Plugging quality assurance gaps in higher education export

Finland is a relatively new entrant in the global higher education marketplace, but it is one which has seen growing interest, according to a report in last week’s University World News.

Since 2008, Finnish higher education institutions, including Finnish universities and universities of applied sciences, have been allowed to organise commissioned education (tilauskoulutus) for groups of students outside the European Union-European Economic Area (EU-EEA), abroad or in Finland, on the condition that the body commissioning the provision, such as international organisations, covers the costs rather than the individual student enrolled.

The commissioning body can charge students a fee according to the laws or common practices in the country where the commissioned education takes place. The provision can be tailor-made, but it must relate to the areas in which the institution has the right to award degrees.

Since 2017, Finnish higher education institutions have also been charging tuition fees from non-EU-EEA students when they study on programmes taught in English. Furthermore, the new coalition government plans to charge full-cost international tuition fees to non-EU students. A full-fee approach would likely incentivise some Finnish higher education institutions to more actively recruit international students as a way of bringing in an additional source of income.

Problems with commercial provision

Some Finnish higher education institutions have actively taken advantage of the opportunity to engage in various types of education export activities, including commissioned education and attracting fee-paying students, thereby diversifying their income sources. However, the transition to commercial provision has not come without problems.

Various media outlets have reported problems that have arisen from the commissioned education provision in Finland. In two cited examples – nursing and physiotherapy programmes – higher education institutions have entered into contracts with Kenyan authorities. However, it turns out that the costs have been borne by students or parents rather than the body commissioning the education. More worryingly, some of the required funds have not been transferred to education providers.

Some providers have not expressed much willingness to accept responsibility for their shortcomings, framing their commissioned provision as a business transaction. This has left some students in a vulnerable position, forced to seek additional funding if they want to continue their education. Also, students appear to still be paying, which is unlikely to be in the spirit of the act governing commissioned education provision.

Gaps in quality assurance

These examples highlight gaps in the quality assurance of education export activities. It appears that some higher education institutions have a limited understanding of the associated risks, and-or limited skills and competencies to mitigate them.

It also seems that many students may not have been fully informed about the arrangements behind their education provision nor furnished with accurate and reliable information about the associated costs.

Previous studies have found different perspectives regarding the quality of Finland’s exports in education.

Planning and implementation are influenced by many factors, such as the choice of international partner, the fiscal practices of the project location and the pedagogical solutions available in different places. Before any concrete implementation takes place, it is necessary to build a relationship of trust and agree on common objectives with the foreign partner.

‘Brand Finland’, particularly concerning quality education, holds significance when higher education institutions seek international partners and aim to attract potential students.

However, the national higher education debate has not adequately addressed the quality dimension. Instead, the normative principles governing quality assurance, including external (audit-based) quality assurance and relevant legislation, emphasise higher education’s own responsibility and solutions when it comes to ensuring quality.

While this approach provides higher education institutions with the flexibility to arrange quality assurance measures that are in line with their strategic objectives, it seems to leave gaps, at least in some cases, in addressing the potential reputational, financial and social risks associated with the export of education provision.

Shared quality criteria

Indeed, in the light of recent news reports, it seems to be clear that shared quality criteria would better support quality in Finnish education export activities. This should be done in a transparent way so that all participants, including education export providers, international partners and students are aware of the criteria.

The practices of Finnish higher education institutions in their education export provision and international student recruitment remain largely under-explored. One of the key principles should be to ensure that the rights of international students are well protected. Other interests also ought to be safeguarded, for example, it is in the national interest to verify that all students are genuine.

In Finland more than half of the universities of applied sciences have reported instances of non-attending international students. There has been a suspicion that the Finnish model, allowing students to obtain a visa for the entire duration of their studies, is being exploited by individuals seeking access to the Schengen area.

Finland could learn from other countries that have introduced legislation or binding standards for higher education institutions. For instance, the Netherlands has a Code of Conduct that requires providers to meet specific minimum standards when recruiting and educating international students.

In Australia and New Zealand legislation was introduced more than 20 years ago to protect both the interests of students and the long-term sustainability of education export sectors.

Education providers are required to provide students with accurate information, effectively manage third parties such as agents used for student recruitment and proactively seek to understand the needs of international students.

There are also requirements that specify the type of services and support that education providers need to offer as well as schemes that offer protection for pre-paid fees.

Code of conduct

Finland has yet to develop a comprehensive code of conduct covering all aspects of education export, including international student recruitment for degree programmes. However, some recent initiatives are worth mentioning.

For instance, the governmental cluster programme Education Finland has developed guidelines for its members, and last year the Forum for International Policies in Higher Education and Research working group recommended a code of conduct for the sector.

These are useful but relatively general starting points. Current normative principles or strategic documents do not entirely take into account internationally recognised aspects of quality assurance, such as around the legal protection of students, which have been stressed by UNESCO and the OECD since 2005.

Poorly organised provision can undermine the social sustainability of education export activities. It can also directly or indirectly impact the national reputation, or the ‘Finnishness’ of the value proposition which has been one of the key selling points for the Finnish education export sector.

Therefore, commonly agreed-upon rules and quality criteria would benefit both the sector and international students, along with ensuring that all higher education institutions follow specific criteria in their education export activities.

Dr Pii-Tuulia Nikula is an associate professor at the Eastern Institute of Technology (Te Pukenga) in New Zealand. Most of Pii-Tuulia’s research focuses on international student recruitment and sustainability questions within the international education sector. Henna Juusola is a postdoctoral researcher at Tampere University in Finland. Henna’s research primarily focuses on international education, including education exports, as well as education and youth policies.