work after graduating and offers residence permits to family members of students in Finland.

Record-breaking application numbers

In 2022, students also submitted a record-breaking 8,336 applications. The corresponding figure in 2021 was 5,149. The increase in application numbers is about 62%. These figures were published in November 2022.

By the end of the year the figures were even higher: the number of first residence permits granted to students in 2022 was 8,383, up 43.6% from 5,837 permits in 2021.

The top 10 countries attracting applications for student permits were: the Russian Federation, China, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal, the Philippines and Nigeria.

“We are happy to see that Finland is now seen as an attractive destination for international students and to us this is an indication that the national efforts to showcase Finland’s study opportunities and way of life are starting to yield results,” Harri Hälvä, from the Finnish National Agency for Education, told The PIE News.

Hälvä said that more work is to be done, especially if Finland wants to reach its goal of tripling its international student body by 2030, and that “more promotion is needed to boost numbers”.

“We do not only want to encourage more international students to reside in Finland after graduation, but we are also developing a society that welcomes international students to stay, work and start their families here,” he said.

In 2021 the Ministry of Economic Affairs, responding to the labour shortage in the leading high-tech growth sectors, embarked upon initiatives to attract experts beyond the Finnish borders.

The government’s objective is to at least double work-based immigration from its current level by 2030.

At the same time, the number of new foreign students should triple to 15,000 students a year, with the aim that 75% of them stay in Finland for work after graduation.

The government’s roadmap, which extends to 2035, sets out the following steps aimed at promoting the immigration of skilled labour:

• Clarifying and digitalising residence permit processes and other public services to makes entering the country easy;

• Service portals for employers and employees and regional Talent Hub networks to match workers with suitable work;

• International recruitment services for companies to facilitate the hiring of foreign experts;

• English-language schools and day-care centres and programmes for spouses to help the families settle in Finland;

• High-quality education programmes focusing on working life and mentoring programmes offered by higher education institutions to help foreign researchers and students to establish themselves in Finland and open doors to Finnish network; and

• Knowledge-based management and foresight aimed at identifying needs for education and work-based immigration needs.

Since June 2022, the country has been implementing a “fast-track service” for residence permit applications from specialists, start-up entrepreneurs and their family members.

According to the Finnish Immigration Service, the service offers the fastest way to move to Finland. “Its service pledge is to decide a residence permit application within a maximum of 14 days of submission, and the applicant can move to Finland immediately after a decision has been issued.”

Universities expand study places

International students were able to apply for entry into English-taught university bachelor degree programmes from 4 to 18 January, via a central governmental unit.

There are 369 study programmes available in the first joint application, 165 of which are University of Applied Sciences study programmes and 204 are provided by universities. In total, there are about 7,400 study places available in the first joint application – 1,000 more than last year.

In addition, the universities are offering masters degrees with applications directly to the universities which are experiencing a huge increase in applications.

The application period for Finnish and Swedish-taught bachelor degree programmes is 15 to 30 March 2023.

The masters admission results will be published from 29 March 2023.

Public research university Aalto has received more than 12,000 masters applications from 117 countries. The field of science and technology received 8,446 applications, art and design 2,247 applications, and business and economics 1,504 applications. The number of applications grew by 44% compared to the previous year, the university said.

The highest number of international applications came from Pakistan and China and 79% of the applicants were international applicants who had completed their bachelor'’s or equivalent degree outside Finland. In the previous year, the share of international applicants was 73%.

“We are delighted to see the strong worldwide interest in Aalto University. A warm thank-you to all applicants! International talent attraction activities in Finland and Aalto’s hard work to develop high-quality education and research are paying off”, said Vice-President of Education Petri Suomala in a press release.

‘On the right path’

Jonna Korhonen, director of higher education policy at the Ministry of Education and Culture, told University World News that the goal of tripling the number of international students is linked to the goal of having 75% of them staying and working later in Finland. “Indeed, these two goals are interconnected,” she said.

“I believe that with the current upward trend in the number of international students, we are on the right path towards our goal by 2030. However, there is still more work to do in terms of getting international students employed in Finland as these figures have not yet increased accordingly.”

Vice-Rector Kai Nordlund from the University of Helsinki said international student numbers have “strongly and consistently increased since our education reform in 2016, and we are working on developing both the existing and new international programmes.

“Hence our university is already strongly contributing towards the government’s goal of tripling the international student numbers. We are on good track to reach the target,” he said.

Hannu Karhunen, senior researcher at the Labour Institute of Economic Research, who has conducted research on why international students choose to stay in Finland, told University World News it is not clear why Finland is able to attract students given the cold climate, high taxation rate and the difficulty international graduates have with integrating into labour markets.

“Those students who arrived in Finland in previous years were carefully selected. That might be the reason why so high a share of students stayed in Finland after graduation (around 60%). But when we expand the intake, it is likely that the student composition changes, and this results in a significant decline in the stay rate. So, we have many challenges.”

Karhunen said it was necessary to maintain public interventions aimed at helping international students to integrate into Finnish society.

“The problem is that permits take time. It is estimated that around one-third of students have not received a permit to live in a country when the lectures start in the fall term. It is unclear how our migration system can handle the growth of international students. The migration office paints [a] rosy picture which is not necessarily totally true.”