International students watch Finland and wait

In the wake of sweeping changes in educational systems throughout Europe, Finland remains the last EU country that does not charge tuition to international students. But that could soon change. In December 2012, a majority of the Finnish parliament (119 of 200) signed an initiative calling for the introduction of tuition fees for non-EU/EEA students.

The legislation would expand a pilot scheme requiring tuition fees for selected masters level studies. In 2011, these fees were charged in 24 masters programmes to a total of 110 students at an average cost of €8,000 per year. The new law would extend this programme across all levels of higher education.

The proposal immediately drew criticism from the Finnish student unions SYL and SAMOK, whose presidents pointed out in a joint statement that similar legislation in Sweden and Denmark led to a drop of up to 80% in the number of non-EU/EEA applicants to schools in those countries.

The statement says bluntly:

“A purely mathematical calculation shows that an international degree student already pays back his or her studies in taxes through 2–3 years on the Finnish employment market. All further work and tax can be considered national economic profit.”

Their figures also suggest that if 25% of international students stay on in Finland, the costs of tuition would be covered for the entire international student population. Research by Statistics Finland shows that 50% of international students gain employment in Finland within one year of graduation, which would seem to confirm that the introduction of fees would be an economic blow for the country.

However, National Coalition Party MP Arto Satonen, who put forward the fees motion, argues the opposite, saying:

“Most overseas students… do not stay and work after graduation. People come from Asia or Russia or Ukraine, and when they get their degree they are going to work in the UK, USA, Australia and so on. So with Finnish taxpayers’ money we are actually educating workers for the Anglo Saxon countries’ economies.”

But some don’t assess the issue strictly within economic parameters. Karina Ufert, Chairperson of the European Students’ Union, asks what face Finland wishes to present to the world:

“It is not only unfair to discriminate [against] students based on nationality but also harmful to Finland’s own interests, as it would diminish its diverse student population… Tuition fees would send international students the message that they should not go to Finland to study instead of encouraging them to stay.”

Finland higher education overview and recent changes

Finland is considered an upper-tier study abroad destination and consistently achieves high rankings. As in other countries, competitiveness concerns have driven radical structural changes in the sector in recent years. For instance, a flurry of mergers has reduced the number of universities from 20 to 16, and the number of polytechnics from 30 to 25. More mergers could occur in the next few years.

Another major change occurred in 2011, when the reformed Finnish Universities Act gave institutions independent legal status as corporations subject to public law, or foundations subject to private law. This has given them more autonomy and financial self-determination, including the right to own their own property.

Beginning this year, according to the Ministry of Education and Culture, support for universities is to be reformed, with 75% of basic funding to be determined based on the scope, quality and impact of activities, and 25% based on other goals of education and science policy. State funding would be directed particularly on the basis of degrees and credits obtained, scientific publications, and competed research funding.

The 2013 MoE budget proposal asks for €2.7 billion for higher education and research, as well as €737 million to be directed to vocational education. Access to vocational upper-secondary education and training will be improved by ensuring an adequate number of places, particularly in metropolitan areas and growth centres.

Other aspects of vocational training will be addressed by the Vocational Education and Training Act, the Vocational Education and Training Decree, the Vocational Adult Education Act, and the Vocational Adult Education Decree, which collectively affect instruction, curricula, on-the-job learning, apprenticeship training, special needs education, evaluation, assessment, competence-based qualifications, and more.

The Ministry of Education and Culture has a set of broad goals that it hopes to reach in the vocational studies sector by 2020. Among them is to reduce the dropout rate, strengthen the competence-based definition of vocational qualifications, enhance quality control in those institutions, and increase internationalisation by promoting vocational study abroad.

The Finnish phenomenon

A quick scan around the Web reveals the high level of interest in Finnish education. The tone of the articles is usually something akin to awe. But of course, Finland’s success in education is due to a mix of factors. Some, such as demographics and size, are pure chance. But others, such as funding, mission, and approach, represent cultural choices.

Finland takes a proactive, long view not just on education, but also to the ultimate goal of secure employment. For example, the country launched the Finnish Youth Guarantee programme in 2005, offering job training to unemployed recent graduates below age 25. The programme is being expanded this year to include all young people under 25, and recent graduates up to the age of 30.

In addition, the government will launch a young adults’ skills programme offering vocational education to 20–29 year olds who have been unable to secure a study place. Targeting the under-30 demographic is important because Finnish university students tend to stay in school longer than the OECD average, typically until around age 28.

Broadly speaking, the Finnish government aims to expand its lifelong learning agenda. The aim is that no section of the adult population will be permanently outside adult education and training.

The Finnish approach is unusual, but the results have been difficult to contest. Finland has top educational results, a dynamic economy, and is one of the best-ranked countries in the world for research and development. However, outside pressures have already brought about some changes, and more may be on the horizon.



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